Responsible travel

Published on March 16th, 2016 | by Travel Textbook


Why voluntourism isn’t always what you think

Read time: a bit over 4 minutes

It is human nature to do good but is this voluntourism craze all it is cracked up to be? Many travellers incorporate ‘giving back’ into their holiday itineraries, especially during extended trips like Gap Years. Engaging in volunteering can be a great way to make a difference, become grateful for what you have, and build your own skills. But maybe voluntourism is not what we think it is, and perhaps there are better ways to go about it?

When the opportunity to volunteer abroad came up we thought Bingo! – what a fabulous way to combine our love of doing good with our passion for travel. And we weren’t wrong, it just turns out to be a little more complicated that first expected. Over our time travelling we have had experiences with volunteering in Morocco and Canada, and these were starkly contrasting but both incredibly rewarding. As we plan our next trip abroad, we are considering volunteering again and want to share our understanding of the growing movement of ‘voluntourism’.


Image c/o Tobym, Flickr


Umm, what is ‘voluntourism’?

Voluntourism is the fusion term that comes from ‘volunteer tourism’. It is the process whereby a person will travel to a foreign country and instead of picking up a beer and some suntan lotion, they will help build a school, a water pump or teach English just to name few of the many options. Voluntourism started many years ago and it is continuing to grow, now being cited as a $2billion industry. Global change is now treated as a commodity, which can have its negative consequences – but there are ways to make sure the money is going into the right hands.

What does it actually involve?

A voluntourism experience totally depends on where you wish to go, how long you want to go for, and how much difference you wish to make. The experiences can range from working for a couple of hours in a pretty simple environment, to working full-time hours in emotionally and physically challenging situations.

Volunteering your time to communities and people overseas can be done from a grassroots level or it can be done through companies. Our experiences have been through contacting local organisations themselves and arranging placements directly, cutting out middlemen and (sometimes crazy expensive) fees.

Some people choose to do their volunteering abroad for a year or more, and some for only a day or two. It depends on the level of impact that a traveller wants to have, as the more time someone devote to their chosen project, the greater the positive impact will generally be.


Image c/o Jerry Dohnall, Flickr

So, does ‘voluntourism’ do any good?

Great question, glad you asked. It seemed that as soon as the wave of ‘voluntourism’ popularity came along, the backlash ensued just as quickly. The reality is that volunteering abroad is an intensely complicated issue because some companies, organisations and individuals can actually have a negative impact,

Voluntourists are usually people with their hearts in the right place and they join the programs with the best possible intentions. Successes do definitely come from voluntourism, whether it be small or the large endeavours, as new skills are learned, improvements to infrastructure constructed, and worldwide connections fostered. But it is difficult to ignore the evidence that these programs can sometimes harm communities

A common argument poses the question: why not train locals to do these jobs, in turn keeping them employed rather than having foreigners do them? We agree with this notion in line with the well-known saying “give a man a fish and he will eat for a night, but teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime”. Some programs work with this in mind, but many just focus on pushing foreigners through for a fee without exacting lasting and fruitful change.

Recently there has been heat on Cambodian orphanage voluntourism schemes where many were highlighted as being scams. Victims of poverty would be offered money to send their child to an orphanage, under the premise of education and a better life, and the children are kept there in a zoo-like state for tourists to get a fuzzy feeling when visiting. This isn’t sustainable and it isn’t fair. Examples like these don’t necessarily represent all voluntourism programs, but awareness and regulation needs to be increased. There are better ways to do it.

How should I choose a good programme?

The general rule of thumb: go grassroots. Locals know what locals need, and then you can be sure the help has been asked for, not decided upon by others. We found it most useful to organise our volunteering by contacting small, local outreaches directly. Plus you will skip out on the (sizeable) administration fees that big volunteer companies usually charge and you can put that money to good use.

Just always make sure you do your research and read up about the issues being faced by the communities and what the company is doing to prevent them. Often other people will have written about the companies in honest reviews, so that is always helpful.

Alternatives to Voluntourism

One great alternative is to choose an ethical tourism company to limit exploitation and negative impacts incurred by travel, and you can still have a great time too. Another option is to donate to these on-the-ground projects in a sustainable way, through goods or monetary donations. Having people working hands on with grassroots projects is one thing, but having financial resources is another imperative ingredient for success. Many projects around the world do not succeed simply because the money to fund a project into long-term success is simply not there.

If you choose to support or engage in voluntourism, you are choosing this because you want to make a world of good. You will always make more of a difference when you are equipped with knowledge and know you are making the right change. We loved our program and hopefully you will find one that you can be confident in, too.

Geckos doesn’t do voluntourism, but we do support a number of grassroots projects through our not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation. Read up on responsible travel – it just might change the way you see the world. 

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About the Author

Lucy is a travel-obsessed medical student from Melbourne, Australia. Between drinking too much espresso and booking too many flights, she is the author of She loves to spread information about exploring the world and encouraging students to take the plunge and travel.

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