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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Important website links for Responsible Volunteering

In case you missed some of these on my UCLU Voluntourism Debate blog, here are some important sources of information for Responsible Volunteering. Please feel free to comment and suggest further links to this list (please add value – pure marketing will not be added!)

General Volunteer Tourism

Childcare / Child Protection

Thanks for Sallie Grayon from People and Places for her input.

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When the tourists flew in…

…thanks to Tourism Critic on Facebook for posting this poem by Malaysian poet Cecil Rajendra, first published in the book “Bones & Feathers” in 1978. Rajendra read this poem at a tourism conference in Manila in 1980, where it was picked up by a regional news weekly and a travel trade journal, then by Time magazine as part of a cover story on the Asian tourism boom. It was actually written after a visit to Trinidad, and also partly about Haiti, where shanty towns were preserved as tourist attractions, but it also fitted Malaysia, especially Penang, where Rajendra was born and raised.

*** When The Tourists Flew In ***

The Finance Minister said
“It will boost the Economy
the dollars will flow in.
The Minister of Interior said
“It will provide full
& varied employment
for all the indigenes.”

The Ministry of Culture said
“It will enrich our life …
contact with other cultures
must surely
improve the texture of living.”

The man from the Hilton said
“We will make you
a second Paradise;
for you, it is the dawn
of a glorious new beginning.”

When the tourists flew in
our island people
metamorphosed into
a grotesque carnival
– a two-week sideshow

When the tourists flew in
our men put aside
their fishing nets
to become waiters
our women became whores

When the tourists flew in
what culture we had
flew out of the window
we traded our customs
for sunglasses and pop
we turned sacred ceremonies
into ten-cent peep shows

When the tourists flew in
local food became scarce
prices went up
but our wages stayed low

When the tourists flew in
we could no longer
go down to our beaches
the hotel manager said
“Natives defile the sea-shore”

When the tourists flew in
the hunger & the squalor
were preserved
as a passing pageant
for clicking cameras
– a chic eye-sore!

When the tourists flew in
we were asked
to be ‘side-walk ambassadors’
to stay smiling & polite
to alwavs guide
the ‘lost’ visitor …

Hell, if we could only tell them
where we really want them to go!

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UCLU Voluntourism Debate – Cambodia’s Orphan Business – November 28th, 2012

Unsurprisingly, there’s a great deal of interest in volunteering abroad from the student community, whether as a constructive way of spending gap year travel abroad, CV-boosting experience or altruistic desire to support others less fortunate. And so The UCLU European Society held a controversial debate to discuss whether such voluntourism is “a modern way of charity, something akin to the annoyance of Gap Yah hipsterism, or a dangerous misconception of what international development is all about”.

Reporter Juliana Ruhfus and director Matt Haan’s Al-Jazeera produced short documentary “People & Power: Cambodia’s Orphan Business” was first shown. Initially displaying a well managed orphanage and school project, The People’s Improvement Organisation (though in challenging conditions), Ruhfus soon discovers how some orphanages not only rely on volunteers to generate income and survive, but how this is becoming big business in Cambodia, fuelling the exploitation of Cambodian children and separation of them from their families.

Juliana Ruhfus Cambodia Orphanage Al Jazeera

Undercover Juliana Ruhfus plays with kids at a Cambodia orphanage

With the majority of money going to orphanage owners, and already-traumatised children’s psychological issues, compounded by the emotional attachment and loss of a series of volunteers, often leading to further drug-related and psychological problems, the question is posed what responsibility international voluntourism organisations such as Projects Abroad, whose name arose several times during the documentary research, are taking and whether there should be more diligence in their volunteer placements such as in the case study of CUCO (the Childrens Umbrella Centre Organization) in Cambodia’s capital Phnomh Penh.

