Voluntourism – What’s Not To Hate?


Image from “HotelsCheap.org”

Confounding neologism that it is, and utterly repulsive to the non-self-indulgent of our planet, it is difficult to find anything of merit when it comes to intersecting voluntary service and travel. At every turn, there is ample ammunition to maintain the functionality of even the most inaccurate of firing squads. Sometimes, it appears that the greatest service voluntourism has to offer the world is as a punching bag for our collective self-loathing. What we may hate in ourselves, but be unwilling to own or admit, we can project onto voluntourism, because it is just so appalling to our sensibilities. Whoever thought that travel & tourism could become conscientious? Idiotic, indeed.

Yet, in our present world situation, we need everything, and I mean EVERY THING, to grow a conscience. Maybe voluntourism is not a word that people like, maybe it is filled with flagrant misrepresentations of what may or may not be possible. Somehow, though, we need a reminder that our survival as a species depends on our ability to integrate the most awfully-perplexing aspects of ourselves with the hope of our cooperative kinship. If the “fracking” operator feels disconnected from the whole, how can s/he feel that the planet’s, and most apropos, humanity’s, survival lies in the balance of her/his activities?

Travel & tourism represents one of the largest industries in the world. It is a service-based industry, this means that people who generally step into the workspace realize that, on some level, they need to be of service. Is this so diametrically opposed to voluntary service? The attitude seems consistent, however, we have an extraordinary disconnect. Or do we?

Service Is As Service Does

If there is one thing we can really hate about voluntourism, it has to be our expectations of it. We put tights and a cape on voluntourism and expect it to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Unless we are writing a comic book, slating voluntourism as the heroine, this seems to be a fantasy on the road to nowhere. Yet we keep sidling up to voluntourism as though it is meant to save us from something. Granted, there is a lot to be saved from, we have gotten ourselves into a hornets’ nest worth of troubles. But why has voluntourism become the poster child for rescuing the planet?

We need to let our service speak for itself, as a gesture, not an answer, not a solution. We pick voluntourism apart because it isn’t service-full enough, because it doesn’t leave a legacy of change for generations to come. Yet this raises a question: Is anything truly sustainable on a planet that has already passed the 350 mark?

Final Thoughts…

iec_headlogo_326x101I am leaving later today for Budapest, Hungary, to attend the Integral European Conference. There will be a number of noted speakers there discussing the importance of integration and inter-penetration of philosophies, business, society, and the public sector, to name a few. Not surprisingly, there will be no one talking about the integration of travel & tourism and voluntary service into the grand scheme of waking up humanity to a more well-rounded awareness of itself, its interdependence with Nature, and beyond. We haven’t gotten to this point in our view of voluntourism as an essential element of human life practice. It will happen, of course, we just haven’t arrived at that station quite yet.

Voluntourism is catalyzing some of the most heated debates that the travel & tourism and social sectors have seen in quite some time. We might want to pay closer attention to this, if for no other reason than to uncover why voluntourism is so hated. If one word, one concept, can generate this kind of social media coverage (and don’t forget the mainstream media coverage, as well), we have to consider that we have found something of value, or, at the very least, something worth exploring further.

For now, we will have to settle with the controversial nature of voluntourism as we deal with our tension around integration. I am hopeful that I will learn some things while in Budapest this week that I can share with you in terms of research and discussions on the human response to integration. The hatred for voluntourism may actually be a sign of progress. I certainly hope so.


From Voluntourism To Travel+Social Good

Travel Plus Social GoodOn Friday 20 September 2013, members of the travel & tourism sector, the third sector, and the social media virtual-verse will find their way to the MRY offices in Manhattan to discuss, you guessed it, the intersection of the multi-trillion dollar tourism industry and social good – Travel+Social Good. Wish I could be there for that discussion; alas, duties here in Bolivia will keep me plenty occupied, but hopefully the group will capture the experience in tweets and blog posts for us to distill what we can from long distance. For me, it’s refreshing to see this collective congregating in New York ahead of the UN General Assembly. With less than 2 years until the MDGs “expire,” we have to start thinking about what lies ahead in a world that will clearly not achieve those goals by 2015. If we are ever to achieve these goals, the virtual-verse, the third sector, and travel & tourism will definitely need to engage in a coordinated effort.

