Voluntourism: Glorified endeavor with unprecedented impacts.

I wrote this paper last summer and I guess it will be great people can benefit from reading this as they are my experience.

Voluntourism: Glorified endeavor with unprecedented impacts.

Volunteer tourism or voluntourism industry has emerged as a new form of tourism, mainly fueled by the Millennials and the Baby Boomers. With the social responsibility in mind, the Millennials act as a budding force for the social changes; representing a large percentage of nonprofit volunteers (Cargas, 2012). The engagement with volunteerism essentially came from the desires to make a positive impact to the world as a global citizen.  By encompassing both volunteering and tourism, this new industry has its appeals and gains its popularity among those who wants to do good while have some fun. Therefore, voluntourism thrives in many developing countries, attracting many curious travelers to these exotic places with a noble purpose.

Volunteer tourism offers various types of tourism experience with different volunteering components depending on the ability and skills of the participants. Meanwhile, voluntourist can be differentiated into three levels: shallow, intermediate and deep level volunteer tourist. It is differentiated accordingly using six main criteria: qualification, destination, duration of volunteering commitment, focus of experience, participation level and contributions (Callanan,& Thomas, 2005). Although there are many different definitions suggested by academicians due to the perplexity of the subject, Wearing (2001) as the pioneer volunteer tourism researcher defined volunteer tourism as an “organized way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment”. Nonetheless, international volunteer tourism generally focuses on the development aid in response to social, environmental and humanitarian issues; “with the intention of serving communities in need” (Wearing, & McGehee, 2013, p. 121).

However, debates regarding the impacts of voluntourism on the host communities have been sparked and ensued recently in the academia. Volunteer tourism can be altruistic as it sounds; but such glorified industry has its unprecedented impacts to the host communities other than the apparent positive impacts. Volunteer tourism often do more harm than good to the host communities in developing countries as the results of inadequate regulations in volunteer tourism. Recently, host communities have becoming the primary subject of research in the academia; as researchers slowly shift the focus away from the volunteers’ perspective (Wearing, & McGehee, 2013). It is claimed that many of such activities are designed in such for the spiritual, egoistic fulfillment and narcissism of the volunteers rather than catering for the need of the host communities (Kascak, 2014).

  1. Commodification of volunteer tourism

With a small price, volunteers spend their vacation working with the unprivileged while enjoy their free time traveling in the developing countries. Volunteer tourism offers appealing and exotic experiences to those people with their affluent lives do not offer: a taste of hardship and surviving it. As such, the commodification of volunteer tourism could leads to fulfilling the volunteer’s quest for experience rather than the host community’s needs (Wearing,& McGehee, 2013). This shift of singular focus suggests the possible economic neoliberalism of volunteer tourism in developing world. Such effect will in turn affect the local communities as the developments of local communities are demand-driven, tailored to the needs of affluent international volunteers. Consequently, this will promote the proliferation of profit-driven, commercial and superficial organizations that sell the “feeling good” experience to the volunteers without truly helping the local communities. Wearing and McGehee (2013) suggests that these organizations may have different impacts on the community than the local NGOs, as they are more volunteer-oriented.

1.1 Commodification of orphanage volunteer tourism experience in Nepal

In recent times, there is a surge in number of orphanages in Nepal, raising the questions of legitimacy of these institutions. According to Central Child Welfare Board (CCWB) of Nepal, there is more than 11,000 children living in so called “orphanages” (CCWB, as cited in Bhusal, 2013). But it is found that more than 60 percent of these “orphans” have at least one living parent (CCWB & Bambini, as cited in Bhusal, 2013). In many cases, the parents from rural and poor areas are persuaded into displacing their children in promise of better education and future by the orphanage operators. Later, these orphanage operators “borrow” and displace the children into children’s homes, in which many of them are in dilapidated conditions. Regrettably, it is found that only ten percent of children’s home in Nepal has reached the minimum standards of operation (CCWB, as cited in Bhusal, 2013). Clearly, the thriving of orphanage voluntourism industry is due to the high demand of international volunteers in search for “saviordom” experience; creating a niche market. In addition the limited capacity of the CCWB in regulating and overlooking the booming industry, this lucrative business attracts many unruly operators and organizations exploit the innocent children to gain profits in process. Many children’s homes are purposely left in shabby and sub-standards conditions to incite sympathy from the visiting volunteers; in hoping some well-off volunteers will sponsor the children or fundraise for the homes. Subsequently, some children’s homes operators misuse the funds for their personal gains, neglecting the welfare of the children. Therefore, with proper supervision from the regulating bodies, the exploitation of the children in Nepal can be avoided; ensuring the standard of conducts of these children’s homes.

