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‘Voluntourism’: Keeping it sustainable and a valuable experience for all

29 May 2014 Taylor & Francis

In the last few decades volunteer tourism has become a phenomenon, up to 10 million participating and generating up to £1.3 billion revenues in a year.  Some motivated by altruism, some for more selfish reasons but whichever, the growth, in scope and mode of ‘voluntourism’ gathers apace and is having significant global impact.  Theoretically, volunteer tourism is a win-win; a sustainable means to positive change in host communities and enlightening personal experience for the volunteer.  Job done?

 Not so easy.  Many snags have become evident in the industry; for-profit unethical operators ‘greenwashing’ the unsuspecting public, skills gap between volunteer and host community needs, poor management of volunteer expectation:  cheap labour or means to emancipation?  Religious, intolerance and “neo-colonial” attitudes.  All giving great potential to damage rather than improve cultural understanding, environments and indeed lives of host community members as intended.  So how can the pitfalls be avoided? This article in Journal of Sustainable Tourism discusses volunteer tourism as a research area and how best to move forward and keep it sustainable for all.

Abuse and mismanagement of this socially responsible industry has given call for more regulation and monitoring.  Could volunteers be better prepared pre-trip?  How better matched to organisations and communities?  Should volunteers be systematically debriefed to minimise future negativity? Could social media be a channel for information transfer? A TripAdvisor for voluntourism?  In any case research is proving that frameworks are needed to assess the impacts of volunteer tourism.  Development of the “International Voluntourism Guidelines for Commercial Tour Operators” has been an important first step; the author now stresses the need for an inexpensive and efficient means of “measuring a small but important group of indicators that are most useful and important to the success and sustainability of volunteer tourism”.  By joining the forces of operators, communities and volunteers, the industry could realise the full potential to improve international development in a supremely sustainable way.

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