Tourism Concern Conference October 2014

Tourism Concern kindly invited me to present at their recent conference on Volunteer Tourism.

It was a great day, meeting tour operators, NGOs and potential volunteers and discussing the positives – and all too often sadly still negatives – and what can be done to improve the sector.

Chloé Sanguinetti introduced the trailer to her documentary The Volunteer’s Journey; Pippa Biddle spoke of her voluntourism experience and involvement in the sector since publishing “The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism” and Felipe Zalamea of Sumak Travel explained the benefits of Community-Based Tourism as a positive alternative to volunteer tourism, which still puts the tourist at the heart of local people and places for amazing authentic experiences and often better supports local economic, social and environmental sustainability.

I really enjoyed hearing from Ruth Taylor, International Development Manager for Student Hubs, about how they are connecting students with responsible volunteering opportunities; Quinn Meyer of CREES about designing projects; Martina Gant from KOP (Kenyan Orphan Project) about training; Tegan Jones from Azafady about Engaging Local Communities; and Daniela Papy on childcare issues and rethinking volunteer travel at Learning Service.

It’s always a pleasure and privilege to be amongst so many experienced, knowledgeable and passionate people making volunteer tourism more positive for communities and volunteers alike.

Below is a quick run down of the first half of my presentation – more to follow when the data from my research is published in a journal paper shortly!

In January 2014, the Journal of Sustainable Tourism published my edited Masters thesis, “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing & understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory (free download), in which I posed the question, from the hundreds if not thousands of volunteer tourism options out there, can the difference in ethics demonstrated by organisations be perceived from websites? And can organisations use communication of responsibility and sustainability as a marketing differential, and if so, how?

The quick answer was yes, responsible differences can be communicated, it’s not always easy as a potential volunteer to perceive those differences but it is possible if you do your homework and know what to look for: Best practice can be delineated into criteria and content reviewed on a worst/best practice scale. A number of UK sending organisations’ web pages were sampled, comparing and contrasting popular projects and destinations (Community Development in Asia, Childcare in Africa and Conservation in Latin America), as well as their responsible tourism policies and home pages. The data was analysed, displayed on perceptual maps to demonstrate relative sector positioning, and various findings became apparent. By publishing the report, the sector could see how to improve, although the organisations were not publicly named in order to focus on the principles of best practice (and avoid an intent of litigation – the value of the perception of charity in this sector is strong but sometimes incorrect, realistically it is largely business).

The Changing Market

The research was featured in academic press like the Voluntourism Institute, industry press like Travelmole, Tourism Concern’s website and newsletter, national consumer press such as the Guardian and Telegraph and international travel media like National Geographic. Since then, the market has continued to display poverty marketing, clear publication of belittling or degrading content for the communities involved, but importantly we’ve also seen growing criticism of it and cynicism in consumer press, in websites such as Humanitarians of Tinder and in satirical articles like “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture” and “The Four Cutest Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third World Children”. Consumers like Pippa Biddle are speaking out about their disappointments as never before, whistleblowing irresponsible organisations and projects such as “God’s Grace Orphanage in Uganda”, and calling organisations to account on Social Media, for example Facebook pages “Better Volunteering”, “Negative Volunteer Reviews”, and for conservation, “Volunteers in Africa Beware”.

Positive Developments

Thankfully it’s not all negative: great new organisations like Learning Service are rethinking volunteer travel and taking up the responsibility of making it a better and more positive experience for all; Existing organisations like are evolving with the market and responsibly removing all orphanage tourism, others volunteer teachers to better empower local staff, protect children, ensure consistency and support sustainability.

Two years on from the original data research, the organisations studied demonstrate some interesting evolutions; importantly all are improving in their responsibility levels. Previously price and responsibility displayed an inverse relationship, concluding Price was not a Responsibility quality signal (as more Responsible products would have resulted in more premium prices). This still holds true with the 2014 data, although to a less exaggerated extent as prices have remained as wide ranging as previously, but overall Responsibility has increased. This suggests that Responsibility is indeed moving to become a quality signal in the market, and that a market advantage can be achieved by better marketing Responsible volunteer tourism: responsible volunteering practices can act as quality assurance and trust for a marketing advantage.

The new data and research will be published shortly and this article updated with further discussion.

