Faith Ong, Leonie Lockstone-Binney, Brian King, and Karen Smith have produced an article for the Journal of Travel Research entitled “The Future of Volunteer Tourism in the Asia-Pacific Region: Alternative Prospects.” In the piece, the authors provide three options as to the probable outcomes for voluntourism in the Asia-Pacific Region by 2050. Tying in academic research regarding current and past trends in volunteer tourism, as well as the outlook for tourism and economic growth in the region, the authors provide scenarios that run the gamut: holding steady, advancing growth, and utter collapse – clearly, nothing was left to chance.
Looking 35 years into the future on volunteer tourism is not something that you see every day in the academic literature. In fact, the study represents a first of its kind. So, we may not want to become too enamored with the findings of the researchers as much as we may want to consider the implications of such a study. Thus, before we unveil what the researchers offer as their predictions, we have an important question: Why would researchers take the time to explore volunteer tourism this far into the future, particularly in this part of the world?
The Shift In Economic Power: From West To East
Of primary significance in the query put forth by the researchers is the growing strength of the economic power of the East. China and India are well on their way to being the number 1 and number 2 economies in the world. Growing middle classes have the purchasing power to make travel a reality for themselves. Education, too, is something that is vastly expanded across the populations, compared to what it once was. Lifestyles are improving for percentages of populations that may be similar to what they were during the industrial revolution in the West, however, a small percentage of nearly 3 billion people in the region is much larger than what it is for the 1 billion or so in the West. The resulting demographic changes with new wealth distribution can represent 3-times the number of individuals stepping into a new-found economic potential. And when leisure meets the middle class with that significant of a population set, we can see why researchers would be interested in exploring future predictions about how this advancing middle class will spend its income.
Social Responsibility: Does The Eastern Hemisphere Hold It With The Same Regard?
Perhaps this is THE question to ask. We know there is an economic shift in power. We know that Australia and New Zealand are small source markets compared to the 2 billion-plus residents between India and China. So, what we need to better understand is whether these two population/economic powerhouses can also muster a significant degree of social responsibility amongst the peoples.
Natural disasters and climate change, as the authors point out, will certainly drive reactive volunteer tourism. What we do not know is whether the cultural expressions of religion, for example, and the values of different population sets will generate a similar sense of social responsibility. Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all have elements of the value of service and of making contribution to the well-being of other sentient beings as part of their practices. As such, we may see, rather than an expansion of international volunteer tourism in the region, an expansion of domestic/culture-centric volunteer tourism. The latter of these could prove to be the most interesting – wealthy individuals of a given faith-practice supporting the impoverished of the same. Where as the former could represent a sense of national pride and collective investment in the well-being of the “state.” Such drivers are not so much connected to a sense of social responsibility as they are a direct product of cultural norms and values.
The Three Predictions
The authors outlined three scenarios. They are as follows:
- Stable and principled volunteer tourism – “The first scenario proposes that volunteer tourism continues substantially in its current form, following the established and predominantly Western-based paradigm.” [p.7]
- Volunteer tourism at the vanguard – “As the incidence of discerning travel outgrows more massified forms of tourism, the attractiveness of volunteer tourism will spread across the Asia-Pacific region encompassing the emerging middle classes of developing countries as well as established source markets.” [p.7]
- Volunteer tourism is discredited and superseded – Poorly operated volunteer tourism programs will gain the disfavor of the general public and volunteer tourism will be shunned by the masses; simultaneously, new approaches to “virtual” volunteering will emerge affording individuals a chance to serve remotely, non-intrusively, in the context of host communities.
There is some very good news to consider when reviewing this study. First, the three scenarios outlined by the authors are all plausible and can be applied to other parts of the world. Second, the study certainly makes strong points about the likelihood of volunteer tourism being discredited if practitioners fail to do a better job of improving their activities with guidelines and mechanisms for considering and caring for all stakeholders. Given that this particular shortcoming of voluntourism is already finding its way into the media, we can only imagine that the years ahead will not see a silencing of the media if we fail to address it.
What the authors do not discuss here is whether voluntourism will simply become “the norm” for travel. Might we one day lose the defining characteristic of being of service as a point of separation from “mass tourism,” i.e., voluntary service becomes so integrated into travel that we do not consider volunteering as distinction therefrom? I would sincerely hope that by 2050 we would be much closer to this integration than we are today. In fact, we may discover that it is quite necessary in the years ahead.
Far from perfect, voluntourism still intrigues us. We see something of value here – the foundational values of voluntourism are worthy of exploration. Yet again, a group of academics is diving into this subject and this should cause us to pause momentarily, to recognize that voluntourism is a significant contributor to our planet. We simply need to put forth the effort to improve it. 35 years of improvement lies ahead of us before 2050 – are we ready to embrace the opportunity?