A few days ago I got a Facebook post from one of my brothers who was wondering with his wife if they could somehow meld their fall vacation with a week-long mission trip. He asked me if there was “a need for two caring individuals to come help people in any way around [my] area”, which is currently Bogotá, Colombia. My initial thought was “no way, and it’s naive to think that you can make a meaningful difference in a week, especially in a new country where you don’t even speak the local language.” I didn’t respond that brusquely with him, of course, but the idea of peppering a vacation with volunteer service activities just seemed wrong on several levels, and I know first-hand the dangers of unintended consequences that “service” done by well-meaning people can have. In the past, I’ve even used “service tourist” derisively toward fairly committed volunteers who seemed more driven by their desire for adventure and travel than by a serious call to serve humanity or the planet. But this was my own brother, and I know the sincerity and purity of his and his wife’s hearts. I don’t want to be too quick to judge.
Nicholas Kristof’s “disgusting” family vacation
Something just seems unsavory about vacationing too close to human suffering. Last week (on June 28), the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof posted this seemingly innocuous update on his Facebook page: “Spent the day in Jerusalem with family, showing sights — including a great tour of Western Wall tunnels. We had a bunch of rocks thrown at us by Palestinian kids in one neighborhood where Palestinian homes are slated for destruction: ya’ani, big rocks, but none hit us.” This set off an avalanche of several hundred comments. Among them were these:
- “Not sure exactly how you live with yourself. There you are walking around on vacation while some families are losing everything they’ve ever had.”
- “what’s despicable is that people can enjoy themselves on vacation while being so closely to massive suffering and despair.”
- “You’re doing the ‘tourist thing’ with your family in Palestinian neighborhoods in Israel?? Really?? Treating it like a day trip with the family to the beach is kinda heartless. I’d throw rocks at you too if I were them.”
- “I find it disgusting.”
- “If it’s for reporting, that’s one thing…But taking your kids there for pleasure? Just makes me sick.”
These are pretty harsh words for a man who makes his living going to the hard places in the world to bring the stories of suffering people to the attention of an otherwise uninformed readership. Why this visceral and acerbic reaction? Perhaps it’s the incongruity of taking leisure where people are suffering. It may be admirable to serve in Haiti and vacation in Hawaii, but it’s somehow despicable to serve in Hawaii and vacation in Haiti. Is this fair?
Just because someone is on a beach in Hawaii doesn’t make the suffering in Haiti any less real. Yet we castigate the person who vacations near suffering and remain indifferent to the person who steals away a safe distance and vacations in some insulated resort while people continue suffering out of sight and out of mind. Granted, there is still something morally repugnant with having a picnic on a hillside with your children while watching artillery shells rain down on the city below, but maybe there is some ethical room for bringing leisure into proximity with suffering, especially if the leisure time is designed to address the suffering.
An uncomfortable party
When the levees surrounding New Orleans failed catastrophically following hurricane Katrina in 2005, most of the city and many of the surrounding parishes were flooded. It was a true disaster area with widespread and prolonged human suffering. Many people felt it would be heartless to go party in the city just six months later, but that’s exactly what the city asked them to do. The Mardi Gras celebration brings thousands of people and millions of dollars into the city each year. Getting the tourists to come back was vital to city’s economic recovery.
Many developing countries are in a similar yet amplified situation. Places like Tanzania, Guatemala, and Cambodia are home to millions of people living in abject poverty and crisis, and yet each of these countries also has a thriving tourism industry. When you speak to the people living there, even the very poor,* they are overwhelmingly in support of tourism. They want people to come, spend money, generate employment, and value and share in the place they call home. When I was in Sri Lanka a year after the devastating tsunami, people all along the southern coast were desperate to bring the tourists back, even though many were still living in temporary shelters and mourning lost love ones. The truth is, there are many beautiful places on the earth that offer vacationers spectacular scenery, unparalleled adventure, and warm hospitality, as well as a front-row seat to the indignities and injustice of abject poverty. Should people be squeamish about vacationing in these places, not only would a critical source of income be lost, but the vacationers would miss an opportunity to be exposed to and impacted by the realities of life in these places. Vacationing in Vale, Paris, or Miami only brings more to those who already have much, and keeps those “other places” out of sight and mind.