1.2 Predicaments of orphanage volunteer tourism

Nonetheless, it is debatable and questionable that whether orphanage voluntourism should be supported, allowing the visits of volunteers into the children’s home at the first place. From the developmental psychology’s perspective, the attachment theory suggests the importance of caregiver in child’s early stage of life. Stable, warm and responsive caregivers will ensure the proper social and psychological development and better mental health in the future (Ainsworth, 1979). With the foreign volunteers going in and out of the children’s homes, the repetitive formation and dissolution of attachments bonds between the children and successive volunteers will do more harm than good for the children. This will belittles and damages the role of children’s home as a place which can provides stable, healthy and nurturing institutionalized care.

Frequently, volunteers are encouraged to mingle and make intimate connections with the children who are previously neglected, abused or orphaned in the children’s homes. Many foreign volunteers worked hard to provide genuine love, affections and care to those vulnerable children throughout their volunteering period. However, unlike long-term local and foreign volunteers, short-term foreign volunteers unknowingly create another unnecessary abandonment experience in children after the ends of their volunteering commitment. Majority of these short-term projects last less than four weeks (Callanan, & Thomas, 2005).  As such, this frequent disruption of caregiver-child relationship and attachments will results in long-term complications of childhood development. Consequently, indiscriminate friendliness and excessive yearn for attention can be observed in many institutionalized children (The St. Petersburg, 2008).

In addition to that, frequent brief visits of international volunteers to the children’s homes will disrupt the normal operation and daily schedule of the children’s homes. In some children’s homes, there are no strict visiting hours, allowing the visitors to come as they pleased; as if these children’s homes are zoo and the children are the animals in the cage. Such matter should not be overlooked as very often the visiting volunteers disturb and affect the daily routine of the children.

Still, some children’s homes like the Namaste Children’s Home by the Namaste Community Foundation in Nepal did a great job by imposing strict ground rules on the visiting volunteers to their children’s home. Such rules included strict visiting hours, no photography within the compounds of the home and children and prohibit stay-over at the children’s home. Any materials (books and videos) that brought by the visiting volunteers into the children’s home are also screened at discretions to ensure the children will not exposed to inappropriate materials. Although strict rules and regulations will somewhat deter the volunteers from visiting and causes some inconvenience, these efforts should be appraised as ultimately the wellbeing of the children is the upmost concern of all.

Nonetheless, it is highly impossible to completely prohibit orphanage voluntourism in developing countries. Although the ban of orphanage voluntourism could possibly stop the exploitation of the children and diminish the number of pseudo-orphanages, such prohibition will possibly cause many legitimate and well-run children’s homes to face financial difficulties in sustaining the children’s homes. This is due to most source of funding for the operations of children’s homes are from the oversea organizations and affluent international donors. Therefore, sustaining the children’s homes with limited financial supports from the local government and donations from local communities will be difficult if not impossible. As a result, completely dismissing the industry will not be able to tackle the present problems arises from orphanage voluntourism. Instead, proper guidelines and regulations on this matter should be enforced by the authorities and operators to tackle such issues, mitigating the negative impacts of orphanage voluntourism. Short-term volunteers should be discouraged from stationing in children’s homes.  Besides, orphanage voluntourism should be carried out at volunteers’ discretions, weighing in the pros and cons of their visits to the children’s homes.

