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Combining volunteering with tourism may seem like a good idea on the surface, but it is usually an excuse for a tour provider to overcharge participants with limited skill sets who think they have something to offer to a poor rural village simply because they are traveling from the U.S. or another first-world country.
Like missionaries, voluntourists typically disrupt local traditions, take business from local workers, and leave before the job is truly finished. And when that job is finished, it’s often a poorly built well, a poorly built school room, or a poorly built orphanage.
But it’s not always a nightmare. Last month Skift spoke with Ethan Gelber, who edited “Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good” about what happens when the reality of volunteerism matches the dream. And for an organization that does a good job, it’s can actually be a good thing.
An edited version of the interview follows.
Skift: Tell me about the origins of the book.
Ethan Gelber: Adventures Less Ordinary developed out of a discussion on Outbounding.org about who is really benefiting from the growing voluntourism industry. Several leading lights from the volunteer travel sector explored ideas about how to push for its evolution and improvement, especially with regard to the lasting value to local communities.
Simultaneously, Inspired Escapes, an operator of inspirational adventures designed to effect long-lasting social change, had set up shop in response to some of the issues addressed on Outbounding: What alternatives are there to the typical for-profit voluntourism approaches? What does meaningful travel philanthropy look like? How can Millennial travelers engage with communities and good causes in a productive, respectful and sustainable way?
The evident overlap between the Outbounding discussions and the Inspired Escapes business model seemed like too good an opportunity to let pass, certainly in terms of the ability to extend the #MendNotEnd discussions and communicate key themes and lessons to a wider audience. Inspired Escapes agreed to lend support to the book project and Horizon Travel Press produced it.
Skift: There’s a high level of skepticism about voluntourism, in terms of both the intentions behind the participants and the effect they have, in the book. I rarely see discussions around this — as if people are afraid to criticize. Did you feel you were taking a change with this approach?
Gelber: I don’t. Discussions about “social impact” (among many other terms), whether through financial or physical investment, are quite common today, albeit not necessarily in the travel industry and perhaps not enough in the volunteer travel space. In international development circles, however, it’s a core concern, coupled with consternation about how aid is delivered – whether the systems, people and programs in place are reliably pushing for maximum oomph.
Unfortunately, though, with the notable exception of a couple of major topics that have broken into mainstream media and are now seeing broader recognition – issues related to tourism practices involving orphanages, children and animals – most of the discussions target an audience that doesn’t really include and wouldn’t necessarily be comprehensible to mainstream travelers. (The lack of shift from development to travel is of some concern, as volunteer travel, which used to be part of the development industry, is now driven predominantly by the travel industry.)
So we wanted to provide a platform through which the broad issues already under debate could be tackled, but in layman’s terms and in ways that would make them immediately pertinent to travelers and travel promoters not immersed in industry jargon, principles or practices.
We also wanted to steer well clear of the tendency either not to criticize or to criticize without offering solutions, which is why we have continued to emphasize the #MendNotEnd approach. I believe strongly that anyone’s desire to do good should be honored, even emboldened; the real trick is to channel that magnanimity in ways leading to unimpeachably beneficial ends. That is what guided the book-crafting process: the need to be clear – through analysis and example – about how to help make a difference, how to model best practices. Not to crush goodwill or showcase worst practice, not to paint with too broad a brush about the dark underbelly of volunteering.
Skift: How has the ‘business’ of voluntourism evolved over the past few years?
Gelber: Some of the changes are similar to those faced by all companies, like those related to the effects of social media. But to delve into more of specifics, I turned to couple of book contributors with far more knowledge of volunteer travel than I do. Let me paraphrase their responses.
The biggest change, says Sallie Grayson, Co-founder of people and places was the commercial success both of for-profit companies meeting the demands of travelers hoping to “do good,” and of on-the-ground suppliers seeing income generation from the same desire. An example of this has been the explosion in the number of orphanages with volunteer opportunities. Another major and more recent change has come about as a result of traditional “gappers” (pre- and post-university students) questioning the efficacy of the projects they’re offered. Combined with the rising costs of university tuition, this has led to a shrinking of the “gap” market and shift of attention by “gap” companies to other markets, both older and younger.
According to Vicky Smith, a thought leader at the intersection of volunteer tourism and commercial/online practices, what begin in earnest in the early 2000s as a way to fulfill a demand, largely from gap-year students seeking experiences to put on their resumes – international volunteering not-for-profit organizations only offered out-of-reach long-term, skilled options – developed into a proper market meeting the needs of people who saw volunteering as the thing to do, something driven as much by egoism as by altruism.
Profiteering and mismanagement charges against voluntourism organizations did little to stem growth, but led others, like international development agencies, tour operators and even hotels, to offer short-term voluntourism experiences, turning the whole industry into something driven by traveler supply and demand, not community need (as it is in international development).
In more years, improved and more widespread understanding of consumer ethical and environmental concerns, as well as the emergence of social enterprises, has filled in the middle ground between market-driven commercial exploitation and needs-driven NGO offerings favoring local investment with a conscious approach to the business of volunteer and responsible tourism.
This middle ground is still needs-based, but it uses commercial marketing techniques for societal benefit. Academia and media have followed suit by demonstrating the egotistical motivations and negative impacts of “voluntourism,” resulting in its present bad reputation and a growing backlash against it.
All in all, the volunteer industry is growing up, along with its first adherents (“gappers” now in real jobs), and being held to higher standards. Unfortunately, as Smith’s research has demonstrated, the shift is still slow and far from pervasive. In 2012, there was an inverse relationship between the price charged by a volunteer travel organization and its demonstrated responsibility. This was still true in 2014, albeit to a lesser extent. In its own way, responsibility is becoming a signal of quality.
Skift: What’s the customer profile of the typical voluntourist?
Gelber: It’s very, very broad. The motivation to do good while one travels doesn’t really know demographic bounds, though there is apparently little recent data to ground this assertion in fact.
Anecdotally, Grayson reported that, practically without exception, her company’s volunteers already donate time in their own communities and have traveled. According to Smith, her feeling, without hard evidence, is that the typical “voluntourist” tends to be white, affluent and Western, and probably more likely to be female.
This is true whether it’s young student-aged people, career breakers or retirees. Smith believes, however, that the global recession shook things up a bit, with more work redundancies giving people of all stripes time to travel and volunteer. Retirees that might have traveled could also be supporting younger generations financially or with time for childcare.
There is also a great deal of chatter about the emphasis placed by new generations of travelers – like the much-discussed Millennials – on “experiential” travel that is both anchored more deeply in authentic local experience and more sensitive to the needs of the communities that host them. Volunteering in these communities or raising money through charity challenges to benefit them are an important part of that, and a big reason why organizations like Inspired Escapes and others mentioned in the book, target young professionals and their companies’ CSR programs, eager to give outlet to their philanthropic urgings.