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Press Coverage of my Study, ‘Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing’

Further to the publication of my study ‘Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory‘ in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, the following press coverage and articles were prompted:

10 February, 2014.
Tourism Concern Newsletter + Article: Volunteer tourism: ‘the more expensive, the less responsible’ study concludes (now unavailable on new TC site).
“Volunteering continues to be in the news and research published today by Leeds Metropolitan University found that volunteer tourism organizations that offer the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible”. “The study, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, led by Victoria Smith and Dr Xavier Font, suggests that price and responsibility display an inverse relationship when considering comparable volunteer tourism products, on a price-per-day basis. The product or content that communicated the least how it was responsible tended to be the most expensive. In the study, the researchers also suggest that volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously especially in marketing their programs to potential volunteers”. “Tour companies market themselves to potential volunteers with slick websites and compelling imagery so it comes as no surprise that price and responsibility have an inverse relationship. Equally price is no guarantee that volunteers will have a rewarding experience – many of the volunteering placements being offered by commercial operators are little more than expensive holidays.”

11 February, 2014
Travelmole Industry News: “Most Expensive Volunteer Trips, Least Responsible
Volunteer tourism organisations that offer the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible, claim researchers from Leeds Metropolitan University who urged tour operators not to package volunteer trips like holidays.

11 February, 2014
The Telegraph: ‘Expensive voluntourism trips ‘the least responsible’
Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism”, is promoted as a meaningful and ethical holiday choice which offers authentic experiences conferring benefits on local communities. But a new study carried out by Leeds Metropolitan University has sounding a warning to those considering such a project for their gap year this summer. Researchers analysed the websites of comparable volunteer tourism projects and found it was those who said the least about being responsible that cost the most, on a price-per-day basis. The results were obtained using a web content analysis tool which rated a company’s stated commitment to ensuring its projects were responsible.

13 February, 2014
The Voluntourism Institute: VolunTourism: Addressing The Responsibility-Profitability Paradox
“The main point of this post is to honor the research findings presented by Smith & Font in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism while emphasizing the learning that can come from them. Rather than focusing on merely the “fears” that could manifest in the media & social media sphere around voluntourism profitability, we could see this as a real opportunity to learn about managing a core polarity: Profitability AND Responsibility. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is that we are looking at voluntourism as something that needs to be solved, a problem in our world. More likely what is true is that voluntourism is a polarity to be managed.”

17 February, 2014
The Guardian: Volunteer holidays: how to find an ethical project
There are hundreds of ‘voluntourism’ projects available, but a new report claims few of them are doing as much good as they claim. So how do you find an experience that genuinely makes a difference? Two experts in responsible tourism give their tips

18 February, 2014
Tourism Concern article: Volunteer tourism marketing is in trouble
Voluntourism is often promoted as a way to experience authenticity within the context of responsible tourism beneficial to destinations, with the expectation of creating “better places for people to live in, and better places to visit”. Yet recent research from Leeds Metropolitan University found that the marketing of voluntourism isn’t sufficiently transparent.

12 March, 2014
VISION on Sustainable Tourism Newsletter + Article: ‘Voluntourism – the more you pay the less they get

12 March, 2014
Tourism Concern Newsletter: ‘Volunteer tourism marketing is in trouble

13 March, 2014
Wall Street Journal: ‘Animal-Centric Voluntourism Trips
You don’t need to be a zoo veterinarian or have a Ph.D. in marine biology to interact with exotic animals. Volunteer vacations offer critter-loving travelers opportunities to get up close with wildlife—on these trips, you can coddle elephants, study wild chimp populations or tag baby penguins. But don’t be seduced by a photo of a bottle-fed lion cub or orphaned orangutan plastered across the Internet; too many operations misrepresent their volunteer experiences and charitable credentials. “Volunteer tourism has grown hugely from the early 2000s, and the industry has gotten away with being quite vague,” said Victoria Smith, a responsible-tourism marketing consultant. “You have to really know what you’re looking for in order to be able to evaluate [the options] online.”

April 2014
National Geographic Traveller Magazine:Voluntourism: Every Little Helps?
“A recent report by Leeds Metropolitan University showed a direct correlation between cost and quality, noting the volunteer tourism organisations offering the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible…”.

Tbc, March 2014

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Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory

My paper with Xavier Font entitled ‘Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory‘, was published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism in January 2014. Click the link to download a copy from the Taylor & Francis website.

This was based on my MSc Professional Report (“An Analysis of Online Positioning of Responsible Volunteer Tourism“)

Leeds Metropolitan University, which housed the International Centre of Responsible Tourism, where I studied and submitted my MSc, released this press release: “Volunteer tourism: ‘the more expensive, the less responsible’, study concludes“.

