Bold Voluntourism Move by Carnival: Will Critics Sink Its Fathom Bid?

Fathom LogoCruise Lines have been toying with voluntourism for nearly a decade now. I first covered this story back in 2007 when I interviewed Jeff Krida, head of Cruise West at the time, who was responsible for launching the line’s voluntourism program. Sweet, a travel company catering to Lesbians, had a six-year run (filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the US in 2014) with voluntourism cruises starting in New Orleans with ports of call in Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and Roatan, Honduras. Crystal Cruises launched their voluntourism program – “You Care, We Care” – just around the turn of the most recent decade, and has continued to build on this with each passing year – adding volunteer shore excursions at different destinations. And now, the latest entry on the list, Carnival Corp.

According to the press release on this, Tara Russell will be heading up this truly bold voluntourism move by Carnival. It will not be an easy task.

Enduring the Criticism

The social media vitriol will be difficult to ignore. Academics & students, NGO practitioners, aid & development workers, and a host of others will take swipes at Carnival, as they have at just about every effort the travel & tourism industry has made to integrate volunteering into their product and service offerings. Since Ian Birrell landed his punches against the tourism sector with the anti-orphanage voluntourism piece in The Observer back in 2010, the condescending, withering tones of the better-informed have been directed towards the travel & tourism field, any for-profit company really, advancing into the helping business. The barrage has been incessant, unwavering, and filled with good intentions gone to Hell.

How well Ms. Russell and Carnival handle this pressure will go a long way into telling us to what degree this is a true social investment for the brand.

Unlike the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, which launched its voluntourism program – Give Back Getaways – prior to the 2008 Global Economic Meltdown – April 2008 to be exact, Carnival is a latecomer to the world voluntourism stage. Seven years later, Give Back Getaways is still a corporate cultural expression of its Community Footprints social responsibility effort. The company has not deviated from this. Carnival, on the other hand, is stepping into a very different environment, one that features great skepticism regarding the outcomes and impacts of short-term voluntary service. Will we see Fathom seven years from now, despite the criticism the company will endure?

Will Cruisers Pay?

And, of course, there is the bigger question: Will clients pay to volunteer on a cruise?

Most cruise-based voluntourism programs have engaged travelers in free, half-day and day-long volunteer activities in different destinations. Instead of participating in other shore excursions, cruise passengers have elected to volunteer in numerous roles – refurbishing schools, construction, environmental projects – the list is long and varied. Payments, however, have been minimal. Individuals have most often paid money in the form of donations to support projects into the future. The scheme being used by Carnival’s Fathom looks to be quite different, perhaps taking some inputs from Mercy Ships, among others, which have engaged volunteers in longer-term, at-sea experiences.

These trips will not be free. They will be an estimated $230 per day/per person. In our research at, we found the price point for voluntourism to be somewhere between $100 – $150USD per day/per person, all-inclusive. Of course, this is an average, and not necessarily representative of higher-end travelers willingness to pay. But, this price tag could cut out the Millennials who are the audience most likely to participate in voluntourism according to the latest research from Chase.

Final Thoughts…The Importance of Transparency

In the 15 years I have covered voluntourism, I have seen many programs launched by the travel industry. Often, these programs are put forth in response to market-driven forces – consumers, after all, want to give back. It is a rare few which are put forth as a socially responsible integration with holistic sustainability objectives established at the C-Suite level.

If this is indeed the latter, then Carnival may be onto something. It will be an endurance contest in the beginning – Ms. Russell and the Carnival Team will be front-loaded with skeptics. The good news is that Carnival has a number of ways to approach skeptics as the days, weeks, and months progress.


From the very beginning, Carnival can track the social impact footprint of their efforts. These results can be published for all to review. They can follow this with testimonials from the host communities and from participants alike. They can be utterly and completely transparent from the start – how many jobs are they creating for local residents? What socio-economic outcomes stay within the communities? Does, for example, a greater percentage of their revenues find its way into the host communities, as compared to those generated by other product & service offerings in other markets?

Reporting of results will be what consumers and critics and host communities will want to see. Is Carnival ready to share these details with the planet? It may be the only way Carnival can ensure that the company and its clients truly make a difference.

Ending Humanitarian Douchery: Can Voluntourism Become #worthyofimitation?

endhumanitariandoucheryWell, I must admit that I didn’t see this one coming. Nope, totally missed the tea leaves that foreshadowed this contrivance of social media-driven, voluntourism call-out.

Earlier this week, The Guardian brought our attention to the latest (yet another) branded campaign around voluntourism – one to #endhumantariandouchery (#mendnotend, #thinkchildsafe, being other examples). Undoubtedly, Millennials are taking us on a self-deprecating journey through our own collective, short-sighted, ethno-global altruism. Pippa Biddle most recently relaunched this party on the heels of the work of Daniela Papi, Ian Birrell, and numerous others, and it has been a steamroller ever since.

What do we make of all of this?!?

The Social Media Anti-Voluntourism “Bully” Pulpit

I grew up in the Southeastern part of the United States. As a youth, I made regular appearances in Baptist and Methodist churches on Sunday mornings. The ministers would regularly stand in front of the church-goers and talk about heathens and people who were going to Hell for failing to believe!

