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Voluntourism: Looking Good or Doing Good?

The recent boom in tour companies offering international “voluntourism” opportunities has fueled the desire to volunteer. As a result, increasing numbers of voluntourists are paying to participate in projects that do not offer constructive help. They have been described as “new colonialists,” engaging in projects that are designed only with the enjoyment of volunteers in mind. Richard Stupart describes it as “morally ambiguous catnip for traveling narcissists.” So, what could possibly be wrong with helping the “unfortunate?” Read on.

The trips are personally transformative for voluntourists, but host countries often see tourism revenue as the only benefit.

Outsiders often perform work that could have helped local breadwinners earn a living.

Voluntourists take away the incentive for governments to invest in healthcare, infrastructure and other vital services for their own people. When countries get used to handouts, they simply wait for volunteers to show up and provide free services, rather than seeking ways to help themselves.

Short-term voluntourism is an inefficient use of financial and human resources. The costs are considerable, and the funds might be put to better use up-skilling local workers.

To cite some examples…

Orphanage tours in Cambodia are all the rage. Wealthy foreigners who want to play with parentless kids have had the perverse effect of creating a market for orphans. A system has emerged in which parents rent their children out for the day to play with gullible tourists, creating fraudulent orphanages in response to visitors’ demand.

Voluntourists in Madagascar sign up to survey an endangered coral reef, only to find that the reef has been surveyed hundreds of times by other voluntourists, recording no useful data, and further damaging the reef.

Guatemala has become so dependent on voluntourism and the associated revenue, that the government shut down virtually all state-sponsored healthcare. When hundreds of medical teams cancelled their trips because of Covid-19, Guatemalans were left without desperately needed healthcare and surgical attention; hundreds employed by NGO’s lost their jobs, and thousands of hotel and restaurant workers who rely on voluntourism were left unemployed.

For those who wish to help, a more sustainable approach is to focus on capacity building, infrastructure and upskilling local workers.

After all, do you aim to do good or just to look good?


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