Voluntourism: Saving the World One Gap Year at a Time? Or Happy Snaps with a Side of Poverty, YOLO!

Gap-Yah-Pack-Shot-300x300Perhaps you’ve seen it advertised here and there on a few travel sites online. Perhaps you’ve even considered lending your own hand to a disadvantaged community in Ghana over your gap year, or saving up a few sickies to teach orphans in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. “Voluntourism” is the fancy name for this emergent trend. A growing niche of tourism based on experiencing a more off-the-beaten-track side of the world; where simple people live contently in huts, shacks, yurts or under the stars; where one can escape an urbanized, neon-lit wonderland of iPhones, reality TV and a constant hunt for identity through affectation.Voluntourism involves directly working with communities on various development projects; peppered with optimistic intentions and best wishes of giving and learning, building ties with the mysterious, simple and somehow enlightened “Other”.The typical “voluntourist” is a young, usually gap-year teen with best intentions, well lined pockets and travel-guide naivety, hoping to contribute to less fortunate communities with their extensive wisdom and great worldly experience.The voluntourist stands to gain great experience, an escape to new and faraway places, happy-snaps with some locals and a general feeling of “doing good” in their quest-from-the-West. But what do the communities gain from hosting voluntourists? After all, developing nations seem to be well supplied with cheap, unskilled domestic labour, even if it’s not gap-year well-wishers. Horin (2012) details that “one in five people who took one of the gap year packages said they believed their presence made no positive difference to the lives of those around them, with one respondent saying ‘I felt that the local community could have done the work we were doing, there were lots of unemployed people there.” It seems the needy in this case might not be so needy for an extra set of hands to dig yet another well or build yet another primary school, let alone use their unique and extensive local knowledge to teach the rural poor out of poverty and single-handedly save whole communities.

To take it one step further though, to delve into the power plays at the heart of voluntourism; there’s a darker twist in the development tourism story. After all, did communities invite young go-getters in to help with their building projects? Did communities call out for rescue to “Gen Y” and their infinite supply of goodwill? The answer is no, communities politely host the new tourists with best intentions and deep pockets. Projects are arranged and run by tourism companies and local NGOs, often with little research into local outcomes or impacts. Communities and the actors within them politely host optimistic school-leavers; while handing over control of their own development and direction in this world to the encroaching forces of tourism and globalization.

And what does it cost to volunteer? I choose not to name, but certain voluntourist packages teaching English in orphanages in Cambodia and Vietnam start from $1399, not including airfares. During this 13-week program, tourists can teach English to a class of up to 10 Cambodian or Vietnamese orphans, no previous teaching experience required, nor even familiarity with Khmer or Vietnamese. To quote Dallas Curow’s blog regarding voluntourism, “Although volunteering may be about free work, it is certainly not free to volunteer”.

At its best, development tourism is a means for communities to access young, enthusiastic workers, sometimes with valuable practical, research and language skills, and develop long lasting bonds to the wider world. At it’s worst however, and aptly described by British research unit Demos, the development tourism industry is a form of neo-colonialism; a way of once again expressing Northern dominance over the South. After all, one community’s struggles and needs are another tourists holiday; an experience one can come to and from at leisure to lend a hand wherever the best Facebook photo opportunities can be found, wherever seems the most off-the-beaten track, out-of-the-way and “hidden”, and wherever one can get in touch with that mysterious, elusive and ancient “other” we are both cautious of, yet drawn to. Development tourism is a big business. It comes with great capabilities, and perhaps even great intentions. But with this also comes great responsibility, and the capacity to do great harm to fragile communities, many of which already feel threatened by the encroachments of a globalizing and shrinking world. Who directs this business? Who decides what, when and where projects should take place? And most importantly, who is accountable? Agencies? Communities? Tourists? Until these questions can be answered, this writer believes sticking to the well-trodden track may be the least harm one could do.
Matt Wilkinson.

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