I wrote the terms “VolunTours” and “VolunTourism” for the first time back in June 2000. Before that time, “voluntourism” was used twice with any significance – by author Alison Gardner in an article she wrote about “volunteer vacations” in the mid 1990s and by the Nevada Board of Tourism (1998) to honor residents of Nevada who volunteered to support travel & tourism in the state. Google didn’t recognize the terms; neither did Yahoo, or Netscape, or any other search engines for that matter. The terms simply didn’t exist. [FYI: We trademarked “VolunTours” in 2001.]
Fast forward to 2014, “voluntourism” has become one of the hottest topics in the travel & tourism field, the aid & development field, the third sector, the world of academia, and beyond. (Many of the people who use the term “voluntourism” today – on blogs, social media feeds, etc. – were still in elementary school at the turn of the millennium. I find that kind of interesting, actually.) Philippa Biddle writes a blog post on “voluntourism” and has 1 million+ page views, 10K+ likes & tweets, and over 300 comments, as well as a re-posting on the Huffington Post Blog. Welcome to the world of social media!
However, just because you can write a term, just because you can generate a post that wends its way through cyberspace, does not necessarily translate into you having even the slightest inkling of what it is. I also find this to be interesting.
So, What Is VolunTourism?
Truth be told, I have nary a clue as to what “VolunTourism” or “voluntourism” is. Though I have been intensely studying the intersection of voluntary service and tourism for the past 14 years; participating in it on four continents; discussing it and sharing insights regarding its potential with people on seven; interfacing with community residents, academics, governments, NGOs, travel & tourism professionals, journalists, and travelers, I am consistently humbled by the fact that I still don’t understand what it means for humanity. What I can tell you is that it means something – something that I think we still cannot even see, something incredibly important for us all.
Anything that can move us the way voluntourism does – just look at Philippa Biddle’s post and so many that have been written in response to it here, here, here, and here – we cannot simply ignore that, dismiss it, say it should be eliminated from the planet. We have to learn to deal with the tension around voluntourism. Fortunately, we have a tool that can help us do exactly that.
Working With The VolunTourism Polarity Map
Now, there are a few things I can tell you about voluntourism, and this is where the term “VolunTourism” may actually help, so we will use that term for the following exercise.
VolunTourism represents the combination of voluntary service AND travel & tourism. In our current, collective view of the world, volunteerism represents (in the positive sense) what we might describe as “social responsibility” or “social beneficence.” Tourism, on the other hand, represents (in the positive sense) “economic impact.” We also know that the people of our planet cannot survive if we emphasize one of these things over the other. And this is what makes VolunTourism a “polarity to be managed” according to the work of Barry Johnson and Polarity Management.
I have taken the liberty to build on Barry Johnson’s work and develop a VolunTourism Polarity Map (above) – a representation of two poles – “Volunteerism” (left) and “Tourism” (right). You will see that there are four quadrants in the above diagram. “Values” – “positive results of focusing on” a given pole (“volunteerism” or “tourism”) – are on top. “Fears” – “negative results from over-focusing on” a given pole (“volunteerism” or “tourism”) – are on the bottom half. I have added some items that I think capture some of the “Values” and some of the “Fears” where both volunteerism and tourism are concerned. There are certainly others which can be added, and I would encourage folks to design their own polarity map for VolunTourism.
What is happening, at least what I think is happening presently, is that we have a skewed vision of VolunTourism. We are, essentially, equating VolunTourism with volunteerism (see the left-hand side of the diagram), which means we are focusing all of our attention on the “social beneficence” side of VolunTourism. Can you see what starts to happen, however, when we over-focus on volunteerism? We start seeing things such as “parternalism/colonialism” emerge. We start questioning whether volunteerism will lead to “resident dependency,” “outsourcing local jobs,” “poor craftsmanship,” and “over-emphasizing the poverty & lack in a destination.”
On the other side, if we focus all of our attention on impacting destinations economically through tourism, look at what we can run into: “environmental degradation,” “price-hikes for local goods & services,” “natural resource depletion,” etc. Even though tourism can bring positive “economic development” – jobs, support for artisan crafts & products, income to marginalized populations, etc. – if we over-emphasize the economic impact, destination residents, visitors, and all stakeholders will be adversely impacted.
Managing & Balancing The Polarity Across Multiple Stakeholder Groups
I recently discussed the importance of balancing the polarity between responsibility and profitability. Here, we are building on that work to emphasize the importance of blending and balancing volunteerism and tourism, through VolunTourism. You will note in the above diagram, I have concentrated on what occurs in the local destination. We could also consider managing this polarity for travelers, for governments, for tour operators, for NGOs, for destination marketing organizations (DMOs), in fact, any stakeholder. The poles would remain the same, but the “values” and “fears” would change, depending on the stakeholder group.
When we look at Philippa Biddle’s post, for example, we see the over-emphasis on the “volunteerism” pole for a traveler. It is evident throughout her post – talking about “white” people, “guilt” and so many other terms which signal to us that she has over-emphasized the “volunteerism” pole. But, if Philippa had also, and equally, emphasized tourism, then we would see that her “volunteerism” could have included people of other colors, creeds, and nationalities, if, for example, she had met some of those folks through her touristic engagement with the destination prior to her voluntary service and had invited them to join her efforts with the help of the local community. She would not be a representative of a “Global North” going to a “Global South”; she could have been part of a team of humanity representing many cultures, creeds, and nationalities instead.
The management of polarities is ongoing. To suggest that we could have “solved” Philippa Biddle’s situation, or that of any other traveler for that matter, is preposterous. But, if we gave Philippa and other travelers a tool like the VolunTourism Polarity Map above, I’ll bet that Philippa could manage her entire VolunTourism experience differently. She, or any other traveler, could recognize these polarities going in. She could manage them better. She could put that knowledge to use in real-time, rather than suffusing herself with guilt and regret. She could become a true “VolunTourist.”
These tools are available. I have been writing about Barry’s work for years. It appears, however, that as a new crop of voluntourists emerge on our planet, it is important to reiterate this knowledge, re-purpose it, and push it out into the world through the social media outlets that seem to garner so much following, particularly from the youngest generation on the planet. So be it.
Here is an attempt to do just that. Hope it will find an audience which is ready and eager to put it to use!