The paper and study suggest that price and responsibility display an inverse relationship when considering comparable volunteer tourism products, on a price-per-day basis. The product or content that communicated the least how it was responsible tended to be the most expensive. Comparable products’ prices were demonstrated to vary widely from £48 per day for the overall most responsible organisation to £110 per day for the least overall responsible organisation in the study. Using the results, I introduced the concept of ‘Responsibility Value’ as a bond of quality. As volunteers’ priority factor for choosing projects is price, if they focus on price per day comparisons this is good news for the more responsible organisations. It’s not entirely unsurprising that the most responsible organisations price responsibly, as they are transparent about their cost structure and income. The less responsible organisations tend to hide the origin of their costs, which can also hide excessive profit margins.

The status of an organisation is no guarantee of responsible practice – it cannot be assumed that a charity automatically demonstrates responsible practice better, or for-profit commercial business demonstrates responsible practice less well. The credibility that being an ethical business can bring in this market is strong, so organisations like to portray themselves that way, but it cannot be assumed they actually are.

Volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously. Just because a product is volunteer tourism, does not mean it has positive impacts. In fact, due to the community integration that they can offer, it can merely act to magnify mass tourism’s negative impacts. These organisations have a responsibility to ensure their programmes have positive and not negative impacts and should offer financial transparency. It should not be sold like a holiday: this is affecting host communities’ lives and livelihoods. This means proper needs assessments, appropriately recruited, matched and skilled volunteers working with locals, with clear objectives, sustainable programme management, reporting and lasting impact and respect.

Online, volunteer tourism organisations must clearly demonstrate with evidence any claims they make, they must be transparent about their pricing structures and attribution and I urge them to review their web content regularly to ensure it is correctly communicating their level of responsibility, and is consistent across their web sites and congruent with their stated policies.

Xavier Font and I found that organisations choose to communicate not what are arguably the most important aspects of volunteer tourism but what is easiest and most attractive. Some organisations were good in responsible tourism policies and conservation projects but were poor in communicating issues such as responsibility in childcare and other projects requiring the most sensitivity.

Speaking about the study, Gavin Bate at the AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) Sustainable Tourism Committee, said: “At long last, a hard-hitting study that provides empirical evidence of the link between the marketing of volunteer tourism products and the ‘responsibility value’ that this type of tourism demands. There is a wealth of anecdotal information on the internet, much of it highly emotive and few people would disagree with the moral imperative surrounding the concept of volunteering. But this study authored by Dr Xavier Font and Victoria Louise Smith has used market signalling theory to determine how responsible marketing is used by a selection of volunteer tourism companies; the findings are both surprising and worrying.

“The Association for Independent Tour Operators needs to send a clear message to both the industry and the public about the integrity of its members and this involves educating people at the decision-making level about the importance of responsible marketing and embedding sustainability into their products. Being open to progressive studies such as this, and adapting to an evolving world of sustainable tourism, is key to our future. We welcome the work of Xavier and Victoria and thank them both for highlighting such an important issue regarding a controversial subject.”

See my next blog for press coverage of my ‘Volunteer Tourism, Greenwashing & Understanding Responsible Marketing’ paper.

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MSc Professional Report: An Analysis of Online Positioning of Responsible Volunteer Tourism

In January 2013, I submitted my MSc Professional Report (dissertation/thesis) entitled “An Analysis of Online Positioning of Responsible Volunteer Tourism”.
I haven’t published it here because, for the remainder of the year, I worked with my supervisor Xavier Font to submit the paper to be published by the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.

It involved a peer review process which means it’s sent out to professional qualified members of a relevant field to determine suitability for publication. We don’t know who these reviewing peers are, we just receive their anonymous comments and questions which we then have to address and edit with additions and revisions, and re-submit for acceptability for publication. So they could have been professionals from tourism, volunteering, international development, or specialists within the online or content analysis fields.

The Journal of Sustainable Tourism is probably the highest level publication we could have aimed for, thus the process was very thorough and we went through a number of revisions and versions. This included making the organisations in the research anonymous, partly because the lowest performing company had indicated intent of litigation over commercial and reputation concern, but also because the Journal felt the study, methodology and data spoke for themselves theoretically, not just for volunteer tourism, but responsible tourism as a whole, and better without the distraction of “naming and shaming”. I was quite happy with this: If organisations are named, I would much prefer the focus to be on those interested in bettering their responsibility and performance; the danger of naming those who are not is that even negative PR can lead to additional exposure and marketing awareness which can conversely support their business.

The peer review process and revisions took the best part of a year (anonymizing the organisations and focusing the content on theory also addressed my personal concerns over web page content which can change over time thus apparent validity of data taken at a snapshot in time) and was published in January 2014 under the title, “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory“.

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What is the size of the voluntourism market?

Whilst often cited as one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism [1][2], no comparable statistics really exist to determine the exact size of the voluntourism market. This is partly due to differences of definition in what constitutes voluntourism, versus volunteerism or tourism[3], and partly due to immeasurability of its activity [4].

