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!


Voluntourism Comment of the Week

The Daily BanterCyberspace has been abuzz with commentary on voluntourism over the past couple of weeks. And, I think this is something that we can all celebrate on some level. Though we may have our difficulties and challenges with the convergence of travel & tourism and voluntary service, it appears that we are all speaking a common language underneath it all – “Let’s do this better,” whatever “this” is.

Of course, the vast majority of the opinions on this subject are generated from every angle except that of host communities. We will attempt to address this beginning in August with a project we will unveil in the near future. In the meantime, I thought I would take a moment to share a comment I posted on The Daily Banter which was listed as “comment of the week” in response to a post by Kyle Burgess entitled “The Problem with Ignorant and Delusional Little White Girls (and Boys).”


Thanks for taking the time to post.

The beauty of all of this, as Ken Wilber would say, is that “everyone is right.” To what degree they “are right” is something worthy of exploration.

I like the fact that Ms. Biddle had the courage to put this out there. Do I hold what she offers as something we can generalize across the entire world, much less the “white” world, no, I do not.

All of humanity is making an individual and collective effort to awaken, to expand, to attain enlightenment – whatever that is. The challenge is we all have to be present to watch the awkward steps which each of us, and all of us, take along that journey. It can be devastatingly ugly to observe if there is even a slight bit of judgment running through our veins.

If, however, we can watch and observe and embrace that unfolding journey, similarly to what we might do with a child learning to crawl or walk, we might discover some self-compassion and collective-compassion for each and all of us respectively.

Voluntourism can be the ugliest thing in the world; it can also be the most vibrant – spiritually, mentally, and physically – inspirational experience for all who enter the sphere of influence which makes that experience possible in the first place. The beauty is that each of us has a choice as to how that unfolds and the perspectives we take when observing it.

Likewise, we can improve voluntourism by learning how to manage it better on behalf of all stakeholders. This is not an easy task. It takes great courage. It also requires that we not look at voluntourism as an answer, a solution, but as a stepping stone in our own collective unfoldment. The more we can see it for what it is, the less we will judge it, and ourselves.

Final Thoughts…

If we can take away anything from this comment and the comments and blog posts and tweets on voluntourism which have erupted across cyberspace over the past couple of weeks, let it be that voluntourism is “a stepping stone in our own collective unfoldment.” If we hold it as a finish line, which is what we as finite beings are prone to do, we will lose sight of what voluntourism can be in our world. We will aim to place it on a pedestal or in a trash heap, rather than experience it as a next step in our journey towards a better world.

Our struggle is an honorable one. We point the finger at voluntourism because this is what humans do – we love to project our own inner conundrums and challenges on the world around us. Instead, we can use voluntourism as a catalyst to unearth our internal struggles with a world that is both unceasingly promising and seemingly abysmal simultaneously. The tension around that paradox is quite often more than we can take. We lash out at anything – ourselves, our friends, our family, our nation, our world, and even voluntourism. It is part of growing up and waking up. And all of it, however unseemly it may be in our present awareness, is monumentally significant in our personal and collective growth & development.

So, here’s to voluntourism – a catalyst for human growth & development in the 21st Century!

Cities of Service Awardees Could Boost U.S. Voluntourism in 2014

Cities of ServiceThe voluntourism sector in the U.S. received a fairly significant boost today with the announcement of the Cities of Service Awardees.

23 cities in the U.S. will receive a total of $1 million USD in 2014 to address specific goals – all to be supported by volunteer-based efforts. Convention & visitors bureaus (CVBs), chambers of commerce, and other destination marketing organizations (DMOs) in these cities will now have an opportunity to build on these awards, perhaps drawing not only domestic voluntourists but even international ones to support the projects set forth by the mayors of the following 23 cities:

• Allentown, PA Mayor Ed Pawlowski
• Atlanta, GA Mayor Kasim Reed
• Austin, TX Mayor Lee Leffingwell
• Birmingham, AL Mayor William A. Bell, Sr.
• Buffalo, NY Mayor Byron W. Brown
• Campton Hills, IL Mayor Patsy Smith
• Charleston, SC Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.
• Fall River, MA Mayor William A. Flanagan
• Flint, MI Mayor Dayne Walling
• Hartford, CT Mayor Pedro E. Segarra
• Hayward, CA Mayor Michael Sweeney
• Kalamazoo, MI Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell
• Kansas City, KS Mayor Mark R. Holland
• Louisville, KY Mayor Greg Fischer
• Mesa, AZ Mayor Scott Smith
• Milwaukee, WI Mayor Tom Barrett
• Nashville, TN Mayor Karl Dean
• Orlando, FL Mayor Buddy Dyer
• Philadelphia, PA Mayor Michael A. Nutter
• Richmond, CA Mayor Gayle McLaughlin
• San Jose, CA Mayor Chuck Reed
• Utica, NY Mayor Robert Palmieri
• Washington, DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray 

