Volunteer, tourist? Does the label really matter?

There is a debate in academia and within general public spaces about what volunteer tourism means. Is it a person who travels to volunteer outside their home community, or is it a traveler with a passion for volunteering?

According to a popular definition penned by Wearing (2001), volunteer tourism is “those tourists who, for various reasons, volunteer in an organised way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment” (p. 1). With respect to the word voluntourism, it may be understood to mean “the conscious, seemingly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel – arts, culture, geography, history and recreation – in that destination” (Alexander & Bakir, 2011). Simply said, there appears to be two components of volunteer tourism/voluntourism: the tourist/traveler, and the act of volunteering.

Many people who travel to volunteer feel offended to be called a volunteer tourist. To them, this label does not adequately describe their motivations to travel to volunteer of their time, energy and often large sums of money to make a difference in a far-from-home community. Others are not so bother by the label as their primary motivation is to travel and see other communities in the world by volunteering a few days in the midst of a vacation.

But one thing should be made clear. The community in which the traveling volunteers spend hours or possibly months in are made up of people just like you. They probably do not care what the visiting volunteers are called. What does matter are the attitudes traveling volunteers bring to the community, long term impacts of the project, and particularly the connections made between themselves and the traveling volunteer. Ultimately it is through the interactions between the traveling volunteer and individual community members that life transformations are made, creating a rippling effect long after the volunteer goes home.

Alexander, Z., & Bakir, A. (2011). Understanding voluntourism: A Glaserian grounded theory study. In A.M. Benson (Ed.), Volunteer Tourism: Theory Framework to Practical Applications (9–29). Abingdon: Routledge.

Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: Experiences that make a difference. New York: Cabi.