  1. Volunteer tourism as neocolonialism or humanitarian effort in developing


Undeniably, volunteer tourism is both egocentric and altruistically-driven industry (Ingram, 2008). Rather than fixating on absolute dichotomy of egoism versus altruism, Tomazos & Butler (2010) found that the motives of volunteers can be positioned on the continuum between pure self-interest and pure altruism. Nonetheless, research has found that the Millennials who joined the voluntourism are tends to be more ego-motivated (Lepp, 2008). As such, the absence of rules and regulations could leads to neocolonialism (Vrasti, 2013) with the ego pursuits of volunteers as the priority concern, if not doing development and building capacity of host communities.  Nonetheless, the ideology of development aids has faced some criticisms and skepticisms in the academia. It is claimed that the intention of volunteers from developed nations to help in developing nations is a humanitarian effort as well as colonialist mentality (Kothari, 2005). As such, it is said that voluntourism propagates the patterns of inequality and poverty, reinforcing the dominating position of people from developed and privileged countries.

2.1 Ineffective helping hands

In addition, many volunteer projects which involved young volunteers found to have minimal impacts on the local communities. In reality, it is the case that many young volunteers are found to be lacking of necessary capacities and motivations to assists in local community projects (Palacios, 2010). As such, these “helping hands” could not bring effective and practical changes to the local communities, in turn harming the progress and success of the projects. For instance, due to the incompetency in Nepali language, the volunteer placement at the Sindhu Bhotechour Saving and Credit Co-operative Society (a women-targeted cooperative) in Nepal is practically useless if not creating additional burdens to the cooperative. This is because that most of the documentations, transactions and accountings are written in Nepali language and numbers. With the manager of the cooperative as the only person who can speak English fluently, translating each and every document into English language just for the understanding of the foreign volunteers seems like an unnecessary burden and redundant. When asked about the improvements that can be made to the cooperative, hardly sound and relevant feedbacks were made by the volunteers due to the inexperience in such industry; leaving the local staffs in disappointments. Evidently, good intention of helping does not equate to the ability to provide effective help. The screening of volunteers should be carried out by the NGOs beforehand to ensure the real skills and knowledge of the volunteers can be put into good use for the benefits of the local community.

2.2 Eurocentric or foreign-centric attitudes among local communities

Some Eurocentric or foreign-centric attitudes of local staffs and the local people will also indirectly influence the progress of community projects in voluntourism. The perception of foreign volunteers being the superior, “expert” and knowledgeable one in the eyes of local peoples in the developing countries will cause the misread of the real capacity of the young volunteers. As such, some locals might lay unrealistic expectations on the young foreign volunteers in assisting the local projects or even solving their sensitive social conflicts in their local communities (Palacios, 2010).

On the other hand, it is found that the medical volunteer tourism affects the development of the functioning of Nepal’s healthcare system by creating dependency on international medical assistance (Seabrook, 2013). The free flow of foreign medical aids and the flocking of foreign medical volunteers into the rural villages of Nepal have overshadowed the need to establish a proper local medical healthcare system. Some villagers from the northwest region of Nepal even shown a stronger preference for healthcare services provided by the foreign medical volunteers (Citrin, 2011). As such, these foreign-centric or Eurocentric attitudes of the local communities creates the dependency on foreign medical aids, indirectly delegitimizes the local healthcare system. This potentially creates more negative impacts to the local communities in long run, as most of medical voluntourism only provides temporary medical relief services. These transient medical relief services fail to deal with more serious long-term health problems faced by many villagers, where many of these medical conditions are political and social inequalities rooted (Seabrook, 2013). Therefore, the personal expectation of volunteers and institutional expectation should harmonize with the volunteer’s capacities and skills (Palacios, 2010).

2.3 Instagramming the poverty in developing countries

Far too often, many volunteers take photographs of underprivileged people in the impoverished environment or take selfies with local children while they are volunteering and share them on Instagram and Facebook. Although this sounds like a harmless first world habit, photographs of vulnerable and suffering people displayed the inadequacy and poverty of the people from the developing countries. In subtle, these images raise the idea of neocolonialism, with the volunteers as the protagonists and individuals from the developing countries as the vulnerable one that in need for saving (Kascak, 2014). This is also known as the “White Savior Industrial Complex” as Cole (2012) claimed. As by just posing in photographs, it prevent the volunteers from fully engaging with the local communities (Kascak, 2014). It also creates a story of the volunteers “saving” the suffering; fulfilling the narcissism of the volunteers. In addition, these photographs also indirectly reinforce the disparities between the poor and the wealthy, developed nations with developing nations. However, it is too pessimistic and overly critical to make such claims as clearly sharing these photographs on social networks did raises awareness, concerns, aids and supports from developed nations and the general public to assists the developing world.