Some of the names on this list should be familiar to those who have followed voluntourism over the last decade. Atlanta, GA, Austin, TX, Nashville, TN, Orlando, FL, Philadelphia, PA, and Washington, DC either have strong voluntourism programs or tourism-related businesses which offer voluntourism programs in these destinations. CVBs and DMOs in these communities will likely be delivering this message to the tourism sector in the days and weeks ahead – something to certainly jumpstart the New Year.

Will these mayors be preparing to tap inbound voluntourists to assist them with their initiatives in 2014? We can only hope so!

€14.7 Billion for Erasmus+: Implications for Voluntourism?

https://i0.wp.com/europa.eu/rapid/themes/newsroom/wel/template-2011/images/europa-flag.gifHope you caught the announcement from the European Commission today – “Green light for Erasmus+: More than 4 million to get EU grants for skills and employability.” The press release has at least one item of interest for the voluntourism world and that is:

More than 500 000 young people will be able to volunteer abroad or participate in youth exchanges

(BTW: This is something the U.S. Congress tried to put together years ago with advocacy from the Building Bridges Coalition. It never reached fruition.)

The Erasmus+ effort looks like it has some promise, particularly as a continuation of past efforts within the European Commission. The question for us: “Are there any implications for voluntourism as a result of this announcement?”

Looking Back…

Some of my original arguments against U.S. Congressional funding for volunteering abroad will apply in this case. Immediate questions include: “Who, i.e., participants, will be eligible to receive funds?” “Which entities will be eligible, e.g., are there any exclusions based on ‘for-profit’ vs. ‘non-profit,’ do the entities have to be incorporated within the EU, etc.”? “If there are exclusions, how will this change the balance of the volunteering abroad community?” “Will entities be held to certain criteria regarding their operations?” “Because volunteering abroad requires hands-on guidance with volunteers, will the EU be looking to advance local youth employment and employability in host destinations as well?” “Will the EU offer a matching grant option for some of the grant money to leverage the funds and broaden the base of participants?” And the list goes on.

Looking Forward…

https://i2.wp.com/www.atlas-webshop.org/WebRoot/StoreNL/Shops/61492534/47B9/596C/CE45/318F/28F2/C0A8/28B9/C09A/ATL_00073.jpgClearly, any funding that is earmarked to move more volunteers around the planet, in this case up to 500,000 more, is significant. If we hold that the 2008 TRAM ATLAS Report – “Volunteer tourism: A global analysis” – represents the most accurate numbers on volunteering abroad –

Based on our survey of over 300 volunteer tourism organisations worldwide, we estimate that overall the market has grown to a total of 1.6 million volunteer tourists a year, with a value of between £832m and £1.3bn ($1.7bn – $2.6bn). The most substantial growth in the sector has taken place since 1990.”

– then this infusion by the EU will represent a potential 33% increase!

What is more compelling, however, is that these funds will be earmarked for EU residents. This could double, triple, even quadruple, or more, the number of individuals volunteering abroad from certain EU States. And, if these young people return to their homes and share their stories with families and friends, we could see a significant jump in the voluntourism market in the EU over the next 5 – 10 years, something that I certainly did not consider, given the growth of domestic & international voluntourists from the South East Asia market and India, China and Korea.

Final Thoughts…

One of these days, North America, South America, South East Asia, and the Middle East will band together in a similar fashion as the EU has and create mechanisms for moving young people around the planet to engage in voluntary service. If a unified world is the goal, which hopefully it is, these service engagements play a two-fold role – 1) opening the field of volunteering abroad to individuals who could not otherwise participate in such experiences, and 2) connecting cultures across borders to uncover the potentialities of a more inter-dependent world.

The task will not be a simple one. The EU will need much support to see this reach greater heights of possibility. Doubtless, they will have some sharp folks looking into this. Let’s hope they have plenty of voluntourism field experience to fall back on.