20 Million U.S. Voluntourists by 2020?

NBCNewsHenry Harteveldt is a name you don’t forget. I remember the first time I read his name associated with a report on voluntourism from Forrester Research back in 2007. Entitled “Go Away And Do Good: Voluntourism the Noble Niche,” Harteveldt found that approximately 3.5 million Americans, or roughly 3% of the U.S. leisure travel market were, to use the words in the report, “voluntourists.”

Fast forward to 2014, and a recent article from NBC News.com – “Travelers Inspired to Do Good While Seeing the World” – and Harteveldt’s latest research suggests that the percentage has almost tripled! Six years, triple the percentage of voluntourists. Here is what Tracy Mohn inked in her article for NBCNews.com:

An online survey of 5,000 U.S. leisure travelers conducted in the first quarter of 2014 by Harteveldt’s firm, not yet released, indicated that nearly 9 percent said they engaged in some volunteer community service work while on a trip within the past 12 months.

Back in January 2012, I was asked by Kulturaustausch Magazine to estimate the size of the worldwide market for voluntourism, which I placed at 10 million for the year 2011. This latest research from Harteveldt suggests that the U.S. market alone could be between 10 and 15 million. With the UK, Australia, Canada, the EU, Brazil, India, and Southeast Asia serving as both homes and incubators of voluntourists around the world, the number of voluntourists could easily reach 25 – 30 million by the end of this decade. At the rate of growth in the US, an average of more than 1 million additional voluntourists per year since 2007, if I am reading Harteveldt’s findings correctly, the US alone could easily reach 20 million voluntourists by 2020.

What Does This Mean For The Global Travel Market?

If the U.S. travel audience crosses the 10% mark for voluntourism, this could radically change how the world does travel. Of course, China represents the world’s largest travel audience, and voluntourism has yet to substantially move into that market the way it has in the U.S. and elsewhere; but, we could see a shift even in the Chinese market if the U.S. crosses that all-important 10% mark. [And, here we are, one year prior to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals, it may be time for the United Nations to take note of this global travel movement in a manner that steps beyond just including it in a report about global volunteering.]

Undoubtedly, the travel industry pays attention to market research. If 10% of your U.S. travel audience wants to volunteer, what do you think we will see more of in a given destination? And if the majority of that audience is the coveted 18-30 year old, female demographic, as our research on voluntourists suggests, how much more compelling do you think it will be for destination marketing organizations to collaborate with the travel industry, non-profits/NGOs, the public sector, and host communities, to identify projects which can be addressed by a passionate group of travelers?

What Does This Mean For NGOs?

NGOs and community-based organizations may not have had to deal with market forces like these previously in our collective human history. There is a surge of humanity that wants to contribute, is going to contribute. This freight train of enthusiasm is picking up the steam of a consciousness that seeks to address our global challenges, whilst simultaneously enhancing personal capacity to grow, develop, and awaken to what may be possible.

NGOs are struggling with this because they have been accustomed to a compartmentalized mentality. A “philanthropist” has been someone who works five-to-six days a week and then contributes a portion of what they earn to the good works of the world around them. Today’s “voluntourist,” however, is interested in integrating her/his “philanthropy” with her/his “leisure” with her/his “values” with her/his “life practice” – everything is becoming seamless. These individuals want to be seven-day a week, integrated beings; they do not seek to be one person when they are at work, another person when they are at play, and another person when they are in between those two major elements of their lives.

NGOs will need to adapt. And this adaptation may very well be the most important contribution that voluntourism can make in our world today.

What Does This Mean For Host Communities?

The unheard voices of host communities will need to be heard as voluntourism continues to expand globally. If communities do not want voluntourists, they will need to speak up. If they do, they will need to say what they need and how they wish for voluntourists to contribute and interact with host communities. Host communities must reserve the right to say “NO!” and the right to say how voluntourists may engage with communities. This will not be easy.

Host communities can gradually move into receiving voluntourists. Having an agreed to approach, once they have determined that they indeed wish to host voluntourists, will be invaluable. And, if they do not like what they are experiencing, they need to have an exit strategy built into their programs. Thus, evaluation of voluntourism will be an essential element to their autonomy and their ability to modify voluntourism accordingly.

Final Thoughts…

20 million U.S. voluntourists by 2020 – who would have thought that such a number would even be a consideration? And, yet, here we are with some data that makes such a number more than realistic. The U.S. is by far the leading market for voluntourism in the world today. Every year more and more Americans are venturing across the globe in hopes of seeing it, interacting with it, engaging with it, contributing to it, and experiencing personal growth and development as a result. However, the U.S. is not alone in this.

The UK, the EU, Australia, Canada, and other countries are putting billions and billions (of dollars, euros, and pounds) into moving citizens around the planet to contribute, in some small way, to the well-being of others, while personally expanding one’s own awareness of the world.

True, from an “outsider’s” perspective, voluntourism looks incredibly clumsy. It looks like ants running away from the anthill, or bees flying away from the hive. But that is because we have often considered ourselves citizens of one country, one nation. In the world of today, we must change our perspective to realize we are citizens of a planet. Voluntourism is painful to observe, most especially if we observe it from an ethnocentric perspective. If we begin to look at it from a world-centric point of view, I think we can begin to forgive ourselves for looking like such klutzes, tripping over ourselves, re-doing the same work a zillion times or more.

With a million-plus Americans joining the voluntourist ranks each year, it seems like as good a time as any to stop, breathe, and take a few moments to just let that sink in. Including the rest of the world’s population, this means that well over a million new souls are venturing out into the world with the intent of benefiting and being benefited. If I can only find the negative downsides to that, I have not stretched my imagination sufficiently. As a planet, we should be thrilled by this. We should be marveling at how our species is evolving, morphing, adapting to the changes which are occurring within and around us. With the compassion and wisdom of the ages, we may very well be able to channel this intention by skillful means into something that genuinely serves us all.

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