“Bible thumping” and the “bully pulpit” were the terms often uttered as descriptors of this prime directive delivered by certain ministers. It wasn’t so much the message as much as it was the vehemence with which the message was communicated.

Social media has taken the bully pulpit metaphor (did Theodore Roosevelt really bring this term to life?), augmented it, and given it an infusion of global peer pressure. Social media does not merely serve as a platform for voicing a specific agenda; social media has become a place to utilize one’s social media cache and “bully” individuals into believing that what they are doing is actually harmful, racist, colonialist, and, expletive-deleted, wrong!

One family of five voluntourists recently published a blog post regarding a series of tweets that spoke to this very experience. A member of the Twitterati gave “Mel” (Melissa) a reason to ink the following:

“Recently, I had my first social media ‘heated discussion’.  A follower (let’s call them Fran*) offered some advice to travel responsibly by not voluntouring, because “most volunteering overseas is irresponsible”. She implied that voluntourists are motivated by, and would likely only positively effect, their own emotional state (i.e.: feeling good about themselves).  She had some genuine concerns about the commercial voluntourism operators and seemed well-versed in some of the problems with international development efforts.  But, she lumped all voluntourism together saying that any promotion of the concept is unethical and promotes child abuse.  I thought that was a bit extreme, to say the least.

*I want to protect the identity of this person as much as I’m able, because I would never condone anyone trying to argue with another person on my behalf, nor bullying nor any on-line or real life nastiness.”

Is what we think about voluntourism and how we proselytize our thoughts, beliefs, and convictions to others about it becoming worse than voluntourism itself?

Defusing Anti-Voluntourism Bullying

Whether we are “ending humanitarian douchery” or claiming that little white girls and boys are muddying up the development waters of our planet, it seems that, for the most part, the majority of social media critics are interested in bringing to an end the irresponsible elements surrounding voluntourism. (Kudos to all!) What is slightly intimidating about social media, however, is the speed and breadth with which beliefs can spread across the internet. Campaigns are launched in milliseconds and viral appreciation can take the ramblings of a neophyte and transform them into the irrefutable facts of the moment.

Does this make the opinion a fact? The contents of that opinion factual? Not at all. What it does do, however, is provide such an individual with a sense of knowing, a sense of perceived awareness regarding a topic. Compounding this are the individuals who read these words and begin to propagate them as though they represent the “gospel” (can you see where this is going?) on voluntourism. The “Bully Pulpit,” in essence, has gone virtual; cyberspace is the new church and followers are the new congregations. Missionaries of this anti-voluntourism gospel are insistent and incessant when it comes to spreading the word. They deliver anti-voluntourism propaganda as a new breed of proselytes, never questioning whether they even know what voluntourism is. They are believers in the crusade and, therefore, will be saved from ever being a voluntourist (read: heathen).

One of the challenges of our day is to stand up to any social media-driven anti-voluntourism bullying, just as we would stand up to harmful practices being perpetrated by the most ignorant of voluntourism operators. The world fields a significant collection of unregulated and/or poorly-crafted voluntourism programs – no one denies this – and “ending humanitarian douchery” is a provocative approach to eliminating such practices. On the other hand, the world fields some remarkable voluntourism programs (and some amazing human beings who indeed see themselves as voluntourists) that are worthy of our respect and the highest form of flattery – our imitation. Are we doing enough through social media to recognize these programs (and individuals)?

worthyofimitation1Final Thoughts…

Perhaps we need a social media campaign with this hashtag: #worthyofimitation

I have been at this long enough, come into contact with enough programs and enough individuals, to unequivocally state that there are some truly remarkable approaches to voluntourism (programs AND people). Yes, I realize that the negativity, the sarcasm, the snarky is what lifts the social media likes and re-tweets, but isn’t there a little something about that which seems counter-intuitive? If one is attempting to bring value into existence, is it likewise necessary to dismember something (or someone) else in the process?

#worthyofimitation definitely requires individuals to do their homework, to really take a hard, long look at what they are honoring and respecting about voluntourism via a small grassroots organization in Cambodia, or a large operation in Ghana – any size, anywhere, across the globe. (It takes an equal, perhaps greater, amount of courage to recognize an individual or family traveling and serving thus.) A significant part of what most individuals are reviewing is the impact on the host community, the impact on participants, the impact on the hosting organizations – how are each of these stakeholders being influenced by the very existence of a voluntourism program? What we may not be prepared to do is to evaluate these programs with an awareness that maybe, just maybe, the most important impact for host communities is an economic one, NOT a socially benevolent one. Are we prepared to face that reality? And is this impact sufficient enough to warrant imitation?

Nobody wants to be a douchebag, especially a humanitarian douchebag, right?!? And nobody wants to recommend something that perpetuates the creation thereof. The question of the day, then, is this: “How many of us are actually willing to step forward and use our social media cache to identify voluntourism programs AND voluntourists #worthyofimitation?

