In 2013, I completed a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management with a thesis on the online marketing of volunteer tourism. I questioned, when faced with the hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities, can a potential volunteer tell from a website which are responsible, and if so, how?
The answer (‘yes you can tell, if you’re discerning enough’ for most and an easy ‘yes’ if featuring volountourism with orphans) spawned this paper published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory” (2014, Smith & Font) which for the first time (as far as I know) attributed quantitative data to qualitative positioning of volunteer organisations’ level of responsibility. It gained great press coverage and gave rise to blogs such as the popular how to be SMARTER in how you choose volunteer tourism trips and my contribution to the “Adventures Less Ordinary” ebook. But it also got me threatened with litigation by one of the biggest volunteer tourism organisations in the world should I expose their marketing greenwashing. Hence, the researched organisations were anonymised in the public domain but the practices exposed: Often unrealistic, demand-led, customer-centric, organisation-profit-based marketing largely inconsiderate of host community environmental and social costs, but particularly damaging in childcare and orphanage voluntourism.
The market supply: Why do organisations facilitate orphan trips?
The negative impacts of orphanage volunteering and/or tourism is well researched and documented and clearly not in the best interests of children. A summary is available in Better Volunteering Better Care’s “Orphanage Volunteering – Why to Say No” article.
However, many organisations facilitate such tourism for a variety of reasons. Some non-profit organisations, faced with public sector austerity, declining international development aid and intense competition for support have partnered with tourism operations and media in more recent years to help increase awareness and income generation through volunteer travel. It was the relative lack of experience of not-for-profit development organisations in such a marketing approach that enabled innovative commercial tour operators to first gain their foothold and develop the voluntourism market in the 1990s. Other organisations understand the brand value of being a non-profit or charitable organization is great, and value capitalist profits above impacts and use altruistic marketing messages to mask increasingly commercial operations. At other times local community members may be led into exploitation of children and tourists by facilitating these money-making markets, rather than considering actual needs and impacts. Some are emotionally driven by wanting to help, believe it’s the right thing to do, and don’t understand or accept that not only are they not positively contributing, but in actual fact they are likely causing more harm than good.
The market demand: Why do people want to visit or volunteer in orphanages?
Quite simply, most volunteer tourists want to help – and believe they will be doing so.
What they often don’t know is that children in orphanages may be bought or rented from impoverished parents, brought to (often unregistered and illegal) deliberately squalid orphanages to lure funding, of which little if any goes to the children’s care. Possibly already neglected and abused in life, the children may experience abandonment and trauma as short term emotional attachments are formed and dissolved, again and again, creating long term psychosocial vulnerability, and in which the lack of regulation in tourism may lead to unscreened, unmonitored sex offenders in their midst. If consumers truly knew, understood and accepted this as true in volunteer tourism operations, then demand might significantly drop.
Unfortunately, even those who are made aware of negative impacts are often in denial that their demand is contributing to, if not creating, the problem. Their personal philanthropic concerns, Western guilt of relative inequality, ‘altruistic’ humanitarian desires and genuine priority to have a positive impact on a less developed community, to do something good, be useful and make a difference is so strong it can create a challenging cognitive dissonance between their desires and reality, often more comfortably siding with the former rather than truly challenge their own beliefs.
It is hard to admit when we are wrong – but some who do are amongst the most vociferous voices to want to #StopOrphanTrips today, precisely because of what they have personally witnessed in the sector – see the Articles & Resources section on Better Volunteering Better Care website.
My market research
In order to objectively assess organisations’ communications of responsibility, there needs to be criteria against which assessment and analysis is consistently made, which come down to what is and what is not responsible – best practice marketing necessitates responsible operations. A purposive sample of eight volunteer tourism organisations’ web pages were scored across 19 responsible voluntourism criteria, where one of the three ‘product’ areas included was childcare.
The results were supplied to each organisation included in the research, informing them how they had been assessed, and providing not only their audited positioning and analysis of all criteria, but also the blue print for ‘best practice’; gap analysis provided their specifics to improve. The purpose was to understand the use of Responsibility as a competitive differentiator and influence industry improvement, for more positive destination impacts and customer experiences.