Various (incomparable) market statistics include:

  • In 2004, there were more than 800 organisations providing overseas volunteering in 200 countries. [5]
  • In 2006, voluntourism was estimated to be worth US$150 million.[6]
  • In 2008, a Tourism and Research Marketing survey of 300 organisations estimated the market size to be 1.6 million volunteer tourists per year worth £1.3 billion [7].
  • In 2008, the market was estimated to have grown 5-10% in Western Europe over the course of five years [8].
  • In 2009, GeckoGo’s survey of more than two thousand voluntourists worldwide found the UK to be the third largest originating market.
  • In 2012, 35% of adults said they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component, in addition to the 6% who had already done so [9].

GeckoGo’s 2009 survey also revealed voluntourists’ preferences, although not UK specific include:

  • Duration: 44% prefer trips longer than one month, 42% between two weeks and a month.
  • Destinations: Peru (23%) and Brazil (14%) topped the polls (though an US respondents skew to shorter distances/cheaper opportunities could be responsible).
  • Project types: 62% would like to undertake humanitarian voluntourism, 56% conservation, 56% teaching, 53% community development and 28% construction.

However, without being able to define the scope and extent of the market, it is difficult to determine the best approach for regulation and auditing. Without regulation, negative impacts which may outweigh positive benefits warrant the critical scrutiny of much media coverage, potentially adding greater value to the industry through debating the multi-lateral collaborative stakeholder approach required than any market statistics would [10][11]..

Have you seen further statistics on the volunteer tourism market size?
Please do contribute them in the comments below!


1. Rogers, M. (2007) Voluntourism is on the Rise. Travel Agent, 17 September, pp.20-24.
2. Birrell, I. (2010) Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do. [Internet], 14 November. Accessed [04 September 2012].
3. Morgan, J (2010) Volunteer Tourism: What Are The Benefits For International Development?. The Voluntourist Newsletter [Internet], 6 (2) n.d., Accessed [10 September 2012].
4. Center for Civil Society Studies (n.d.) About Volunteer Measurement [Internet] Maryland, USA, John Hopkins University. Accessed [05 September 2012].
5. Johnson, 2005, cited in Mdee, A. & Emmott, R. (2008) Social enterprise with international impact: the case for Fair Trade certification of volunteer tourism. Education, Knowledge and Economy, 2 (3) November, pp.191-201.
6. Mintel (2008) Volunteer Tourism – International. London, UK, Mintel International Group Limited.
7. Stein, N. (2012a) Is 2012 the year of the volunteer tourist?. Travelmole [Internet], 17 January. Accessed [05 January 2013].
8. Leigh, R. (2011) State of the World’s Volunteerism Report. New York, USA, United Nations Volunteers.
9. Mintel, 2012
10. Clemmons, D. (2011) VolunTourism 2011: What Does It Mean To Be A ‘Top Travel Trend’?. [Internet Blog].[Accessed 04 September 2012].
11. Clemmons, D. (2011) What Can VolunTourism Learn from the Debate on “Gamification”?. [Internet Blog].[Accessed 04 September 2012].

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Some History on Volunteer Tourism

Significant developments in volunteering abroad occurred in the spirit of international cooperation and compassion after the Second World War, with the formation of charitable international development assistance organizations [1].

VSO logo -  Sharing Skills - Changing Lives

In the UK, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) was created in 1958 by Alec Dickson and his wife Mora further to a letter from the Bishop of Portsmouth to the Editor of the Sunday Times (in fact written by Dickson himself)[2] suggesting an organisation to support Commonwealth countries’ urgent appeals for assistance while providing educational experiences for school-leaver boys, offering unskilled help in exchange for basic accommodation and pocket money in “a year between” before university [3]. From 1962, this original “gap” year approach by VSO was phased out, completely by 1980, in preference of a more professional approach recruiting “qualified” volunteers for two year volunteer periods. Indeed, it was then VSO whose “World Wise” (1998) and “Travelling in the Dark” (1999) campaigns began to push for Responsible Tourism, reviewing tour operator tourism to the developing world in response to their surveyed international volunteers’ communities’ major concern [4][5]. VSO has since worked in over 90 countries and has placed over 40,000 volunteers [6]. Nevertheless, like many voluntourism organisations in more recent years, VSO also faced criticism in the past for doing little to fight poverty but much to boost volunteers’ careers [7], but is now actively recruiting over 30% of its volunteers from its international countries of their placement[6].

US Peace-Corps LogoVSO’s influence in the United States led to then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the students of the University of Michigan to to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries, from which was developed an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship, the Peace Corps, in 1961[8]. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s volunteerism and study abroad grew in popularity.