Joanna Barclay then took to the floor to explain her involvement with Ruhfus and Haan, having been contacted by them whilst the documentary was in post-production editing. With a background in education as an Assistant Head at an inner London school, Barclay had accepted a volunteer position at CUCO to develop the centre for the community in a sustainable manner, but having received concerned feedback from volunteers immediately upon arrival onwards, including abuse and paid-adoptions allegations, and a centre Director seemingly not wanting actual progress, didn’t last more than a few months in her position. Barclay reported the Centre to the relevant authorities and was pleased to report, thanks to the highlight of the documentary, it had since been closed. However, a clear question was, with several Projects Abroad volunteers having fed back concerns previously, why did Projects Abroad not do something, and/or report the issues and/or continue to send volunteers there?

To counter the criticism, the Director and Founder of Projects Abroad, Dr Peter Slowe, took his turn to speak. Slowe was keen to defend his position and company from what he saw was incorrect and under-researched journalism. He admitted Projects Abroad are not perfect, but pointed out that Cambodia, as a developing country, does not have the infrastructure and processes that developed Western nationals sometimes expect, where government and business are often corrupt, over whom Projects Abroad have no control or responsibility. Projects Abroad do not run the orphanages and do indeed run Criminal Records Bureau checks for (only) over 30s (one of the previous volunteers mentioned in the film had been convicted of child abuse offences, Slowe was fair to point out the CRB check had been performed and was clear, that the offence and conviction occurred a year after the volunteer’s return). Projects Abroad also support the projects with lots of investment in material resources such as mattresses, food and construction, and in cross-cultural development, saying the documentary ignored all the benefits of labour and spending by Projects Abroad and their 10,000 volunteers per year: 2,000,000 volunteer hours a year in 30 developing countries, £14,000,000 spend to the developing world and £8,000,000 spent by volunteers locally. In addition, 70% of returning volunteers complete debriefing questionnaires, any particularly concerning ones he reads personally. As an aside to me personally, Dr. Slowe let me know approximately 25% of their placements involve childcare or orphanages, and approximately 5% teaching – though these percentages are reducing.

Dr. Slowe was clearly keen to put over the positive story of voluntourism. However, his defensive stance over admitting its potential negative impacts seemed to do little to appease an audience rousing behind the Al Jazeera documentary and Barclay, helped along by Slowe – as Ruhfus pointed out, Slowe – was doing himself no favours. By wanting to prevent Ruhfus further time on the floor; by denying the growth in orphanages, orphans’ and children’s psychological trauma in any way related to voluntourism, saying it was”ridiculous”; by accusing Ruhfus of “wilfully misrepresenting” through the reporting of £2,000,000 paid in dividends to Project Abroad directors (as stated on Companies House reports). As members of the audience noted to him, his complete ignorance or absolving of any responsibility that Projects Abroad might have was one of the most scary things, and if the documentary was indeed legally inaccurate, why hadn’t they taken Al Jazeera to court after seeking legal advice?

On the other hand, Dr. Slowe has to be commended for engaging in the debate. He said Projects Abroad carefully vet product development and projects and have high standards – if they did not, market self regulation would put them out of business, and they have to work within the realistic constraints and cultures of developing countries’ cultures and governments which may not always be as effective as we in the Western world might like.

Maybe a better stance would have been more of a humble and hands-up approach. Instead, he came to face the music and perhaps ended up adding flame to the fire – but this can be a good thing too, if it stokes into action those who are willing to take responsibility.

Whilst there appeared no definite conclusions to the debate, big question marks over sending organisations’ responsibility to its projects and volunteers, diligence in placement of volunteers and orphanage voluntourism full stop were certainly left on the audience’s lips.

For more information on Responsible Volunteering, please see:

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Hello Volunteer Tourism World!

This gallery contains 1 photo.

So I’ve finally bitten the bullet. After 17 years working in tourism, 13  in online travel marketing and development (mass market, mass media, online travel agencies and specialist tour operators), 6 years in Responsible and Volunteer tourism, 3 years of … Continue reading

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