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.

Posted in Online, Responsible Tourism, Volunteer tourism | 4 Comments

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].
  • [updated] In 2015 Nancy Gard McGehee(Virginia Tech) estimated 10 million volunteers a year spending up to $2 billion[12].
  • [updated] By the end of the 2010s, it is estimated voluntourism could represent 25 – 30 million worldwide, with the US market alone adding around 1 million additional voluntourists per year since 2007 to reach 10 to 15 million. [13].

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. Guardian.co.uk [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’?. Voluntourism.org [Internet Blog].[Accessed 04 September 2012].
11. Clemmons, D. (2011) What Can VolunTourism Learn from the Debate on “Gamification”?. Voluntourism.org [Internet Blog].[Accessed 04 September 2012].
12. Thomson Reuters Foundation (2015) Boom in ‘voluntourism’ sparks concerns over whether the industry is doing good [Internet Blog].[Accessed 08 August 2017].
13. Voluntourism Institute(2014) 20 Million U.S. Voluntourists by 2020? [Internet Blog].[Accessed 08 August 2017].

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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 Guardian.co.uk

Posted in Responsible Tourism, Volunteer tourism | Tagged | 9 Comments

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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