Being Responsible to Voluntourists

wtm2013_header_leftbanner_powerbar_newlogo1I enjoyed watching the proceedings from the World Travel Mart’s Responsible Tourism Day (WTMRTD) sessions this past week. Though it may not be all that flattering, voluntourism stood out as the primary focal point this year, with questions and concerns about responsible voluntourism, particularly in the context of vulnerable children, being highlighted throughout. For 10 years Responsible Tourism Day has been striving to gain traction across the globe, now, with the help of voluntourism, the cross-section of responsible voluntourism may very well take the discussion beyond London and beyond the familiar framework of the WTMRTD.

Responsible Tourism has been a UK movement since its inception. There are schools in the UK which focus on Responsible Tourism, there is Tourism Concern, there is the effort of the WTM; and, although the UNWTO has incorporated it, the “majority” ownership of Responsible Tourism has remained in the UK. With voluntourism continuing its global march,  it may have part to play in disseminating the ownership of responsible tourism, helping us to uncover ways to enroll international travelers – ALL 1 billion-plus of them! – in addressing the socio-environmental challenges of the 21st Century.

Nevertheless, the responsibility starts with us – how are we going to be more responsible to voluntourists?

What Can Voluntourism Do for Responsible Tourism?

Right now it appears that the responsible tourism movement is looking at voluntourism through the lens of how to make voluntourism more responsible in relation to vulnerable children. It is a starting point, for sure. It gives responsible tourism a chance to get some press and recognition – look at what was able to do when it removed orphanage volunteering from its website, as a prime example. Such approaches mimic the “Gluten Free” or “Non-GMO” food movements – we will show you “what we are” by telling you “what we are not” or “what we are against.”

Another approach could be to help orphanages understand responsible tourism better, not relying solely on tour operators to “do the responsible thing.” Doubtless, through voluntourism the tourism supply chain is changing, expanding significantly – new stakeholders, never before considered to be such, are now stepping into the limelight of tourism stakeholder-dom. This includes universities who have “voluntourists” venturing out into communities across the globe every year; however, faculty and students have never really considered themselves to be tourists, much less responsible ones. In this way, voluntourism may become a viable segue for responsible tourism to reach uninitiated audiences.

Suggestion: Avoid “Police-Action” Approach

I would make a terrible policeman. I have too much empathy for people. I couldn’t enforce rules anymore than I could fly to the moon. When it comes to voluntourists going into orphanages, before I put out a bunch of rules and regulations, I would like to know why – “why do you want to go into an orphanage? why do you think you can improve the situation?” It seems that if we get this information before we tell them to get the hell out, we might just be able to make some changes that are inclusive, rather than exclusive. We may uncover things that make a great deal of sense to us.

Voluntourism can definitely open doors for responsible tourism. What does responsible tourism need to do in return? Tread more lightly. When we take something like voluntourism and we go into it with the idea of “policing” it, fixing it, assuming it is broken, this really doesn’t help anyone.

The Role of the Voluntourist

After years of studying voluntourism, I am convinced that voluntourism is connected to some deep-seated awareness within participants. Whether it is an expression of collective consciousness, karma yoga, a spiritual belief system, or a value that has been passed down for generations – travel and volunteering are touching on some inherently, perhaps pre-conditioned, aspects of who we are as people. Voluntourism appears to be as integral to our sense of well-being as right eating, proper exercise, and keeping good company. In this sense, voluntourism is much like a personal pilgrimage. So, how do we improve a personal pilgrimage?

Let’s start by recognizing what voluntourism is, in this regard. So few actually realize that we are integrating belief systems and values into what has heretofore been considered a time for self-indulgence. (This transition and integration speaks to why some people have an aversion to the term “voluntourist” – they so self-identify with being of service, they deny the self-indulgence aspect of voluntourism.) If we can see voluntourism as this “new,” balanced thing, however, then we can take the next step – incorporating responsibility and our power to change it.

Voluntourists are well-meaning; let’s see what we can do to help them become well-doing. Yes, it will take imagination and creativity. It will require deconstructing our belief systems, and it will require some significant systemic changes – after all, we are entering a period in human history where more and more people will want to contribute to living in a better world for EVERYONE, not just for the singular individual, or the immediate family. Isn’t it exciting that travel & tourism represent one of the first areas where people are demonstrating this shift?!?

Final Thoughts…

While we can easily become caught up in making voluntourists and voluntourism more responsible, at the end of the day it is our collective responsibility to prepare an NGO sector, a tourism sector, a public and private sector, and an academic sector to be ready to meet voluntourists where they are. We cannot do this by spending all of our energy on policies and guidelines – these things are not working in the minds of voluntourists – why else would they be volunteering on their holiday? They know they can make a difference, even though it looks like others are failing.

Some voluntourists are like poachers of goodwill. They want to be out their capturing as much of it as they can, gutting it, fileting that goodwill flesh so they can serve it to their friends and family – look at what I did! We couldn’t ask for a better group of people with whom to have the privilege of working collaboratively to craft a better world. They are eager, hungry, and motivated! Other voluntourists are veterans of service – they observe goodwill opportunities everywhere and act accordingly. They were once poachers of goodwill, too – not anymore. Both audiences, I think, are up for the challenge.

Re-channeling our energy, we can offer suggestions on how we can collectively learn and grow with what we already have at our disposal. Suggest to your voluntourists, for example, that if there is someone who volunteers regularly with children, and I’ll bet that every group of voluntourists will have someone like this, that they begin to share some of their experiences with fellow travelers. Can we turn groups of voluntourists into cohorts of learning, sharing, and growing together? What would that be like? Is it even possible?

Let’s revision what travel & tourism with a do-gooding bent can be before we pulverize it or limit it with a host of guidelines. It is so new (by comparison); it seems like we haven’t even taken the time to explore its potential before we want to frame it as we have every other form of tourism to date. Come on, people, we are creative folks, brilliant minds, experience-filled wisdom chalices just waiting to be drunk from. What’s more, we are dealing with equally brilliant, creative folks with money to spend and time to invest. We owe them a lot more than a set of guidelines and procedures on how to be responsible – SO MUCH MORE!!


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