Before that becomes too formalized, however, there are a few things that I hope the group in New York will consider as they come together this Friday…

Addressing the Judgment of the Social Media Community

One thing that I hope will be discussed in New York is how to address the judgment that is so easily passed in the virtual realm. Social media, as incredibly valuable as it has become in bringing about positive social change, has also brought with it such things as social-bullying and, in relation to the intersection of travel and tourism, a sometimes vitriolic judgment, readily spewed in the direction of those attempting to bring about positive change. Doubtless, some of you read about the Hewitt’s, a well-off South African family, who spent a month living in Mamelodi, outside of Pretoria. The tweets expressed in The New York Times piece and the comments that follow demonstrate some of the vehemence expressed at the tap of a finger or click of a mouse.

There is no question that everyone deserves the opportunity to have their own judgments and feelings about what others do, but we have created a mechanism for readily affording that voice a chance to express itself in a manner that can impact others quite negatively – the advent of social media has led to the dissipation of anonymity and anonymity from judgment. Indeed, there was a time when anonymity was celebrated in the realm of do-gooding. In truth, the extinction of social anonymity has likely contributed to the growth in social do-gooding, I would not argue against this; however, the epidemic of social judgment has the power to paralyze a connected generation as they may fear becoming pariah in our world where “social untouchability” is possibly as psychologically and emotionally challenging as it was in the days when Gandhi addressed it with his Satyagrahis in India.

Travel & Tourism: From Economic Impact to Social Transparency, Efficiency, and Community Benefit?

Another point that I hope will be discussed in New York is the advancement of the travel & tourism sector as one of the most powerful delivery systems for social good in the world today. Certainly this is evident in the realm of voluntourism, socially responsible tourism, philanthropic travel, and corporate social responsibility via incentive travel programs and events in host cities like New Orleans. The challenge is that the amount of delivery that is occurring is not being measured. It is one thing to bring social good and travel together, but how do we measure it? How do we determine its impact at the community level? Is it efficient? It certainly is not transparent. Is it being leveraged? Does it fit within the framework of what is being done through the public sector?

When we discuss such things, it sounds very similar to what the official development assistance (ODA or Aid) community has attempted to address during the past 10 years or so – the Paris Declaration, the Accra Summit, and the formation of IATI – the International Aid Transparency Initiative. With an industry as large as tourism, interconnected with social good, and backed by social media, the movement toward transparency could advance far more quickly than the nearly 60 years it took for the Aid community to strengthen its position on this point. The tourism sector has thus far focused attention on measuring its economic impact. With social good, there is an opportunity to add the measurement of social impact. It will take effort, of course, but this may be the place to kickstart it.

Setting Generational Goals and Managing Expectations

The final point that I would like to see addressed in New York is discussion regarding the setting of goals and management of expectations. Working with an industry that moved more than 1 billion people internationally in 2012 and generated more than $6 trillion is an incredible task. When you consider the magnitude of social media and the third sector, the numbers and interconnectedness boggle the mind. Integrating these systems and approaches will not be an overnight project, nor will it be a five- or ten-year project. For this kind of integration we must think in terms of generations; otherwise, we will have a set of expectations similar to those set forth in the MDGs and in 15 years time we will be disappointed. Rather, wouldn’t we all want to be celebrating because we set the time frame at a much grander scale or we crafted a set of goals that were far more within reason?

This gathering will see people who have set goals and achieved them, in some cases far beyond the expectations and imaginings of even themselves. However, what can be done through integrating Travel+Social Good could really change the world. Such profound change deserves long-term vision, patience, and regular management of expectations. I am hopeful that this group will be able to start that process.

Final Thoughts…

Being on the ground here in Bolivia, I am constantly reminded that what happens in the virtual world is but one expression of what is happening in the world of reality. I spend my time in a virtual world, too. It is a world of models and discussions on how to connect the social media world with the reality of what is happening on the ground in a small community called MonteCristo or Santa Rita or Bella Vista – where the populations may be smaller than the number of “friends” or “contacts” that most people have on their Facebook pages or in their LinkedIn networks. At the end of the day, those billion travelers and their trillions of dollars will come to rest in a community. What those people and those dollars do can be guided through the world of social media. It is a magnificent opportunity; it is a humbling responsibility. Here’s wishing the folks in New York a big “Buena Suerte” from Santa Cruz de la Sierra!