  1. Volunteer tourism: Rules, regulations and guidelines?

Clemmons (2011) found that there are insufficient of regulations, guidelines and capacity within government agencies, regulating and enforcing bodies to ensure standard of conducts, good practice and accountability of NGOs, tour operators and volunteers. Recently, the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) has developed the International Voluntourism Guidelines for Commercial Tour Operators for the international voluntourism providers as to encourage responsible and sustainable planning and programs in the industry. The guidelines were developed by professionals of voluntourism industry from various regions, through meticulous industry survey and conferences in 2011 (TIES, 2012).  It serves as a useful and comprehensive guidance to the operators but it is insufficient to wholly dependent on the goodwill of the NGOs and tour operators to follow such guidelines. The lacking of regulating and enforcing authorities in the developing countries might invites unscrupulous organizations to exploit and harming the host communities for personal gains; neglecting the priority of voluntourism projects: local communities’ needs.  Therefore, respective countries can cooperate with TIES as to come out with regulations and guidelines that can be utilized and implemented to ensure the welfare of the local communities are protected.

3.1 Volunteer visa or tourist visa?                              

Many volunteers opt to apply tourist visa instead of volunteer visa when they sign up for volunteer tourism in developing countries. Conveniently, it is commonly practiced by many hosting organizations as to avoid extra paper works and bureaucracy. In addition, the leniency of the local governments overlooking this matter also indirectly encourages such practice. For instance, it is stated in the website of immigration department of Nepal (2013); under tourist visa one is forbidden to work for any organizations with or without receiving remuneration. Nonetheless, even Himiskhara Socio-cultural Society has such practice due to the government’s forbearing attitude on this matter. Volunteers supposed to enter the country using non-tourist visa (volunteer visa) through proper procedure. However, this might due to the presence of conflicting dual identities, where very often their trips to these developing countries incorporated both volunteering and traveling. In addition to that, brief period (a few days to a few weeks) of volunteering commitment discourages the volunteers to go through seemingly redundant and exhaustive procedure to procure the volunteer visa. Without the authority strictly enforcing such rules, it is difficult to overlook and monitor the voluntourism industry; ensuring the good standards of conducts of both volunteers and the hosting organizations.

Indeed in some developing countries such as Tanzania has been very strict on visa categories to regulate the voluntourism industry. However, such effort has been widely criticized by many NGOs and volunteers when the Tanzanian government decided to raises the C class volunteer visa from $120 to $550 in 2011 (Clemmons, 2011). Such hike in price has raised many questions and speculations in the voluntourism sectors. Clemmons (2011) points out that it is possible the Tanzanian government might want to deter the NGOs and volunteers from coming in by raising the price of the volunteer visa. The second possible scenario is that the Tanzanian government can reap the profits from such hike, given the volunteers do not contribute much revenue to the local economy due to their minimal expenditures during volunteering period. Meanwhile, the third speculation suggests that the increase in price might be the only economically feasible way for the government to enforce rules and involving in the voluntourism sector. This means that the hike in volunteer visa fee acts to capacity-building from incentive and capital perspective for the government. Nonetheless, revenue-generation and the best interests of the citizens are the default foci of the governments (Clemmons, 2011). Inevitably, as to appeals and attracts the governments’ involvement in voluntourism, some rules and regulations that laid by the authority might not benefits and appeals to all parties.

