Voluntourism Part 7: Volunteering, Tourism and Voluntourism – what’s the difference and does it matter?

Voluntourism Part 7: Volunteering, Tourism and Voluntourism – what’s the difference and does it matter?

So in this whole debate on voluntourism, and some of the negative arguments against it, a question arises – is there a difference between “volunteering” and “voluntourism” in the first place? Isn’t it just volunteering in a different location?

Cambridge Dictionaries Online offers the following definitions:

Volunteer (Noun): a person who does something, especially helping other people,willingly and without being forced or paid to do it:

Volunteer (Verb): to offer to do something that you do not have to do, often without having been asked to do it and/or without expecting payment:

Tourism: the business of providing services such as transport, places to stay, or entertainment for people who are on holiday:

Tourist: someone who visits a place for pleasure and interest, usually while on holiday:

Firstly, to answer the question, I would say yes – there are differences. Voluntourism definitely implies that there will be a travel aspect included in the volunteering program – this is not always the case with “volunteering”.

Part of the reason this question arises is because volunteering overseas has become a mainstream activity (no longer just isolated to missionaries and select charities). One of the arguments against voluntourism is that  the “tourism” part detracts from the volunteering aspect; that if you participate in tourist activities, really your motives were to travel and have adventures, rather than help people; therefore, your efforts are to be frowned upon.

I think Daniela Papi has some great thoughts here in this article.

I agree with her viewpoint that really, the most important question to ask is, “what did they do whilst they were volunteering?” If someone makes a huge positive impact in a community, that impact is in no way lessened because the week after they decided to visit the country’s top 10 tourist attractions.

Similarly, she argues you can’t really say that only “volunteering” itself is good – many people volunteer in their own countries and then go have fun or work elsewhere (their “day jobs”) with the rest of their week – does this detract from their volunteering? I would argue no.*

I can also think of a couple of more points:

1) It is the actual voluntourism program that counts! Like I’ve said in my previous posts in this series, these programs need to actively promote and educate their participants in cross-cultural awareness and understanding – not just presume that because someone steps foot overseas they are magically tolerant human beings. When a program does this and helps participants engage with the community they are volunteering with in a productive and healthy approach, it will not matter if the participants also visit the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal.

2) I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong if a participant is looking forward to the tourist part of the program, provided point 1) is in place. I have been on plenty of youth leadership (and other) programs where the participants were just there to “have fun,” but by the end of the program have actually been engaged with the learning materials and activities and have a whole new perspective. Sure, their original motives can create some challenges in the beginning (and it is definitely better if people do have an interest in the volunteering), but if you have the skills to engage them in the process it can definitely be transforming. 

A final thought on definitions prompted from the Daniela Papi article – what about tourism offerings that are set up as social enterprises? e.g. hotels that are eco-hotels, or that provide their profits into a community cause. Is that counted as voluntourism? I would probably suggest no – don’t get me wrong, I think they are great ventures! But I would suggest they fall under the category of social tourism – similar to when people only buy fair trade items – it’s a daily choice type of thing, rather than a specific program.

What are your thoughts? Are there differences between “volunteering” and “voluntourism”? Or is it only semantics?

*(The only exception I can think of would be someone whose other activities were working against the cause they were supporting/vounteering for – like if someone was volunteering for Alcoholics Anonymous but was was a wine seller and promoting that to the same group of individuals…but that’s a whole other kettle of fish!)

Previous posts in the Voluntourism Series:
Voluntourism Part 6: And now for some positives
Voluntourism Part 5: The economics of voluntourism
Voluntourism Part 4b: As I was saying…
Voluntourism Part 4: “Us” vs. “Them”
Voluntourism Part 3: Who benefits?
Voluntourism Part 2: Who? Why?
Voluntourism Part 1: What is it?


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