This article is the first of two articles looking at volunteer tourism (voluntourism), and where its future lies. Part 2 here: Are the days of voluntourism over? Part 2
In 2014, Pippa Biddle, a former voluntourist, wrote a very critical blog post on the voluntourism industry, arguing that we need to look beyond cross-cultural volunteer work to do effective development work. Her piece went viral, sparking controversy and debate in the voluntourism field. A particularly stinging point was her argument that volunteer labour is essentially harmful to the local economy: “It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level”. Similarly, the journalist Mohamud describes voluntourism as, “a bit too self-congratulatory and disingenuous” and an attempt to, “inflate one’s own ego and spruce up one’s resume”.
Another voluntourist has similarly reflected on whether their endeavour was, “perpetuating the white man coming to save us dependency” . This viewpoint has been supported in the academic literature as well [3,5,6]. There have also been critiques of the neoliberal roots of volunteer tourism, which agree that this tourism activity represents the commercialisation of the human need to travel, exploiting natural and cultural resources as a means to profit accumulation . In a similar vein, voluntourism has elsewhere been shunned as an example of commodification and an example of the ‘rebellious acquiescence to the status quo of neoliberal global capitalism’ [2,3].
Lupton, in his book Toxic Charity , has argued that often we assess the value of development
work “by the rewards we receive through service rather than the benefits received by the served”. Another journalist has written that, “As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs”.
Easterly, another key thinker in this field, has previously decried the pervasive paternalistic and unethical attitudes in International Development . His work argues instead for a sustainable home-grown model of development, where the so-called developing countries are seen as the experts about what is best for their communities.
n summary, voluntourism has been heavily criticised, and often rightly so. However, are these critiques of voluntourism a reason to abandon this popular and ever-growing endeavour altogether? Is there a way instead to reconfigure volunteer tourism to do good? We will explore more of this in part 2.
- Easterly, W. The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much 111 and So Little Good. (2006).
- McGehee, N.G. Oppression, emancipation, and volunteer tourism. Research Propositions. Annals of Tourism Research 39, 1 (2012), 84–107.
- Lyons, K., Hanley, J., Wearing, S., and Neil, J. Gap year volunteer tourism. Myths of Global Citizenship? Annals of Tourism Research 39, 1 (2012), 361–378.
- Lupton, R.D. Toxic charity: how churches and charities hurt those they help. Harper One, USA, 2011.
- Brohman, J. New directions in tourism for Third World development. Annals of Tourism Research 23, 1 (1996), 48–70.
- Simpson, M.C. Community Benefit Tourism Initiatives-A conceptual oxymoron? Tourism Management 29, 1 (2008), 1–18.
- Wearing, S. and McGehee, N.G. Volunteer tourism: A review. Tourism Management 38, 2013 (2013), 120–130.