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.