I spent the past week in the San Francisco Bay Area – San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond, California – certainly a lovely part of the world. Cynthia LaGrou, founder of Compathos Foundation, and I took advantage of this backdrop to discuss voluntourism in its current iteration and what our respective roles may be in birthing a new iteration thereof.
During one of our conversations, she received a text message notifying her that Edward Snowden was being interviewed at TED 2014 in Vancouver. Notably, I was intrigued. The man who made the United States rethink its internet surveillance approach was giving his thoughts on himself, how he is viewed and perceived across the planet. Of course, it didn’t take much to think about the perceptions of voluntourism around the globe and how voluntourism is both hero and villain, with myriad opinions on its blessings and curses.
Perhaps coincidentally, the academic literature has recently published a piece on the perceptions of voluntourism by host communities and voluntourists. And, as you might imagine, the findings demonstrate that host communities perceive voluntourism very differently than voluntourists. How exactly do these perceptions differ?
Contrasting Perceptions of Voluntourism
There is much to be learned about the differing perceptions of voluntourism. Via social media, we are bombarded by the mixed messages about voluntourism coming from the perspective of voluntourists, NGOs, and the travel & tourism sector. Rarely, however, do we actually hear from host communities. Fortunately, a recent study by Haley Wright, published in the journal Tourism and Hospitality Research, indicates just how different the perceptions of host communities and voluntourists are. In Ms. Wright’s article entitled “Volunteer tourism and its (mis) perceptions: A comparative analysis of tourist/host perceptions,” three themes are discussed based on the perceptions of tourists and hosts:
- Perceived educational benefit of volunteer tourism
- Tourists living or working in the host community: Selfish or selfless perceptions?, and
- Possible contribution to community development: The unknown problems of volunteer tourism
The second item in this list provides a salient learning point for those who are looking with a closer lens at voluntourism in an attempt to consider all of the perceptions and perspectives that are taken by the various stakeholders. Ms Wright offers [p.6]:
Examined literature and prospective tourist perceptions prove that altruism is perceived to be a dominant, and important motive. However, host’s perceptions provide a different view, whereby tourist motivations are not based around ‘giving something back’, but around learning, travelling and meeting people. This indicates that the way volunteer tourism is perceived by the tourists may not be accurate, again raising concerns of false advertising and ethics and emphasising misperceptions of the sector.
When reading these words, it is relatively easy to see how individuals such as Pippa Biddle, the latest voluntourist to take a poke at her own altruistic intentions versus outcomes, would be “let down” by a given experience if she, too, had similar perceptions to those expounded by the potential voluntourists quoted in Ms. Wright’s study. If one goes into an experience with perceptions of altruism, selfless activity, etc, and, quite contrarily, experiences virtually the opposite of that, it is far more likely that an individual would use words condemning the very activity in which they had participated. Also, if there were additional hidden motives, such as the desire to be perceived by friends and family and others as “altruistic” or “selfless,” the magnitude of the reality earthquake which would shatter those possible perceptions would have an even greater “negative” impact on the voluntourist – shattered perceptions, shattered ego, shattered reality.
What Can We Learn From Host Community Perceptions of Volunteer Tourism?
Host communities seem to hold perceptions of voluntourism that are, how shall we say, more in alignment with the reality of the situation. They see voluntourism as “give-and-take.” They see voluntourists as givers and takers. For whatever reason, voluntourists just cannot look at themselves in such a way. They are emphatic in their collective belief that they are “volunteers” and “not tourists.” They want to be seen as altruists, do-gooders, etc. Host communities could do much to educate voluntourists on the reality of who and what they are – “Volunteering is not enough for them, they need other things in their life and they like to go on holiday too.” [p.8]
But hosts are not without their own challenges around perceptions, particularly those which are held in reference to celebrities and voluntourism, according to Ms. Wright [p.9]:
Respondents associating volunteer tourism with celebrities shared some common identifying factors. They were all aged below 25, with no previous volunteer experience. Their perceptions are likely to be based around televised or internet publicity. One reason could be that young people are often more celebrity conscious than older people. However, there was no apparent difference between views of potential tourists and hosts regarding celebrities, perhaps as a result of the global nature of celebritism, thus overcoming the geographic and development differences between tourists and hosts and providing them with similar perceptions of volunteer tourism.
This speaks to us about just how complex voluntourism is, especially as it pertains to perceptions.
There is so much emphasis in our world today around doing good, but very little emphasis about integrated lifestyles and approaches. Life is either this or that, one or the other. You are either a giver or a taker, a servant or a parasite. If you are not a contributor, you are the problem. No wonder potential voluntourists want to see themselves in the greatest light possible.
On the other hand, when a host community sees you as you are – both giver and taker – and you portray yourself, or hold yourself as only a giver, can you imagine how the host community might feel about you, as a voluntourist? Put yourself in their shoes. You want to be a saint, perceived as a saint, but you do not act like a saint. You clearly are getting something out of the experience. When you do not admit this, you appear as someone who cannot be trusted, or worse.
My suggestion is that you be a voluntourist. Embrace the fact that you give and you take, and that you are motivated by things which you cannot even see in yourself. You will gain from these experiences and you are a tourist, otherwise, why would you venture to a far-off land to volunteer?
Perceive yourself as a blended expression of traveler and volunteer. Integrating these aspects of yourself may bring you to a momentous realization that voluntourism can be far more beneficial to you and host communities than you could possibly imagine, if and only if, you meet the perceptions of host communities who truly see you as a mixture of traveler and volunteer. It is not easy. The ego in all of us wants to be perceived in the best possible way. If you really want to give, I suggest that you “give” your ego a serious shove to the side, humble yourself, and embrace the notion that you are not one or the other – you are both traveler and volunteer. And, having both of these aspects within you, you may discover that you are able to perform each of them in a far better way.