In the last few decades volunteer tourism has become a phenomenon; up to 10 million participating and generating up to £1.3 billion revenues in a year. By Nancy Gard McGehee.
Some motivated by altruism, some for more selfish reasons but whichever, the growth, in scope and mode of ‘voluntourism’ gathers apace and is having significant global impact. Theoretically, volunteer tourism is a win-win; a sustainable means to positive change in host communities, and enlightening personal experience for the volunteer.
Not so easy. Many snags have become evident in the industry; for-profit unethical operators ‘greenwashing’ the unsuspecting public, skills gap between volunteer and host community needs, poor management of volunteer expectation: cheap labour or means to emancipation? Religious, intolerance and “neo-colonial” attitudes. All giving great potential to damage rather than improve cultural understanding, environments and indeed lives of host community members as intended. So how can the pitfalls be avoided? This article in Journal of Sustainable Tourism discusses volunteer tourism as a research area and how best to move forward and keep it sustainable for all.
Abuse and mismanagement of this socially responsible industry has given call for more regulation and monitoring. Could volunteers be better prepared pre-trip? How better matched to organisations and communities? Should volunteers be systematically debriefed to minimise future negativity? Could social media be a channel for information transfer? A TripAdvisor for voluntourism? In any case research is proving that frameworks are needed to assess the impacts of volunteer tourism. Development of the “International Voluntourism Guidelines for Commercial Tour Operators” has been an important first step; the author now stresses the need for an inexpensive and efficient means of “measuring a small but important group of indicators that are most useful and important to the success and sustainability of volunteer tourism.” By joining the forces of operators, communities and volunteers, the industry could realise the full potential to improve international development in a supremely sustainable way.
This paper reviews the 30-year evolution of volunteer tourism as phenomenon, industry, and research area, charting changes in the size, breadth, definition, and the perceived positive and negative contributions of the volunteer tourism industry.
Discussion then moves on to how research in volunteer tourism has reflected those changes. Studies have focused on the transition from decommodified to commodified volunteer tourism; participant motivation, including the altruism versus self-development discussion; and the paucity of a unified and cohesive theoretical foundation in volunteer tourism. Fresh debates are now emerging that center upon the potential interface of technology and volunteer tourism, including crowd-sourcing for funding, smart phone apps, and GIS; the importance of monitoring and maintaining quality volunteer tourism experiences through certification and/or other indicators; and the role of religion and spirituality in volunteer tourism.
These issues, and others, including the role of transformative learning, are addressed in the papers chosen for this special issue on volunteer tourism which are reviewed here. The paper’s conclusions include specific recommendations for greater cooperation between researchers and industry to create a more sustainable industry, minimising its negative impacts while maximising its potential influence for positive social change, and perhaps becoming the ultimate sustainable form of tourism.
* Read the full article online at: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09669582.2014.907299
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About the Journal of Sustainable Tourism: The Journal advances critical understanding of the relationships between tourism and sustainable development. The journal publishes theoretical, conceptual and empirical research that explores one or more of the economic, social, cultural, political, organisational or environmental aspects of the subject. Contributions are from all disciplinary perspectives, with inter-disciplinary work being especially welcome. Holistic and integrative work is encouraged. All geographical areas are included, as are all forms of tourism, both mass and niche market.