Why Voluntourism Is Failing In The Developing World

Journal of Policy Research in Tourism Leisure & EventsOn 28 February 2014, the Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure & Events published an online article entitled “Volunteer tourism policy in Thailand.” Authors Mary Mostafanezhad and Nick Kontogeorgopoulos summarize their paper with these words:

“In this paper, we argue how short-term volunteering in Thailand might be able, under the right circumstances, to generate learning benefits for both volunteers and hosts. However, we maintain that the increasing involvement of conventional tourism firms and the Thai state threatens to compromise the potential benefits of volunteer tourism.”

Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos go on to recommend four elements of good practice that might lead to positive results for host communities and volunteers alike. They are (p. 2-3):

  1. Develop linguistic competence within the ‘host’ community,
  2. Facilitate cultural learning among volunteer tourists
  3. Require that volunteers attend mandatory orientations with a focus on cultural and linguistic competence
  4. Inform host community members about the intentions and backgrounds of the volunteer tourists

[Source: Mostafanezhad, M., and Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2014). Volunteer tourism policy in Thailand. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure & Events, p. 1-5]

The authors conclude their piece with these words (p. 5):

“It is likely that volunteer opportunities will increasingly serve as one of many possible tour activities offered by established mass tourism operators in Thailand. With the marketing support of the TAT, we argue that it is increasingly imperative that established and responsible volunteer tourism organizations continue to offer an alternative to the more problematic forms of volunteer tourism that may be on the horizon in Thailand.”

A Dramatic Shift In Thailand: From Tsunami-led Voluntourism to the “Little Big Project”

As some of you may be new to volunteer tourism and voluntourism, let me take you back for a moment to the time between July 2007 and December 2008 when a young woman by the name of Helen Todd, then a student at Emerson College (now CEO of Sociality Squared), spent nearly 18 months gathering information regarding the potential of voluntourism in Thailand. During that period, Ms. Todd conducted interviews in Thailand with key stakeholders – Mrs. Varnapruk, then brand manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and Shane K. Beary, founder of Track of the Tiger. She also volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park for a week, met 20 volunteers from various destinations around the world, and spoke with staff and directors at the facility. As a final component to this time in Thailand, she wrote a paper entitled “The Exploration of Including Voluntourism in Thailand’s Destination Marketing Efforts.”

Ms. Todd speaks candidly about her interview with Ms. Varnapruk of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the concerns the country had in 2007 regarding the perception of visitors around voluntourism – in a post-tsunami setting would Thailand be perceived as a broken destination like New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Yet, it was difficult at that time not to take into consideration the importance of voluntourism as a new travel niche. Wavering back and forth between the negative perceptions and the potential of voluntourism, Ms Varnapruk was inclined to look to the United States as a model. Ms. Todd writes (p. 32-33):

“Since voluntourism in its nature is new to the tourism industry, TAT seems to be asking what voluntourism encompasses and how it should be approached from a governmental and destination marketing organization standpoint.  The TAT is looking to the United States as a model and reference for voluntourism.  More than this, TAT is hoping to work with companies and organizations in the United States to promote voluntourism in Thailand.  Mrs. Varnapruk seems to like the idea of letting American tour operators handle the organization of recruiting and sending volunteers to Thailand over having the industry be managed within the country.  Mrs. Varnapruk agrees with the notion of mixing holidays with volunteering but also makes a distinction that people can help by kinds (volunteering) or by donations.”

[Source: Todd, H. (2007). The Exploration of Including Voluntourism in Thailand’s Destination Marketing Efforts. Emerson College, MH 697, Summer I & II, 2007, Professor Anderson, (p. 1-50)]

Roughly six years after this interview, the TAT launched the “Little Big Project” (2013) to promote voluntourism in Thailand. No more does there seem to be a fear of association with a natural disaster or the negative implications of being a destination which needs assistance. TAT is moving voluntourism forward, along with a host of invested companies and entities from outside of Thailand, which raises the points of concern voiced by Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos in their paper. Is TAT doing so responsibly, with emphasis on good practice and benefits for host communities? Are outside NGOs and tourism companies taking advantage of their skills and marketing savvy, thus funneling money out of Thailand, rather than leaving those funds in the destination where they belong?

Why Voluntourism Is Failing In The Developing World

There are several points that can be raised by comparing and contrasting Helen Todd’s 18-month inquiry into the potential of voluntourism in Thailand and the work of Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos (Mostafanezhad, then Conran, spent nine months conducting ethnographic research in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and interviewed 42 volunteer tourists between October 2008 and June 2009 as part of her research). The following points speak specifically to why voluntourism is failing in the developing world:

  • First point: Voluntourism is seen as a form of tourism which can be replicated based on a model coming from, say, in this case, the United States. We know that simply will not work. Every destination has to consider the cultural implications of voluntourism for its culture and its people. Is it even appropriate? Can local residents identify with the concept? Have they, themselves, ever volunteered and traveled in other parts of the world? (Doubtful) And, how can voluntourism maintain reciprocity and destination integrity? These questions are rarely explored.
  • Second point: Voluntourism must be owned by the host destination, local communities, and local organizations. To date, voluntourism in the developing world has been primarily owned by outside organizations – be it NGOs or companies. Again, we know that such models do not work. Most of the money that can accrue to local communities through voluntourism will “leak” out of the community into the hands of foreigners. What’s more, there is no exit strategy for outside NGOs and companies, no plan for transitioning operations to local ownership. Why is voluntourism being held as a business model like other businesses in the world? Shouldn’t voluntourism operations have the goal of becoming locally-owned & operated? How much economic and social good can remain in host communities if the ownership is not there? Not much.
  • Third point: Thailand does not have the same kind of volunteer-based infrastructure that a developed destination might have. Voluntourism requires a culture around volunteering, of course, but it also requires a volunteer infrastructure that is coordinated by NGOs and local communities which have experience in working with many different types of volunteers – managing their temperaments, cultural, socio-economic, and gender-based needs & idiosyncracies, etc. And, logically, organizations & communities need regular training and education on exactly how to manage these. (To my knowledge there are no existing educational materials on voluntourism in the Thai language being circulated and offered through universities, colleges, or technical educational facilities in Thailand.) Is TAT going to provide such training? The Thai government? Outside NGOs or companies? Universities & Colleges? Likely not.
  • Final point: No data is being collected by locals. Even in this post, I am referencing researchers who are not Thai people. They are outsiders. Who among the Thai people are focused on gathering data on voluntourists: Where they come from? Why they come? What they hope to accomplish? What motivates them? Who among the Thai people are collecting information from host communities: Is voluntourism working? Is it harming communities? Is it taking away local jobs? Is it creating new ones? I know of no one.

Final Thoughts…

ShaoLan Hsueh, Founder of Chineasy

ShaoLan Hsueh, Founder of Chineasy

There are so many reasons why voluntourism is failing in the developing world. We treat it like any other form of tourism and we expect to get different results – how is such a thing possible? Researchers go in, conduct interviews, draw some conclusions, publish their data, and yet the myopia and ignorance continue because the results likely never make it back to the host communities. Instead, they are couched in language that is utterly incomprehensible, unless you have a PhD in English, and published in journals where only the educated have access to them. Again, not good.

Voluntourism had a real chance to make it in the developing world, but it appears that no one was able to see its true potential. Sadly, this is why we have so many blog posts, tweets, and articles being published about why it is so bad. Voluntourism is so bad because we are so lazy, so collectively set in our habits and conformist approaches to everything that we have, invariably, taken something with great potential and solidly stifled it, yet again, by our desire to repeat, rather than create; to compete, rather than cooperate; to debate, rather than evolve.

Imagine what host communities could do with voluntourism if all of the wisdom and insight we have gained over the past nearly 20 years of researching it could be shared with the developing world, in a manner that could be easily absorbed based on a strategy like that of ShaoLan Hsueh, for example, who developed “Chineasy.” But, we have yet to don a new era of thinking in such ways about voluntourism. For now, therefore, voluntourism will continue to be relegated to the land of failure in the developing world and that is more than sad, much, much more so.

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