In 2015, a follow-up study was therefore undertaken (Marketing and communication of responsibility in volunteer tourism: Free on domain-changing open source Sci-Hub or pay-to-view via Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes). The results were compared to the original research to consider whether and how, when presented with evidence, organisations are prepared to learn from feedback and choose to improve for a more responsible voluntourism offer, and whether a spotlight of increased criticism for negative and damaging impacts – including in the press – can influence market improvement.
What did the research demonstrate?
The initial research showed, in comparison to community development and conservation volunteer tourism products, Responsibility in childcare was on average the lowest, whilst price levels were the highest, especially with the largest of voluntourism operators. Consumers would be paying the most for the seeming least positive, if not negative, impacts by placements organised through some of the most known worldwide brands.
Big brands and higher prices are no guarantee of responsible action or positive impact.
The data compiled two years later showed the organisations had significantly improved their web communication of responsibility in general, including in the area of childcare. The following graph shows the eight organisations and how their responsibility in communications changed over time:
Graph: Childcare Africa responsibility vs price, 2012 vs 2014
Organisation 1_SocEnt, which came out as the most responsible in both research pieces, for example demonstrated excellent best practice by offering an alternative to orphanage voluntourism, “This project offers a responsible alternative to the volunteer who would like to work in childcare but is rightly concerned about the ethics of short term volunteer work abroad in an orphanage”, with supportive contextual links and recommended reading to e.g. the UN’s Residential Care in Cambodia research. Let us celebrate these great organisations by not having others’ gagging tactics prevent talking of them – this responsible organisation is People and Places.
Organisation 7_Com/Char’s project pages redirected to tour pages, a more commercial holiday sell, with the childcare aspect of the trip removed: Interestingly, they elevated themselves in responsible positioning not by communicating better but by dropping irresponsible childcare practices. Pulling away from childcare tourism was a responsible move to not offering irresponsible placements.
On the downside, while organisation 5_Com’s demonstrated responsibility increased, childcare projects were still “bookable”, and with only a 3-day lead-time – insufficient for police checks, skills assessments to match needs and placement etc. And organisation 8_Com was a concern with its statements, “Whatever your age, abilities or level of experience”, “all we ask is that you have enthusiasm for and a commitment to the work” required as “Local staff are often highly overworked, and do not have the time to give the children much one-on-one attention” – so volunteers may have to “make sure the children are fed, washed and dressed”.
Clearly, while improvement was shown over two years, there is still much to do in the industry to encourage organisations to drop orphanage volunteer tourism. Where some did, others merely became much more careful in communicating negatively perceived market issues around orphanage tourism by avoiding maligned keywords and using terminology which relates to child care rather than orphans, whilst describing the same projects.
So how does this relate to #StopOrphanTrips?
The research showed, over time, that international volunteer tourism organisations may be prepared to learn from feedback, and that analysis and communication of these issues may influence market improvement, especially when highlighted in the press.
But it also shows it doesn’t need to be about naming and shaming, but rather, educating about positive principles and practices. That orphan tourism, including volunteering, does more damage than good and is not in the best interests of the children – is important to highlight: In the press (academic, trade and consumer), to raise awareness of the issues; to tour operators to encourage withdrawal from offering orphanage trips from which they may make significant revenue but facilitate damage; and to influence the consumer public, to remove their desire to want to undertake such trips in the belief they will do good.
This post is part of a month-long spread of articles aimed at raising awareness around the issues of orphanage volunteering #StopOrphanTrips. To this end, this daily blogging blitz in May features a range of writers from different backgrounds, all of whom come in touch with orphanage tourism in different ways from different perspectives. The campaign ends on June 1st, International Children’s Day, with a call to volunteer travel organisations to remove orphanage trips from their product offerings.
What can you do to help?
- Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at WTM in London in November 2016: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/Volunteer_travel_organisations_Stop_Orphanage_Volunteering/
Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips too!
- If everyone who reads this can share at least one blog in the month (if not more!) – if something shocks you, if you learn something, if something’s interesting or appalling… – then just one share to your networks (which takes seconds!) can raise awareness across sectors across the world and bring about the change required to #StopOrphanTrips. Don’t forget to include the hashtag.
- If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then let us know on Twitter @vickysmith @bettrvolunteer @bettercarenet– we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign.