During the last decades there has been a growing tendency of looking for alternative ways of tourism development in order to slow or arrest the deterioration process of contemporary mass tourism. In a way this process can be described as a search of alternative and responsible tourism that would be an antithesis of mass tourism. One example of alternative forms of tourism is so called VolunTourism. Volunteer tourism is a rapidly growing form of travel that combines the desire to “do something good” while experiencing new places, cultures and challenges.
However, the volunteer tourism is not unproblematic. The short term volunteering where young individual people travel to poor areas in developing countries “to help the poor” is some sense against the current thinking in development studies and practical development work. It seems that while most of the development organizations are aiming towards continuity and sustainability in development aid, the volunteer tourism is adapting the models of aid from the 80’s and before…
No doubt – it is a very positive trend that people in the “Global North” are willing to help and learn while they travel. However, there are big differences between different forms of volunteer tourism. It is good to acknowledge that in current official development work the focus is on supporting the local actors and organizations instead of sending people from outside to make the difference. In the worst cases the flow of volunteers can take working opportunities from the locals. Therefore the volunteer tourism should also aim to strengthen already existing local organizations instead being a separate form of help. Today it seems that the travel agencies are the biggest winners in this form of tourism as they receive the biggest share of the money that is being spent by travelers willing to help the others.
While considering the possibilities of travelling as a volunteer it is good to compare different kinds of volunteering packets and the ideologies behind the organizations or firms offering these kinds of travelling opportunities. For instance, when a local community or a family is receiving foreign volunteers, are they also receiving a fair compensation for the accommodation services they provide for the visitor? Are the local people able to determine the need for volunteering and are they themselves presenting their community and culture to the visitors? In other words: Are the local people active actors?
In the end, the volunteer him- or herself has the biggest responsibility to act ethically and to be aware of the possible effects of volunteer’s presence in the local community. Since we have been taught to use a certain kind of cultural framework, it is important to learn how to take distance to this prior framework. In fact everybody interested to dedicate themselves in helping other people can find the following questions of Mats Friberg* very valuable:
1. How much of what I believe is nothing more than a package of ideas that I have unconsciously taken in from my own culture?
2. To what extent am I prepared to regard the ideas and values of other groups as equally valid as mine?
3. Is it even possible to use ideas and norms which have been developed in my own culture and apply them to other groups?
Please, share your experiences of VolunTourism!
Text: Emily H?ckert
Image: Courtesy of AFC
*Mats Friberg (1999) Schumpeter’s principle-cultural continuity in a changing world. In Schulz, M. Peace and development: Their interrelationship in the Global System, Padrigu Papers Series, G?teborg.