  1. Sustainable voluntourism in developing countries

The literature of volunteer tourism in the academia often extends to the discussion of volunteer tourism as developmental and sustainable tourism (Wearing, & McGehee, 2013). However, Rees (1990) warned that volunteer tourism could eventually incorporate the mainstream neo-liberalism agenda as to ensure the economic growth and sustainable tourism. On the other hand, Butcher (2011) concerned that volunteer tourism could become pure welfare or charity-minded tourism. Therefore, Wearing and McGehee (2013) point out, the ideal volunteer tourism in developing world should fall under somewhere in the spectrum between this two points.

4.1 Sustainability issues of Teaching English initiative in Nepal

The involvement of foreign volunteers in teaching English in schools often fails to positively benefits the local communities in the long run. Often, the international volunteers do not possess the understanding of local language and dialects, making the teaching of new language without a common tongue seem impossible without the pairing with local translators. In addition, the students might suffer due to the inconsistency of teaching styles and methods from the untrained volunteers, other than the need to deal with the emotional burden of changing of teachers at most of the time. In the Shanti Alternative Women School of Nepal, underprivileged women can receive free formal education even after normal schooling age. The placement of foreign volunteers indeed attracted many women to join the basic and advanced English class. To ensure the teaching run smoothly, each volunteer is paired up with a local translator. However, soon after the end of volunteer teaching commitment, the attendance of the English class has dropped tremendously. “Foreign volunteers can help to (at least) attract the attention of the ladies, making our class more interesting and more people want to sign up for the course,” said Madam Asha Aryal, one of the founders of the Shanti Alternative School (Aryal, A., personal communication, June 30, 2014). Furthermore, due to the financial constraints faced by the women school, they could not hire well-trained English teachers to teach the women. Thus, their over-reliance on the NGOs to send foreign volunteers to teach English language in the women school makes this community project hardly sustainable with minimal positive impacts to the women.

4.2 Sustainable community by Namaste Community Foundation in Nepal

Namaste Community Foundation (NCF) as a locally registered NGO has successfully come out with a sustainable community project to build a community service center in Ghachowk, Nepal. With funding and supports from oversea trustees and international charity partners such as Namaste Foundation Netherland, WoC International and Sirius Foundation UK, NCF intends to become a self-sustaining (at least partially) organization in the near future. As such, NCF is building a community service center that comprised of a children home, vocational training center, office and basic facilities, utilizing sustainable practices, technologies and local manpower. Through this project, NCF also intends to empower the local villagers by providing agricultural trainings, improves their agricultural yields. In long term, NCF will assist the villagers to market their yield surplus by buying them at fair trade prices; with the center as the collection point. Subsequently, the profits gained from these projects will be used to sustain the organization.

The founder and director of NCF, Mr. Visma Raj Paudel started off as a local restaurateur finds his delicate balance between being an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. “We cannot (be) dependent on the donations and volunteers forever. We need to find ways around to be self-sustainable, like doing a business, if not we are not going anywhere,” said Mr. Visma Raj Paudel (Paudel, V.R., personal communication, July 14, 2014). As such, NCF sets as an excellent organization with good practice and aims to be a self-sustaining charitable organization.

  1. Conclusion

A wide range of organizations that are engaging in volunteer tourism has the potential to community development and capacity-building of the local communities. Leaving volunteer tourism sector left astray without the proper guidance and regulations will not benefits the host communities in long run. It is found that many voluntourism activities organized by developed countries negatively affect the host communities’ tourism development (Guttentag, 2009). Volunteer tourism potentially creates dependency between the developed and developing countries as a new form of colonialism, undermining the dignity of the host communities, overload the carrying capacity and dismiss the needs of host communities if this industry is not properly managed. By taking cautionary actions, such negative impacts can be minimized.

Whether if volunteer tourism can create a new paradigm in the tourism industry as a host communities-centered, decommodified form of tourism; or just another tourism niche in the coming years, more discussion and scientific-platform based research on this issue are encouraged. The professionals are also urged to explore the role of local governance and policy in volunteer tourism industry, maximizing the benefits and minimizing the negative impacts on the host communities (McGehee, 2012). Moreover, professionals and researchers should disseminate new ideas for the best practices of volunteer tourism and guidelines for the social development of host communities; utilizing the scientific-platform research in the field of volunteer tourism.


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