Travel With a Purpose? Debating Volunteer Tourism

Travel With a Purpose? Debating Volunteer Tourism


Also known as voluntourism, amongst a bevy of other expressions, volunteer tourism is a loosely defined trend within the tourism industry that until recently filled a very small niche. However, as environmental concerns grow and there is an increasing social consciousness, more people are exhibiting a sense of responsibility and a desire to travel with a purpose.

It is becoming apparent that responsible travel is no longer the domain of a select few but an opportunity for vacationers everywhere that want to make a difference. And perhaps the most hands-on form of responsible travel manifests itself in holiday programs where visitors get to participate, alongside local communities, in activities that will have a positive impact on the destination visited.

These volunteering vacations are being made available to modern travelers by numerous non-profit and commercial establishments – particularly volunteer, development, conservation and gap-year organizations, though travel companies, not keen on being left behind, are starting to offer their own volunteering vacations. These organizations are quickly gaining popularity, offering an astounding variety of volunteer programs worldwide ranging from:

-marine conservation in Mexico with Global Vision International to
-wildlife conservation in South Africa with Global Volunteer Network to
-Cross-Cultural Solutions’ women’s empowerment programs in India and
-community development programs in Thailand through i-to-i.

Regulating the Volunteer Tourism Sector

As more people become interested in the possibility of traveling with a purpose, the organizations that cater to the volunteer tourism sector continue to grow and new ones are emerging to fill any remaining gaps. In light of this situation, expected questions have arisen regarding the impact of volunteer tourism, not only on the participating volunteers, but on the destination communities and on the tourism industry itself.

Concerned groups like the non-profit organization Tourism Concern have begun to campaign for regulation of the volunteer tourism sector so that negative impacts can be minimized and any positive impacts are augmented. The idea would be to introduce a sort of code of best practices that organizations agree to adhere to in their volunteer tourism programs. Naysayers of such an approach disagree and point out that attempts to establish similar forms of sector-wide regulation within the tourism industry – such as various endeavors to regulate ecotourism throughout the years – have been widely unsuccessful.

Volunteer Tourism as Responsible Travel

The growing popularity of volunteer tourism programs worldwide has resulted in debate regarding the costs and benefits of this emerging sector. Just as there is an emphatic push for established regulation of the sector, there are also those that strongly believe that volunteer tourism should be left to self-regulate. Such divergent points of view are bound to spawn significant debate on this growing trend and the question of whether volunteer tourism is a viable and desirable option for sustainable tourism development will most likely see a lot of discussion in the coming years.

For those concerned traveler-volunteers who wish to visit destinations in a responsible manner – without having to wait for the various stakeholders involved to come to some agreed-upon guidelines for ‘best practices in volunteer tourism’ – there are a number of available resources they can tap into including the comprehensive travel agency website Responsible Travel and Dr. Kate Simpson’s online Guide to Ethical Volunteering.