Voluntourism in Southeast Asia – What Does It Mean for the Rest of the World?

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The Little Big Project

When Thailand crafted the Little Big Project voluntourism initiative earlier this year (2013), it sent a clear message to other parts of Southeast Asia (and the rest of the world for that matter): “Voluntourism needs to be part of your tourism strategy.” Malaysia has since followed up with their “Voluntourism” initiative. And, in between these, we saw Jauntaroo launch its “Chief World Explorer” competition, emphasizing voluntourism in different destinations across the world in 2014 (including at least a couple in Southeast Asia).

It is not a common thing to see destinations inviting individuals to come and volunteer. We see this in the aftermath of natural disasters, of course; however, it is not often that it is done via an organized, country-wide effort through a promotional vehicle such as a tourism board. As countries go, we have become more accustomed to experiencing the push back against voluntourists – say in Cambodia and South Africa around orphanage voluntourism, or in Tanzania with the $550 visa for volunteers (whereas tourists only pay $75 for a tourist visa in Tanzania). Do destinations like Thailand and Malaysia have a strategy for overcoming the negative impacts of voluntourism, something we should all consider?

Conservation, Conservation, CONSERVATION – – Forget Everything Else!

Voluntourism Initiative – Tourism Malaysia

Tourism Malaysia has launched their voluntourism initiative around 20 environmental conservation projects in the country. Is this accidental? Highly doubtful. If there is anything that has failed to draw the ire of development &, do-gooding professionals, NGO executives, academics, and human rights advocates, it has to be voluntourism experiences that concentrate on environmental conservation. There may be an occasional request from the punditry regarding demonstrations of sustainability – but these requests are relatively rare. 40+ year old Earthwatch Institute has delivered some substantive quantitative & qualitative data in support of research focused on environmental conservation over the decades. This certainly builds some street cred for the importance of conservation projects.

Adventures in Preservation, Restoration Works International, Historicorps, Tourism Cares, Conservation VIP, and others have helped build a base of support for conservation of historical and cultural treasures the world over. These efforts are designed to not only remind us of the value of such sites as Machu Picchu, for example, and how we must collaborate to sustain these treasures for future generations, but also exactly how much can be accomplished through targeted application of time, financial resources, and voluntary effort.

Number One Priority for Voluntourism in Southeast Asia – – The Environment & Cultural Treasures

Conservation of the environment and cultural treasures in Southeast Asia is important to the economic stability and sustainability of the region. Getting voluntourists out into the local communities, engaging them in service projects that benefit the environment and support the preservation of cultural treasures, and encouraging them to share the experience with others (local residents, friends & family, etc.) – such strategic approaches serve to remind people of the importance of the environment & culture – this includes local residents and visitors alike. Though we do not know the full extent of the meaning of what such voluntourism programs provide to local communities, we can at least recognize that the dearth of criticism that will be launched in their direction can afford communities a fighting chance to develop some very sustainable voluntourism programming initiatives. Though conservation of the environment and cultural treasures may not be bulletproof when placed in the line of critically-induced fire, the challenge of finding fault with the practice may be sufficient to discourage those who are likely to do so. Orphanage voluntourism becomes a gigantic bulls-eye by comparison.

Final Thoughts…

Southeast Asia can bring the combination of voluntourism and conservation of the environment & cultural treasures into a new light of acceptance and interest. Southeast Asia is rife with cultural treasures and the environment faces tremendous challenges in the face of growing populations and climate change. If Malaysia and other tourism boards in the region can build a set of credible projects focused on environmental conservation and preservation of cultural treasures,  and couple this with fundamental economic indicators regarding the value of these treasures and the environment to the income of local residents, voluntourists will be drawn to these destinations – as tourists and as volunteers who help to sustain the environment and these treasures for future tourists – knowing that their investments will have immediate and future impact for local residents. After all, voluntourists really do want to make a difference.

Setting voluntourists up for success is what the tourism boards of Southeast Asia can do. If they are successful, voluntourists will pass along their success to local communities and to future generations of travelers. When the world sees what voluntourists can do, through strategic, concentrated and country-led initiatives, we will not need to concern ourselves with maligning voluntourism; instead, we will have a host of examples to follow and can focus our attention on generating constructive criticism to build on and improve what is birthed in Southeast Asia.

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