U.S. National Parks 100th! — How Will It Change Voluntourism Forever?

25 August 2016.

If you haven’t done so already, mark your calendars for the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. National Parks.

In the meantime, the lead up to the Centennial may prove to be one of the most significant milestones in the ongoing evolution of Voluntourism. If there was ever a time for the “Developed World” to show humanity that Voluntourism is more than just a sport for Northerners going South, then this may be that moment.

I would wager that pretty much every large multinational corporation and hospitality & tourism company will be aligning itself with the U.S. National Parks Centennial Celebration – – demonstrating its own form of corporate social responsibility. Billions of dollars in cash and in-kind (e.g., volunteering) contributions will likely be earmarked over the next 16 – 18 months for brands and their employees to share in all that the U.S. National Parks represent – the environment, recreation, memories, iconic scenery – and so much, MUCH, more!

We will see an unprecedented wave of volunteering reverberating throughout the United States as people from all over the world will be drawn to do their part to pitch-in and infuse these heritage sites with maintenance, renovations, and even new structures and trails, as well as leave a legacy for the next 100 years’ worth of visitors. Voluntour groups with their commemorative Centennial t-shirts will be heading to National Parks in swarms, generating selfies with historic structures, trees, cacti, geysers, mudpots, mountains, bisons, and bears that will make the orphan voluntourism selfies on Tinder envious beyond measure.

Voluntourism critics will be hard-pressed to wrangle support for ending anything related to voluntourism in U.S. National Parks. And, when all is said and done, we should have an abundance of contributions for voluntourism (and voluntourists) #worthyofimitation.

Lest we get carried away here, let’s take a moment to explore how this Centennial could shift the global perception of voluntourism. There are really three central points that come to mind when we consider the implications. First, Voluntourism will have a new geography – the Global North. Second, Voluntourism will be aligned with the environment, nature, preservation, and legacy. And third, Voluntourism may have a significant chance to quantify its socio-economic contribution to communities.

Voluntourism in the Global North

One of the great voluntourism myths of the past decade has been that voluntourists move from the North to the South only. It simply isn’t true. Probably the most comprehensive study on voluntourism was conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics back in 2008. The findings revealed that of the approximately 4.7 million Americans who volunteered more than 120 miles from their home in 2007, roughly 3.7 million of them did so domestically – a mere 1.056 million did so internationally. So 3 out of every 4 American voluntourists didn’t show up in orphanages in Cambodia or South Africa or Nepal, or anywhere else in the world. They showed up in places like New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and, as you might have guessed, in U.S. National Parks.

In the next 18 months, the U.S. National Parks will give us a chance to remind our planet once more that voluntourism is as much (if not more so) a Global North-North phenomenon as it is a Global North-South phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this will not be an easy myth to dismiss. Nonetheless, this may be the best opportunity, sans the gravity of a natural disaster, to ever present itself for those who see real value in Global North voluntourism.

Voluntourism Aligned with the Environment, Nature, Preservation, and Legacy

Voluntourism in the U.S. National Parks is another chance to do some myth-busting, with a shift from the global perception that voluntourists are orphanage-bound and child-assistance-centric in their motivations. In all of our research over the past decade, we have found that more voluntourists are interested in supporting the environment than any other cause or issue. Certainly, one would think this would have some sex-appeal, given the state of the world’s natural habitats, global climate change, and the rise of environmental disasters. Yet, it seems to go unnoticed in social media and in the media in general.

Having the U.S. National Parks as a major focus for voluntourism over the next 18 months will give bloggers and journalists, tweeters and likers, Mashers and Redditors a chance to shine some light on Mother Nature, U.S. history, and some really amazing stories about some significantly beautiful expressions of what humanity can do when it puts its mind to preservation and the establishment of legacies for future generations.

Socio-Economic Impact of Voluntourism?

This third item requires a question mark. Why, you may ask? The only way that we will be able to know to what extent voluntourism really is a socio-economic contributor is by measuring it. The U.S. National Parks, along with all of the stakeholders that move voluntourists in and out of National Parks over the next 18 months, and voluntourists themselves, will need to measure the socio-economic footprint of all voluntourists. Besides just some general demographic information, we want to know answers to some really important questions:

  1. Where do voluntourists go?
  2. What do voluntourists do when they get to these parks?
  3. How long do voluntourists stay?
  4. How many jobs are created as a result of their presence in the Parks and surrounding communities?
  5. Do voluntourists volunteer in places other than the Parks, i.e., do they volunteer in a nearby community as well?
  6. How much does a typical voluntourist spend?
  7. Do voluntourists volunteer and tour?
  8. How many voluntourists design their own experiences and how many utilize the services of a coordinating entity?
  9. What impacts are felt as a result of their presence (positive & negative)?
  10. Are there notable distinctions between voluntourists and regular tourists?

And, of course, there are many more rich questions which can and ought to be explored. The BIG question, obviously, is this: “Will the stakeholders, including the U.S. National Parks, take the time to set up a mechanism for measuring the influx of voluntourists and all that accompanies their influx?”

Final Thoughts…

The Centennial Celebration of the U.S. National Parks really can change the way we attend to voluntourism across our planet. The chance to measure, to prod, to poke, to inspect, to dissect voluntourism, and to engage numerous stakeholders in the process, is beyond unprecedented!

Most U.S. National Parks, for example, will have cellular telephone service which provides us the option to use GPS location, instant messaging, blogging, and social media in real-time to garner a broad-spectrum snapshot of what is happening in the context of voluntary service and travel. With 401 U.S. National Parks to choose from, voluntourists will be able to adjust their movements, especially, if we keep a running tabulation of which Parks are receiving more support. We can, in essence, develop a comprehensive, fully-aware system of voluntourism that can literally learn from itself. Running tabulations of service and expenditure can be shared across the entire gamut of individuals, families, corporations, nature clubs, social networks – anyone interested in voluntourism in U.S. National Parks –  and the global community at large.

The effort must be comprehensive, it must have the support of stakeholders – ALL stakeholders, and it must have the collective vision of a planet interested in seeing what voluntourism can do when we do it consciously, seamlessly, with a sincere interest to unleash its potential!


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