Earthwatch Institute logoHowever, it was Earthwatch who devised the concept of a paid-for volunteer placement in 1971, as a response to dwindling government funding yet simultaneous need for scientific information and action. This engaged passionate people willing to financially support and labour-resource conservation research, formed an important bridge between the scientific community and the general public and helped promote public understanding and support of pro-environmental awareness, values, attitudes and behaviours [9] plus growth in ecotourism in the 1980s and Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives in the 1990s.

It was also in the 1990s that volunteer holidays began to be recognised as a tourism market sector. The term “voluntourism” was coined in 1998 by the Nevada Board of Tourism to attract local residents to support remote rural tourism development[10]. Growth in demand for international placements grew with growing numbers of UK higher education students and the popularity of gap years, met by supply from more commercially-inclined organisations, stepping in where charitable international development organisations only offered long term opportunities.

After the 2001 New York terrorist attacks and the devastation caused by the Southeast Asian Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, people from across the generation span wanted to help familiar tourism destinations with hands-on participation. In the US in 2005, Hurricane Katrina provided an unparalled influence and tipping point, since when over two million people have lent helping hands in rebuilding New Orleans[11].

VSO distanced itself from such voluntourism when in 2007 its UK director Judith Brodie became “increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious – ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organise them” [12].

1. Tomazos, K. (2009) Volunteer Tourism, an ambiguous phenomenon: An analysis of the demand and supply for the volunteer tourism market
2. Martin, S. (1994) The Independent – Obituary: Alec Dickson.
3. Fleming, L., The Bishop of Portsmouth (1958) in The Sunday Times
4.Goodwin, H. & Francis, J. (2003) Ethical and responsible tourism – Consumer Trends in the U.K. Journal of Vacation Marketing, 9 (3) pp.271-284.
5. Goodwin, H. (2011), Taking Responsibility for Tourism. Oxford, UK, Goodfellow Publishers Limited.
6. VSO – Our History VSO – Our History
7. Deer, B. (1998) The Sunday Times – Travelling White
8. Peace Corps (2012) About Us
9. Earthwatch – Our History
10. Clemmons, D. (n.d.) History Of VolunTourism
11. Clemmons, D. (n.d.) Could Voluntourism See Significant Growth During Obama 2.0?
12. Mintel (2009) Tourism and Poverty Alleviation.

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What is Voluntourism?

“Voluntourism” is the intersection of international volunteering and tourism [1], also called variously “volunteer tourism”, “volunteer holidays” and “volunteer travel”.

It is “the practice of individuals going on a working holiday, volunteering their labour for worthy causes” [2] such as “aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society; the restoration of certain specific environments or research into aspects of society or environment”, “for various reasons”, “in an organised way” [3], “alongside touristic activities”. [4]

Visitors whose work is remunerated at a destination are excluded from tourism (UNWTO, 1998), thus paid working holidays or international development volunteering differ from voluntourism. Rather, voluntourism usually involves some fee to participate [5]. According to the UNWTO definition (1995), tourism thus voluntourism, can be domestic or international, from any originating market and up to one consecutive year.

The absence of exact definition can mean lines are blurred between what constitutes voluntourism, versus volunteerism or tourism, adding to difficulties in industry measurement and regulation.

Voluntourism is often promoted as a way to experience authenticity within the context of alternative tourism beneficial to destinations, leading to expectations of a responsible tourism ethos, creating “better places for people to live in, and better places to visit” [6].

However, as voluntourism grows in popularity, there are increasing reports of dissatisfaction of the experience and lack of accountability. Questions are increasingly being raised over misconceived idealism and the true value and costs of voluntourism with regard to the sustainability triple bottom line of maximizing benefits and minimising costs of economic growth, environmental integrity and social justice [7], “ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organise them” according to VSO in 2007. [8]

What’s your definition of voluntourism?
All contributions and discussion welcome via feedback below.

1. Clemmons D., 2012, Voluntourism: ‘A new future for aid’
2. & 5 Tomazos, K., 2009, Volunteer Tourism, an ambiguous phenomenon: An analysis of the demand and supply for the volunteer tourism market
3. Wearing, S. 2007, p.1, Swimming Against the Mainstream – Volunteering for Tourism
4. Hesdin, 2012, The Evolution of Voluntourism
6. Cape Town Declaration, 2002
7. Elkington, J., 1997, Cannibals with Forks: Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business; & Goodwin, H., 2011, Taking Responsibility for Tourism
8. Brodie, cited in Ward, L., 2007, You’re better off backpacking – VSO warns about perils of ‘voluntourism’ in the

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