I think there may be a progressive link between adventure tourism, eco-tourism, and service tourism. As more and more mainstream vacationers surf the beaches of Costa Rica, hike trails to ancient ruins in Peru, drive mountain bikes through rain forests in Indonesia, ride boats up rivers in India, and tour temples in Cambodia, they are confronted with two unexpected realities: 1) the possibility that their activities are going to ruin the place, and 2) lots and lots of poor people. This inserts a rather uncomfortable feeling into their vacation that maybe they’re doing something ethically questionable. Are they enjoying their leisure at the expense of the place and its people? But instead of planning the following year’s vacation in Hawaii, many decide to do something really different. They go back and look for ways to connect their vacation with the sustainable development of the place and its people.
Of course there are lots of other contributing factors to the growth in popularity of volunteer vacations. In a sense, you could point to the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961 as the start of service tourism in the U.S. (In the UK, you could similarly point to the founding of Volunteer Service Overseas in 1958.) Certainly most of the volunteers who have served since have done so with a humanitarian heart, but many have also (rightly?) seen their terms a government-sponsored adventure vacation. The sharp rise of academic study abroad programs during the 1970s similarly combined two incentives – to learn and to travel. The real boom began in the 1990s, though, as both tourism operators and service organizations began to realize the potential of combining adventure vacations with activities that supported local sustainable development projects.
Now both tourist operators and volunteer service organizations are scrambling to keep up with the demand for both sustainable vacations (eco-tourism) and volunteer vacations (service tourism). And they are having to learn how to work together in ways that benefit both as they both compete and collaborate in these new markets. Today, ecotourism is a multibillion dollar a year business, and service tourism is a rapidly growing market. It’s hard to say just how big the market for volunteer vacations is, however, since it’s not clear when to categorize short-term volunteer service as such. But with Volunteer Vacations being offered on core travel sites like Travelocity (Travel For Good) it is clearly a profitable mainstreamed market. What is also clear is that more and more service assignments are being billed as volunteer vacations. For example, Global Volunteers, which has sent out over 25,000 volunteers in the past 25 years, now refers to their volunteer assignments as “Volunteer Vacations”. Similarly, Global Service Coprs, which has a 15-year history of providing “Service Learning Programs”, has rebranded itself as a provider of “Volunteer Vacations” without actually changing what they do. With all of this rebranding of volunteer service trips and mission trips as “adventure service travel” or “volunteer vacations”, one has to wonder if taking volunteer vacations is what young service volunteers have been doing all along. But, perhaps this rebranding is attracting new recruits; people who wouldn’t otherwise sign up to be volunteer might do so if it’s sold as an adventure vacation with some service activities patched in.
Red Flags Waving
As voluntourism goes mainstream, and the market for volunteer vacations grows, the dangers of unscrupulous operators getting into the game also increases. The evolution of ecotourism is instructive for what surely lies ahead for voluntourism. As the economic incentives increased, some tourist operators simply rebranded their nature tours as eco-tours and essentially used marketing to “greenwash” thoroughly unsustainable practices, such as driving jeeps off-road through the wilderness or paying indigenous people to dress up and role-play to the stereotyped expectations of outsiders. Well-intentioned eco-tourists ended up on vacations as environmentally destructive and economically and culturally exploitative as they come. There are even cases of governments evicting local indigenous people to make room for ecotourism developments from the Philippines to Bangladesh, Brazil, Botswana, and South Africa.
