A Refresher Course on VolunTourism

Refresher CourseThe past decade has seen many changes in the way we collectively view VolunTourism. Some have taken the term “voluntourism” to mean nothing more than a flashmob of momentary goodwill – non-sustainable yet self-gratifying with a sense of over-indulgence in what is far from the reality of the true socio-economic & environmental struggles of destinations. Others have taken a different perspective, seeing that voluntourism does have a place in the global unfoldment. Whatever one’s perspective on voluntourism, it seems that a refresher course is in order.

Making Our Demands More Reasonable

If VolunTourism is ever going to have a chance, we have to be more reasonable in our demands of it. In the latest version of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we shared some insights regarding the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race Voluntourism Program (which is happening right now – 31 January – 2 February 2014). There are some extremely important points that come out of this article.

Exclusion Does Not Lead To The Results We Seek

First, voluntourism, VolunTourism, volunteer tourism – whatever you want to call it, is a team effort. The biggest reason that voluntourism fails is because destinations and “do-gooders” do not collaborate to make it successful. When we have one organization, say, an NGO, going into a destination and starting a voluntourism program – moving volunteers to the destination to accomplish some task – it simply does not work as well as it could if the entire destination was invested in the effort. More often such efforts will fail – not because there was a lack of good intentions, but because there was a lack of cooperation and collaboration. Our business-minded mentality and our individuality in the context of being of service has created the perfect environment for failure. (This is a broad generalization, of course, because we could certainly argue that there are successful programs in the world.) We have created an exclusionary voluntourism model, however, based on the systems of our day. Voluntourism will not work under these conditions.

We have to collectively change the exclusionary approach to voluntourism which has been developed the world over. A cooperative model is what is needed. Destinations must become the majority shareholders in these endeavors. It is the only way that voluntourism can come close to realizing its true potential.

Voluntourism As A Part, Not The Whole

The other takeaway is to recognize that voluntourism is just a part, not the whole, of approaching destination challenges. We treat voluntourism like it is meant to be a destination’s salvation. It is often taken out of context, condemned for not having alleviated both the underlying cause and the associated effects. How unreasonable is that?

In Bayfield, Wisconsin, voluntourism is a part of the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race. It is part of one community event out of a long list of other community events. The success of the event is not even conditioned on whether voluntourists show up. But when they do, it simply adds to the event. It makes the event that much more enjoyable and productive for the community. It isn’t that voluntourism steps into Bayfield, Wisconsin to solve anything. Voluntourism steps into Bayfield and makes the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race just a little bit better. And isn’t that a more reasonable approach to voluntourism?

Making Destinations A Little Better, Not A Lot

Bayfield 1300

Voluntourists at the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race

When we first began working on VolunTourism back in 2000, my colleagues and I explored what it would mean for visitors to take a little bit of time out of their travel itineraries to give back. We were not talking about some monumental level of support, we were talking about little efforts, multiplied across many folks, in our case, visiting San Diego, California. VolunTourism, therefore, was originally designed with “developed” destinations in mind, destinations which would already have a volunteer center or similar entity assigned with the task of coordinating the efforts of its citizenry to volunteer. Thus, extending this capacity to incorporate visitors would not be as taxing.

What has occurred, of course, is that voluntourism has been most often applied in the context of “developing” destinations. These destinations do not have the same level of infrastructure to support the movement of voluntourists. In addition, shareholders are not well-informed; in some instances, shareholders are bypassed completely, as the capacity and the wherewithal is simply not present. This has created what we are calling “grey market aid” and “black market aid.” Informal economies are springing up in destinations across the globe because we have not engaged all shareholders. This is unhealthy, unproductive, and could easily be avoided.

Final Thoughts…

When we talk about a Refresher Course on VolunTourism, what we are really discussing is the need to take a step back, to observe, to see why VolunTourism is failing around the world, and where and why it is succeeding (in Bayfield, Wisconsin, as an example). Our expectations are too high; they are separated from the reality. Not all destinations are ready for VolunTourism – let’s face that reality! Let’s work with those destinations which have the capacity to embrace VolunTourism, instead of putting forth so much effort into forcing destinations to embrace something that they are simply unprepared to embrace.

VolunTourism is a type of technology, if it helps us to think of it in this way. The internet doesn’t work everywhere, mobile phones don’t work everywhere; neither does VolunTourism. It doesn’t mean that it can’t; but, think of the level of sophistication that is required to make mobile technologies and the internet function properly. The same holds true for VolunTourism.

As long as we try to wield the technology that is VolunTourism anywhere in the world, we will discover that VolunTourism will bring forth some of the worst side effects possible – disgruntled populations being but one of these. Technology requires certain items to be in place, certain levels of education and “know-how” to implement. Let’s start treating VolunTourism in the same way. Stop thinking it is so simple and that it can be applied anywhere. Take a fresh view and realize that infrastructure, knowledge & understanding, and relationships are absolutely essential. Then we might just see VolunTourism as it was meant to be – a real contributing factor to the bettering of destinations across this planet!


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