International Volunteer Tourism: Growth and Future

It is clear more and more travellers want “giving back” volunteer opportunities either as the focus of their entire vacation or as an add-on piece of a longer trip. Hence, the focus of this website! This post aims to discuss how international volunteer tourism has grown, and how the demand for volunteer tourism trips will continue to change the tourism industry.

According to a recent NPR radio program, more than 1.6 million tourists are spending over $2 billion dollars to participate in foreign volunteer trips, and the numbers of volunteer tourists continue to increase. Besides participating in growing tourism industry trends such as AirBnB – one recognised brand of the sharing economy, or slow travel trips that understand “doing less is actually more,” millions of people are drawn to “paying to work” vacations because they are purportedly known to help disadvantaged third world communities. However because this activity is not actively regulated, many host destinations are not benefitting as much as volunteer tourists may hope. This is likely because the experience is packaged as a consumer driven project rather than a sustainability focused host community development initiative.

While volunteer tourists may have their heart in the right place, the demand for volunteer tourism experiences that make a lasting impact to host communities will continue to change the tourism industry. Volunteer tourism sending organisations and community planners will need to realise that volunteers must be matched according to their skill set, or as in the case of “orphanage tourism,” understand that orphan detachment disorders typically occur because of episodic presence of caring adults. Demographic groups such as Millennials known as “loyalty seekers” who like to take extended meaningful trips because of the unappealing thought of participating in mass tourism, and Baby Boomers looking for a voluntourism experience during their cruising holiday, need to be studied to ensure their activity contributes positively to development in these communities.

The question is, how will the industry continue to respond to this growing tourism subset? And, how will international volunteer (tourist) preferences and ethical stances shape the industry? It appears ethical stances of groups and individuals, for example, have already given their stamp of disapproval towards orphanage tourism as a form of volunteer tourism. Time will tell how the phenomenon of international volunteering will progress. But one thing appears to be true, this type of tourism is not going away any time soon!




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.