So what lies ahead for voluntourism? The customer-centric focus elevates the experience of the traveler over that of the community where the volunteer activities take place. One website advertises volunteer vacations under the headline “Volunteer On Demand…At Your Convenience.” This may make good business sense – the traveler is paying, the community is not – but there is bound to be some conflict with what the traveler wants and makes good sustainable community development sense. Sales pitches of “getting re-energized”, taking a “tax-deductible vacation”, and gaining an “amazing sense of camaraderie” with fellow volunteer team members beg the question of who is serving who, reduces the community to a tourism product, and sells access to them as part of an experience package.
One has to wonder where this leaves vulnerable communities. When making a profit drives business decisions over traditional service values like “do no harm” or community agency, one has to be a bit pessimistic about that the impact of the volunteer service. That said, I would guess that there will be marked difference between the for-profit tourist operators who begin offering volunteer vacations as part of their portfolio of products and the not-for-profit volunteer service agencies that simply rebrand their learning and service trips as volunteer vacations. The core business experience of a tourism operator is less well suited than that of a volunteer service agency or a development NGO to ensure that the voluntourist’s activities contribute to the development objectives of the community in a culturally sensitive and sustainable manner.
Hope for the Future
Obviously, I’m not the first to feel uneasy about the concept of voluntourism and several organizations are making efforts to help the new market avoid getting corrupted by the economic incentives. A number of ethical codes have been developed for ecotourism operators. One of the earliest is from the Ecotourism Association of Australia, which adopted a Code of Practice in 1994 and has an Eco Certification Program in place. They even have some guidelines for the ecotourists, which I think is great idea. Something similar should be developed for voluntourism. A consortium of legitimate and ethical providers of volunteer vacations would have a market incentive to do this and pay for the operation of a certification program.
Ethical Volunteering is a site that offers guidance to would-be volunteers about choosing a volunteer program. I like this approach; most tourists are just not going to know what questions they should be asking about volunteering or sustainable community development, and they are going to go with what feels good – something that any savvy tourism operator or marketer will know how to manipulate. Ethical Volunteering offers suggestions like exploring how the volunteer program partners with local organizations, asking what eco and ethical policies are in place, and what the time frame is on the project the volunteers will be involved with. These are key questions. If the local community is not involved in decisions about the design and ongoing management of the project, then they can just as easily be a victim of the project as a beneficiary of it. And if the organization offering the volunteer experience has no long-term and regular presence in the community, then questions about disruption and sustainability naturally arise.
Xola Consulting is a group that works with tour operators, government tourism boards, and NGOs to develop adventure and volunteer travel programs that are sustainable and capable of promoting economic and environmental development. I would think that as the market for volunteer vacations grows, the market for consultants like Xola would grow with it. The hope would be that such consulting firms would be as concerned about the well-being of the communities impacted by voluntourism as the economic viability of their client’s volutourism projects. Again, now would be the time for established volunteer service programs to step into this market to help ensure the ethical and sustainable qualities of the volunteer service activities as tourism operators move into the voluntourism market.
There are dozens of organizations providing volunteer vacations, and many (not all, but many) seem to have a well-thought out, balanced, and ethical approach. Among these are VolunTourism.org, Globe Aware, and Global Volunteers.
In the future, the lines will continue to blur between adventure tourism, ecotourism, and voluntourism. The market will continue to grow for these alternative vacation experiences. Inevitably, unscrupulous operators will enter the market as it grows richer, and the service aspect is likely to get watered down as the focus of short-term volunteer opportunities moves toward customer satisfaction and away from quality, ethical, and sustainable community development. But, there is hope too if the legitimate volunteer organizations recognize that this shift in the tourism market is both an existential threat and a fantastic opportunity. If they step in now to provide consulting services, to shape a code of ethics, and to operate a certification program, they can help ensure that voluntourism does right by both the tourist and the communities they volunteer in.
* I’m not saying this hypothetically; I’ve spoken with people who are among the very poor in each of these countries about their tourism industry and how they feel about it.
(The third image of photographers and children is from Tourism Concern.)