Voluntourism 4.0: Extracting Maslow from Voluntourism

MaslowI spent last week in the United Kingdom speaking with the Team at Complete Coherence in Romsey, England, and interacting with academics and practitioners at the first of a six-part seminar series funded by the Economic & Social Research Council held at the University of Brighton. Although the venues were quite different, the two discussions centered around one basic theme: Reconceptualising international volunteering.

Ironically, it wasn’t until later in the week when I was having dinner with my “Little Brother” and his friend who has been exposed to development in Latin America, that the conversation reinforced an insight that has been percolating in the background of my mind for some time. In essence, we concluded, that one of the best ideas for reconceptualising voluntourism would be to eliminate all projects which focus on basic human needs. By eliminating Maslow’s bottom row of the pyramid, we also eliminate a host of maddening challenges for the voluntourism space. [There is no need to get into the “development business,” as Dr. Anna Mdee (in her lecture at the University of Brighton seminar) pointed out the pitfalls of in its own right, and certainly not in the context of international volunteering and voluntourism.]

Moving Beyond Basic Needs…

The Voluntourism Space has spent the better part of a decade embroiled in the controversial, the debatable, the unskilled, the labor-replacing, the orphan-generating. Assuredly, some of this comes from a lack of understanding of the numerous projects and offerings around the world which have nothing to do with the bottom of the pyramid – assisting social entrepreneurs, refurbishing & reconstructing historic buildings, conducting environmental research – the list is endless!

If we simply move voluntourism beyond the reach of projects focused on meeting the basic needs of host communities, we can truly reconceptualise it. We can add dimensions that are rooted in the development of the individual. We can eliminate much of the sense of urgency around decoupling travel & tourism from voluntary service. And, everyone will be able to sleep better at night!

PrintThe Four Dimensions of Traveler Development – VolunTourism 4.0

Once we extract Maslow’s lowest tier of the pyramid from voluntourism, we can focus on the 4 dimensions which bring us more in line with the uppermost tier: Self-Actualization. These dimensions are present in the context of a VolunTourism experience (pre-, during-, and post-trip), it simply depends on to what degree each is acknowledged and then consciously integrated into the overall awareness of participants.

The four dimensions are broadly represented by: 1) The “Open Hand,” 2) The “Open Heart,” 3) The “Open Mind,” and 4) The “Open Self.” Let’s go through these briefly.

VolunTourism 1.0: The “Open Hand” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes “serving,” e.g., doing, performing, a task in an effort to be of support to the local destination. Quite often, this dimension is the most sought after aspect of the journey, as participants are eager to accomplish and leave a lasting, positive impression on the community. In addition, there is a great deal of “doing” involved in the preparation for a trip, engaging in the trip (just think of the travel alone to some of the more remote locations), and, of course, all that surrounds one’s returning to the home environment upon completion of a journey. The “Open Hand” can be experienced over “short-term” or “long-term” engagements and brings us into contact with the physiological aspects of our own being – our bodies and how they respond to the demands of VolunTourism.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I serve others.”

VolunTourism 2.0: The “Open Heart” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the interpersonal connections, i.e., “relating,” to others. The “others” are represented by members of the host community/destination and, of course, one’s fellow volunteers. This dimension brings into our awareness emotions and feelings regarding our responses to others.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I relate to others.”

VolunTourism 3.0: The “Open Mind” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the “being” of internal dialogue and discovery that occurs through the process of participating in such a journey. The catalyzing environment of the experience provides the necessary energy to dive within one’s own values, beliefs, judgements, prejudices, and preconceived notions of the world.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I explore my own being.”

VolunTourism 4.0: The “Open Self” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the growth & development, or “becoming,” of the individual throughout the process of the entire footprint of the journey: pre-, during-, and post-trip. It will naturally unfold if from the initiation of even the first hint of a desire to participate in such a journey that an individual realizes there is more at work than merely going overseas to volunteer. These journeys are a metaphor for the unfolding of the individual. If consciously approached, the experience brings forth a new iteration of the individual, one which will prove of far more service to any and all whom s/he may meet.

The Mantra for this dimension: “The journey and I are one, continuous becoming.”

Final Thoughts…

One might argue that directing our service t0 the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid may lead us to self-actualization. However, the degree to which we can be effectual in addressing those needs has, at least thus far, proven elusive. Trillions of dollars in aid and billions of hours of service have netted us little advancement in overcoming the deficit. Could it be, by coordinating service beyond the lowest tier, we will be able to render greater service and far more meaningful development for all stakeholders?

The “Open Hand” has been the default dimension of service itineraries for decades. Introducing the significance of the other dimensions through a coordinated effort – providing participants with tools and practices to better prepare them to “Open Heart,” “Open Mind,” and “Open Self” – seems like a reasonable launch-point for reconceptualizing volunteering. It is anticipated that by doing so, we may see an overall increase in the sustainability of projects and the longevity of results for communities and participants alike.

Under this scenario, we can see the value of travel, of exploration in the context of a destination. Encountering different aspects of the destination will allow these other dimensions to open more freely, perhaps further than could otherwise occur simply through service.

It would appear that we have an important question to address: Can we free VolunTourism from Maslow’s lowest tier in order to explore its developmental potential for participants?

Voluntourism As A Step Towards An Interdependent World?

Go GlobalAt present, we seem determined to unravel the integration of voluntary service and travel & tourism because it is causing too much harm in the world. But, is this really the case? Is voluntourism really creating harm in the world – immeasurable, irreparable harm?

Go Global’s Linked In Group for UW-Madison, posted a piece that caught my attention. Instead of pointing fingers at voluntourism, Mark Lilleleht, Online Presence Adviser, International Institute at the university asked questions, some good ones at that.

What do you think? Are there ways of “saving” the voluntourism industry so that it does more to serve the communities the organizations work in than the tourists? Is it more a question of “bad actors” than systemic flaws with the model? Is the very premise of the piece — that short-term volunteer opportunities coordinated by outside organizations are problematic — simply wrong?”

My Thoughts…

Thanks for asking these important questions. The questions, I think, give us much more room to explore the underlying issues and challenges of integrating travel & tourism and voluntary service, as well as the numerous stakeholders who are necessarily connected to the very complex web that functions as the canvas upon which we are currently weaving all of these elements.

When we move immediately to judgment, criticism, and, in some cases, vitriol, as it pertains to voluntourism, we really do miss the elaborate system that is at work here.

Voluntourism is not a cancer, nor is it a cure. It seems, at present, to be a symbol of the complexity of our world at this moment. We want to be of service. We do not want to perpetuate imperialism. We do not want to create dependency, yet we want to live in an interdependent world. We do not want to profit at the expense of the well-being of others and the environment, yet we need to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves in a world in which all three of these are becoming more and more expensive to realize.

So, we are confronted with the dilemma of how to integrate these. How to honor our values, whilst earning enough of a living to sustain ourselves in this world. We want to develop life practices that are in keeping with our values, are demonstrative of our values, because this will draw to us the “good karma” we seek, and the “good people” with whom we hope to interact.

But this is not the case for “everyone.” Some people want to earn “more” than is necessary, because it is their privilege to do so. When we find fault with this, we start running into problems. We can only set examples.

What might be helpful is to explore how we can begin to develop exemplary models of integrating voluntary service and travel & tourism. What does this look like? Can we learn from it? Can we benefit humanity by experimenting with it? Can host communities find a voice in such exchanges, where services are shared mutually and reciprocally?

I have been studying voluntourism for a long time. I still do not fully apprehend what is at work here. But, I think there is something significantly dynamic at work here. Voluntourism is on the cusp of our human integration experiment. We know that we cannot live in a world of independent nations and independent cultures and independent religions, and so forth, such an approach is unsustainable. We are destined to live in an interdependent world. This means that business must mix with pleasure must mix with community & environmental well-being, must mix with cultures & values, and on and on.

Somehow or another voluntourism has found itself at the forefront of this experimentation process, in part because it is a blending of two of the most impact-filled expressions of our humanity: 1) movement/travel, and 2) service – both of which seem to be essential elements for the unfoldment of each human being and our planet as a whole. We travel/move about this world to learn, explore, better understand our surroundings, to visit loved ones, other cultures, etc. We serve as an expression of gratitude for what we receive – sunshine, oxygen, food, shelter, life itself. Integrating these two essential components seems like a next step in our collective evolution.

The question, of course, is: how do we do this in a manner that honors all while recognizing just how truly essential this is to our very existence as a species, and the next iteration thereof? Certainly, we could argue the validity of such a point, but I am not so sure that it will get us anywhere.

Voluntourism has birthed on this planet for a reason, a significant reason. Getting to the heart of that reason is an important step for us. Rather than condemn voluntourism, let’s spend some time understanding why it is here – not as an answer to our problems, but as an expression of how we might become a more integrated and interdependent world.

The Exploitation of Voluntourism

ABC LogoThe Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) focused its Encounter program this past weekend (22 March 2014) on voluntourism. The question: “Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?” was addressed by a number of individuals including Dr. Stephen Wearing from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Daniela Papi, Learning Service & PEPY Tours, and Roger O’Halloran, executive director of PALMS, among others. The following quoted material from the broadcast sums up the overarching theme of the program as it pertains to voluntourism:

“‘It’s done for the experience of the volunteer’, says Roger O’Halloran, the executive director of PALMS, an NGO that was born out of the Catholic social movement of lay missionaries. ‘It’s all about the volunteer, with the pretence of helping someone, and I don’t buy it.'”

Doubtless, the opinions of individuals like Roger O’Halloran are quite valid. His organization sends volunteers abroad for two years and they must have a very good reason for that. Time commitment is one of the strongest arguments against voluntourism, along with taking away the dignity of local people, absconding local jobs, padding CVs, encouraging the exploitation of children – the list is long as to the manner by which voluntourism and voluntourists are taking advantage of local communities.

What we rarely hear, however, is the counterpoint on all of this – how is voluntourism being exploited?

The Exploitation of Voluntourism

Arguably, voluntourism has become one of the most exploited terms in the world today. It is seismic with the cacophony of vitriol which surrounds it, much like the arguments against other controversial subjects of our day, including religion.

And, speaking of religion, an article in Crains recently suggested that Millennials see CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) as their new Religion. One in four Millennials, according to the article, do not have an affiliation with an organized religion – 1 in 4! If this is indeed the case, it would appear that quite a number of Millennials, and those who may be catering to the 86+ million of them in the United States and 100’s of millions of others worldwide, are utilizing voluntourism as the Anti-Religion for Millennials (those roughly between the ages of 12 and 33).

If you are a journalist, travel writer, blogger, anyone, really, who is trying to build a following from this audience – the most social media & hand-held device savvy audience in the world, it would behoove you to reach them with a “new religion.” Barring that, finding something, a term, for example, that will take folks who have dismissed religion unlike any generation before them – a generation which is instead adopting what may be the most holistic life practice ever assembled from East and West (yoga, meditation, exercise, organic food, social media, travel, volunteering, etc.) – and use that term to rally their attention around “how not to be,” you may have uncovered a veritable treasure trove of followers.

Voluntourism has become the villain for those Millennials who are seeking an “anti-religion” as their “new religion.” The depiction of voluntourism as this dark, sinister force (which exploits villages, children, women, men, indigenous people, the environment) is a prime target for a generation which is driven to undo the wrongs of previous generations. Voluntourism, therefore, has become the poster child for how “not to live.” By presenting what one does as the opposite of voluntourism, or by drawing attention to the ugliness of voluntourism, an individual or organization or media outlet can, in essence, build a strong case for the efficacy of whatever they are proposing.

There is just one problem with this – none of the individuals whom I have come across, and who strive (vociferously or otherwise) to align voluntourism with the most unseemly aspects of exploitation at the host community level, appear to have any broad-based, global experience with voluntourism. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange?

Final Thoughts…

The manifestos against voluntourism are proliferating worldwide. I have taken note of this exploitation of voluntourism for more than a decade. It has simultaneously increased as more and more individuals have traveled and volunteered across the planet. Journalists, bloggers, travelers, NGOs – all have used voluntourism to build their respective SEO presences in cyberspace by pointing out the flaws, failures, and shortcomings of the intersection of travel and voluntary service. The undercurrent of social media relevance and social desirability has become the bane of voluntourism on many levels, causing us to spend our energy condemning it, rather than uncovering how it may provide substantive evidence of an evolving planet and the development of its inhabitants.

For years, I have patiently maintained a fairly stand-offish approach to the criticisms of voluntourism. This may not have been the best policy. You may not agree with voluntourism, you may not like what it represents, you may not like the term – there may be hundreds of reasons why you are averse to it. But, it is the first attempt to bridge the divide between cultures, between for-profit and non-profit, between wealth gaps – spiritual, mental/emotional, wisdom-based, and economic – by accessing the largest industry in the world and the well-meaning of social society organizations as the delivery systems thereby. We are a long way from completing that bridge, yet the effort deserves more than our maligning condemnation.

I predict voluntourism will eventually become the step in human history which everyone will look back on and say – “That movement changed travel on this planet and much, much more.” But, don’t take my word for it. Spend less time exploiting voluntourism and more time getting at the root of why this movement has come on this planet at this juncture in our collective human history. Ask more questions, sit in those questions, seek not immediate answers – reflect more and expound less.

Target practice is easy, anyone can throw stones. It takes a far more integrative approach to stand amidst the stone-throwing and continue to draw attention to what is really at work underneath it all. The bumps and bruises may be painful; what is yet to come, however, from a generation that has mixed its formative years with travel & voluntary service, the world has not even begun to realize.

Why Voluntourism Is Failing In The Developing World

Journal of Policy Research in Tourism Leisure & EventsOn 28 February 2014, the Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure & Events published an online article entitled “Volunteer tourism policy in Thailand.” Authors Mary Mostafanezhad and Nick Kontogeorgopoulos summarize their paper with these words:

“In this paper, we argue how short-term volunteering in Thailand might be able, under the right circumstances, to generate learning benefits for both volunteers and hosts. However, we maintain that the increasing involvement of conventional tourism firms and the Thai state threatens to compromise the potential benefits of volunteer tourism.”

Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos go on to recommend four elements of good practice that might lead to positive results for host communities and volunteers alike. They are (p. 2-3):

  1. Develop linguistic competence within the ‘host’ community,
  2. Facilitate cultural learning among volunteer tourists
  3. Require that volunteers attend mandatory orientations with a focus on cultural and linguistic competence
  4. Inform host community members about the intentions and backgrounds of the volunteer tourists

[Source: Mostafanezhad, M., and Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2014). Volunteer tourism policy in Thailand. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure & Events, p. 1-5]

The authors conclude their piece with these words (p. 5):

“It is likely that volunteer opportunities will increasingly serve as one of many possible tour activities offered by established mass tourism operators in Thailand. With the marketing support of the TAT, we argue that it is increasingly imperative that established and responsible volunteer tourism organizations continue to offer an alternative to the more problematic forms of volunteer tourism that may be on the horizon in Thailand.”

A Dramatic Shift In Thailand: From Tsunami-led Voluntourism to the “Little Big Project”

As some of you may be new to volunteer tourism and voluntourism, let me take you back for a moment to the time between July 2007 and December 2008 when a young woman by the name of Helen Todd, then a student at Emerson College (now CEO of Sociality Squared), spent nearly 18 months gathering information regarding the potential of voluntourism in Thailand. During that period, Ms. Todd conducted interviews in Thailand with key stakeholders – Mrs. Varnapruk, then brand manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and Shane K. Beary, founder of Track of the Tiger. She also volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park for a week, met 20 volunteers from various destinations around the world, and spoke with staff and directors at the facility. As a final component to this time in Thailand, she wrote a paper entitled “The Exploration of Including Voluntourism in Thailand’s Destination Marketing Efforts.”

Ms. Todd speaks candidly about her interview with Ms. Varnapruk of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the concerns the country had in 2007 regarding the perception of visitors around voluntourism – in a post-tsunami setting would Thailand be perceived as a broken destination like New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Yet, it was difficult at that time not to take into consideration the importance of voluntourism as a new travel niche. Wavering back and forth between the negative perceptions and the potential of voluntourism, Ms Varnapruk was inclined to look to the United States as a model. Ms. Todd writes (p. 32-33):

“Since voluntourism in its nature is new to the tourism industry, TAT seems to be asking what voluntourism encompasses and how it should be approached from a governmental and destination marketing organization standpoint.  The TAT is looking to the United States as a model and reference for voluntourism.  More than this, TAT is hoping to work with companies and organizations in the United States to promote voluntourism in Thailand.  Mrs. Varnapruk seems to like the idea of letting American tour operators handle the organization of recruiting and sending volunteers to Thailand over having the industry be managed within the country.  Mrs. Varnapruk agrees with the notion of mixing holidays with volunteering but also makes a distinction that people can help by kinds (volunteering) or by donations.”

[Source: Todd, H. (2007). The Exploration of Including Voluntourism in Thailand’s Destination Marketing Efforts. Emerson College, MH 697, Summer I & II, 2007, Professor Anderson, (p. 1-50)]

Roughly six years after this interview, the TAT launched the “Little Big Project” (2013) to promote voluntourism in Thailand. No more does there seem to be a fear of association with a natural disaster or the negative implications of being a destination which needs assistance. TAT is moving voluntourism forward, along with a host of invested companies and entities from outside of Thailand, which raises the points of concern voiced by Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos in their paper. Is TAT doing so responsibly, with emphasis on good practice and benefits for host communities? Are outside NGOs and tourism companies taking advantage of their skills and marketing savvy, thus funneling money out of Thailand, rather than leaving those funds in the destination where they belong?

Why Voluntourism Is Failing In The Developing World

There are several points that can be raised by comparing and contrasting Helen Todd’s 18-month inquiry into the potential of voluntourism in Thailand and the work of Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos (Mostafanezhad, then Conran, spent nine months conducting ethnographic research in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and interviewed 42 volunteer tourists between October 2008 and June 2009 as part of her research). The following points speak specifically to why voluntourism is failing in the developing world:

  • First point: Voluntourism is seen as a form of tourism which can be replicated based on a model coming from, say, in this case, the United States. We know that simply will not work. Every destination has to consider the cultural implications of voluntourism for its culture and its people. Is it even appropriate? Can local residents identify with the concept? Have they, themselves, ever volunteered and traveled in other parts of the world? (Doubtful) And, how can voluntourism maintain reciprocity and destination integrity? These questions are rarely explored.
  • Second point: Voluntourism must be owned by the host destination, local communities, and local organizations. To date, voluntourism in the developing world has been primarily owned by outside organizations – be it NGOs or companies. Again, we know that such models do not work. Most of the money that can accrue to local communities through voluntourism will “leak” out of the community into the hands of foreigners. What’s more, there is no exit strategy for outside NGOs and companies, no plan for transitioning operations to local ownership. Why is voluntourism being held as a business model like other businesses in the world? Shouldn’t voluntourism operations have the goal of becoming locally-owned & operated? How much economic and social good can remain in host communities if the ownership is not there? Not much.
  • Third point: Thailand does not have the same kind of volunteer-based infrastructure that a developed destination might have. Voluntourism requires a culture around volunteering, of course, but it also requires a volunteer infrastructure that is coordinated by NGOs and local communities which have experience in working with many different types of volunteers – managing their temperaments, cultural, socio-economic, and gender-based needs & idiosyncracies, etc. And, logically, organizations & communities need regular training and education on exactly how to manage these. (To my knowledge there are no existing educational materials on voluntourism in the Thai language being circulated and offered through universities, colleges, or technical educational facilities in Thailand.) Is TAT going to provide such training? The Thai government? Outside NGOs or companies? Universities & Colleges? Likely not.
  • Final point: No data is being collected by locals. Even in this post, I am referencing researchers who are not Thai people. They are outsiders. Who among the Thai people are focused on gathering data on voluntourists: Where they come from? Why they come? What they hope to accomplish? What motivates them? Who among the Thai people are collecting information from host communities: Is voluntourism working? Is it harming communities? Is it taking away local jobs? Is it creating new ones? I know of no one.

Final Thoughts…

ShaoLan Hsueh, Founder of Chineasy

ShaoLan Hsueh, Founder of Chineasy

There are so many reasons why voluntourism is failing in the developing world. We treat it like any other form of tourism and we expect to get different results – how is such a thing possible? Researchers go in, conduct interviews, draw some conclusions, publish their data, and yet the myopia and ignorance continue because the results likely never make it back to the host communities. Instead, they are couched in language that is utterly incomprehensible, unless you have a PhD in English, and published in journals where only the educated have access to them. Again, not good.

Voluntourism had a real chance to make it in the developing world, but it appears that no one was able to see its true potential. Sadly, this is why we have so many blog posts, tweets, and articles being published about why it is so bad. Voluntourism is so bad because we are so lazy, so collectively set in our habits and conformist approaches to everything that we have, invariably, taken something with great potential and solidly stifled it, yet again, by our desire to repeat, rather than create; to compete, rather than cooperate; to debate, rather than evolve.

Imagine what host communities could do with voluntourism if all of the wisdom and insight we have gained over the past nearly 20 years of researching it could be shared with the developing world, in a manner that could be easily absorbed based on a strategy like that of ShaoLan Hsueh, for example, who developed “Chineasy.” But, we have yet to don a new era of thinking in such ways about voluntourism. For now, therefore, voluntourism will continue to be relegated to the land of failure in the developing world and that is more than sad, much, much more so.

Swinging The Pendulum on Orphanage Voluntourism

06_AIDS orphan tourism-1Saludos a Todos from Cochabamba, Bolivia, and that will be all of the Spanish I send in your direction for this post… perhaps not.


It seems that orphanages and voluntourism have once again moved the social media needle sufficiently to the point of making it politically chic to throw orphanage voluntourism under the proverbial bus. Congratulations! Victory is assured for those who distance themselves from the controversial.

We’ve been writing about this subject for nearly three years now (never one to avoid controversy, quite obviously, as birthing VolunTourism has seen its share of controversy), yet I am still mystified as to how ill-informed the voluntourism community is on the subject of “orphanages.” As examples, I am going to tell you a couple of stories from the road – one of [“Sir”] William Wallace in San Javier and Profesora Ana Maria at the Instituto Tecnologico Superior “Charcas” in Torotoro.

William Wallace (“Corazon Valiente” to you movie buffs out there) used to walk 25km to school on Monday mornings. He would stay in San Javier until Friday and then walk the 25km home. He stayed with a family friend during the week in order to continue his education – the family could not afford to get him to school any other way. In some ways, therefore, William was an “orphan” during the week, and a son to two parents on the weekend. Were it not for the kindness of a family friend, he could never have continued his education.

Profesora Ana Maria told me a similar story as we sat at the dinner table earlier this week. For four years, she would spend her week in a Hogar – an orphanage by any other name in Latin America. Her family lived so far from the secondary school (high school) that she had only one choice – either live in the Hogar during the week or not go to school – some choice.

The reason I bring up these stories is that the voluntourism sector, the folks throwing the stones at the voluntourism sector, voluntourists, and even the researchers out there conducting research on the intersection of voluntourism and orphanages have done little to paint a comprehensive picture of an incredibly complex social structure that creates the need for “orphanages.”

Here in some of the rural parts of Bolivia we are spending our days in now, the choice to live in an “orphanage” is made because schools are constructed in some communities and not in others. Accessibility is incredibly difficult due to lack of public transportation routes and it is damn expensive otherwise. So, hogars (read as “orphanages”) are made available to facilitate and ensure the education of those in outlying areas. Without them, many young girls and boys, would not receive an education.

Could it be the same case in Cambodia? In other parts of the world?

Before you start swinging the pendulum and barring voluntourists from orphanages, get a more complete story of the reality. Know what the situation truly is in every community. Educate yourselves and discover what is the best approach for YOU moving forward. But stop generalizing. You may cost a young child his/her education because you thought voluntourists couldn’t make a short-term contribution, and because you thought all children and all conditions were created and generated equally. EVERY situation is different. Treat it as such.

Discovering synergistic, compostable practices (compostable practices is a term we have created here at to represent ALL practices related to voluntourism as our work continually proves to us that what we know today is only meant to be used to grow the next crop of our understanding) for orphanage voluntourism is a good starting point, of course. But make sure they are just that – compostable. You should be creating them with the knowledge that new knowledge and understanding will be generated in short order and the structure will need to be sent to the compost bin to fertilize the future crop of compostable practices – NO MORE BEST PRACTICES!

And for those who are going to be making decisions, get out there to a hogar or an orphanage yourself. Interview some folks, discuss with them what you want to do, how you want to make sure that everyone is benefiting. But LISTEN! And be prepared to throw out all the crap, doubtless intermingled with wisdom, that is being produced in the blogosphere and in the media on orphanage voluntourism. And let us know how you do. We will be working on some compostable approaches here in Bolivia and will definitely keep you posted.

Buena Suerte desde Cochabamba!

Voluntourism to Support Prevention of Dengue Fever and Malaria in Cambodia?

While the BBC is helping folks become acquainted with the dark side of voluntourism in Cambodia – a la orphanage voluntourism – I thought I might take a few moments to share with you a potentially different approach for voluntourism in Kratie (pronounced “kracheh”) Province in the heart of the agricultural region of Cambodia.

I spent the last couple of days in and around Kratie and “Sambo,” (Sambour District is the actual name, but most Cambodians, so I am told, refer to it as Sambo) about seventy five minutes outside of the Kratie urban center, with team members of Partners for Development, an NGO which has focused on malaria and dengue fever prevention in villages in Sambo and elsewhere. Dr. Im Sarun and Chin Polo (from the PfD Phnom Penh office) served as my primary guides to explore what voluntourists could do to support the villages in and around Sambo. Turns out, there is quite a bit of work to be done here and the communities would benefit from some extra sets of hands. Interestingly, none of it requires volunteering in orphanages.

100 Pillars Pagoda in Sambo

Turns out, one of the biggest contributors to dengue fever and malaria is lack of overall village hygiene. There are ways to prepare villages for the upcoming rainy season here in Cambodia (May – October). Fortunately for those “unskilled gappers” who are much maligned in the UK media these past few years, dating back to Ian Birrell’s initial comments on orphanage “voluntourism” in November 2010,  there is a great deal of grunt work involved in the process. And the way to train villagers, according to the PfD Team, is to get in there alongside them and do the duty.

Of course, if you are coming to Kratie Province, you can’t miss an afternoon on the Mekong with the river dolphins or a visit to the 100 Pillars Pagoda in Sambo and the Mekong turtle conservation center, set up in part by Conservation International on the same property. Of course, money you spend as a tourist undoubtedly makes an invaluable contribution to the well-being of those who earn a living through tourism expenditure [so remember, voluntourism includes the oft-forgotten and woefully neglected (at least by critical writers on voluntourism) “tourism” part].

If you are really adventurous, you can ride a boat across the Mekong to Koh Trong island to view the fruit bats and the abundant agriculture, particularly organic vegetable production, that peppers the landscape. And for the adventurous of spirit, a visit to the meditation center on Sambok Mountain to view the hand-painted depictions of Prince Siddhartha’s transformation into the Buddha are indeed a worthy prize following the 250 meter climb.

So, cheer up gap year young people! Cambodia could definitely benefit from your good intentions and your bodily labor. And with the guidance of some seasoned veterans focused on reducing illness and loss of life from two very real threats – malaria and dengue fever – you may do more than serve, you may just learn something – a decidedly important outcome as Ms. Papi so eloquently points out.

Voluntourism: Ahh, the Joys of Being a Catalyst!

Scroll through the internet these days with an intent on finding information on voluntourism and you will soon discover that it is wading in controversy, debate, and disdain, to say the least. Seems that the world has gotten itself into a tizzy trying to find the flaws in the intersection of voluntary service and travel. And we couldn’t be happier about that, now could we. Because it means more and more folks are talking about it. And that is what you want when your real purpose is that of “catalytic agent.”

TMS Ruge, of the Diaspora Project, even got into the act this week by offering a “tongue-in-cheek” response to voluntourism – – “How to be an effective ‘voluntourist’ in 5 steps.” While HuffPo continued its vivisection of the subject with a post from Rudayna Bahubeshi – “What You Don’t Know About Voluntourism,” the CBC tackled the links to neo-colonialism, imbalanced power relations, and “othering” with an academic in a brief interview – “A Critical Look at Voluntourism.”

With the abundance of criticism, however, we are also starting to see some thoughtful rebuttal. Nicole Roughton caught my attention this week, and even got a comment out of me, with her post entitled “The Public Shaming of Voluntourism.” Short, sweet, and to the point, Ms. Roughton summed it up in this neat little paragraph:

I’ve greeted most of the subsequent commentary on the subject with a sense of unease. Whilst all the points raised in the debate are no doubt valid, and I agree that having this discussion is entirely necessary, there seems to be a certain tone of superiority underlying much of what is being said. Despite it being a problem that persists in much of the voluntary/NGO sector, there are some who appear to place the blame solely on the volunteers. In several of the comments there is a strong air of ‘one-upmanship’- of who can seem the most reflexive and self-aware in their experience- which all seems rather pointless when you realise you are an experienced development worker choosing to belittle an idealistic, perhaps overly naïve teen.”

If these teens are following Gandhi’s advice: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” then it might behoove those of us who are structuring the intersection of these teens, voluntary service, travel, destinations, and residents to do so in a way that honors the dignity of the catalyzing energy being put forth. If it takes a village to raise a child, why not a world to raise a village and a village to raise a world?

Take note that development, human development to be more precise, is no longer a luxury to be engendered solely on the “poor,” “the needy,” the “less advanced.” Are we not discovering that in comparison to the problems the world faces today that we are all, every single human on the planet, equally “under-developed” to take on these challenges “alone”? Though participation in voluntourism is not a guarantee of development for either participant or recipient, we can at least venture to say that it is increasing our capacity to interact with our fellow human beings. And if that doesn’t prove to be an invaluable development in our world today, I ask you, what will?