The Future of Voluntourism

A few days ago I got a Facebook post from one of my brothers who was wondering with his wife if they could somehow meld their fall vacation with a week-long mission trip. He asked me if there was “a need for two caring individuals to come help people in any way around [my] area”, which is currently Bogotá, Colombia. My initial thought was “no way, and it’s naive to think that you can make a meaningful difference in a week, especially in a new country where you don’t even speak the local language.” I didn’t respond that brusquely with him, of course, but the idea of peppering a vacation with volunteer service activities just seemed wrong on several levels, and I know first-hand the dangers of unintended consequences that “service” done by well-meaning people can have. In the past, I’ve even used “service tourist” derisively toward fairly committed volunteers who seemed more driven by their desire for adventure and travel than by a serious call to serve humanity or the planet. But this was my own brother, and I know the sincerity and purity of his and his wife’s hearts. I don’t want to be too quick to judge.

Nicholas Kristof’s “disgusting” family vacation

Something just seems unsavory about vacationing too close to human suffering.  Last week (on June 28), the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof posted this seemingly innocuous update on his Facebook page:

“Spent the day in Jerusalem with family, showing sights — including a great tour of Western Wall tunnels. We had a bunch of rocks thrown at us by Palestinian kids in one neighborhood where Palestinian homes are slated for destruction: ya’ani, big rocks, but none hit us.”

This set off an avalanche of several hundred comments. Among them were these:

“Not sure exactly how you live with yourself. There you are walking around on vacation while some families are losing everything they’ve ever had.”

“What’s despicable is that people can enjoy themselves on vacation while being so closely to massive suffering and despair.”

“You’re doing the ‘tourist thing’ with your family in Palestinian neighborhoods in Israel?? Really?? Treating it like a day trip with the family to the beach is kinda heartless. I’d throw rocks at you too if I were them.”

“I find it disgusting.”

“If it’s for reporting, that’s one thing…But taking your kids there for pleasure? Just makes me sick.”

These are pretty harsh words for a man who makes his living going to the hard places in the world to bring the stories of suffering people to the attention of an otherwise uninformed readership. Why this visceral and acerbic reaction? Perhaps it’s the incongruity of taking leisure where people are suffering. It may be admirable to serve in Haiti and vacation in Hawaii, but it’s somehow despicable to serve in Hawaii and vacation in Haiti. Is this fair?

Just because someone is on a beach in Hawaii doesn’t make the suffering in Haiti any less real. Yet we castigate the person who vacations near suffering and remain indifferent to the person who steals away a safe distance and vacations in some insulated resort while people continue suffering out of sight and out of mind.  Granted, there is still something morally repugnant with having a picnic on a hillside with your children while watching artillery shells rain down on the city below, but maybe there is some ethical room for bringing leisure into proximity with suffering, especially if the leisure time is designed to address the suffering.

An uncomfortable party

When the levees surrounding New Orleans failed catastrophically following hurricane Katrina in 2005, most of the city and many of the surrounding parishes were flooded. It was a true disaster area with widespread and prolonged human suffering. Many people felt it would be heartless to go party in the city just six months later, but that’s exactly what the city asked them to do. The Mardi Gras celebration brings thousands of people and millions of dollars into the city each year. Getting the tourists to come back was vital to city’s economic recovery.

Many developing countries are in a similar yet amplified situation. Places like Tanzania, Guatemala, and Cambodia are home to millions of people living in abject poverty and crisis, and yet each of these countries also has a thriving tourism industry.  When you speak to the people living there, even the very poor,* they are overwhelmingly in support of tourism. They want people to come, spend money, generate employment, and value and share in the place they call home. When I was in Sri Lanka a year after the devastating tsunami, people all along the southern coast were desperate to bring the tourists back, even though many were still living in temporary shelters and mourning lost love ones. The truth is, there are many beautiful places on the earth that offer vacationers spectacular scenery, unparalleled adventure, and warm hospitality, as well as a front-row seat to the indignities and injustice of abject poverty. Should people be squeamish about vacationing in these places, not only would a critical source of income be lost, but the vacationers would miss an opportunity to be exposed to and impacted by the realities of life in these places. Vacationing in Vale, Paris, or Miami only brings more to those who already have much, and keeps those “other places” out of sight and mind.

A New? Vacation Market

I think there may be a progressive link between adventure tourism, eco-tourism, and service tourism. As more and more mainstream vacationers surf the beaches of Costa Rica, hike trails to ancient ruins in Peru, drive mountain bikes through rain forests in Indonesia, ride boats up rivers in India, and tour temples in Cambodia, they are confronted with two unexpected realities: 1) the possibility that their activities are going to ruin the place, and 2) lots and lots of poor people. This inserts a rather uncomfortable feeling into their vacation that maybe they’re doing something ethically questionable. Are they enjoying their leisure at the expense of the place and its people? But instead of planning the following year’s vacation in Hawaii, many decide to do something really different. They go back and look for ways to connect their vacation with the sustainable development of the place and its people.

Of course there are lots of other contributing factors to the growth in popularity of volunteer vacations. In a sense, you could point to the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961 as the start of service tourism in the U.S. (In the UK, you could similarly point to the founding of Volunteer Service Overseas in 1958.) Certainly most of the volunteers who have served since have done so with a humanitarian heart, but many have also (rightly?) seen their terms a government-sponsored adventure vacation. The sharp rise of academic study abroad programs during the 1970s similarly combined two incentives – to learn and to travel. The real boom began in the 1990s, though, as both tourism operators and service organizations began to realize the potential of combining adventure vacations with activities that supported local sustainable development projects.

Now both tourist operators and volunteer service organizations are scrambling to keep up with the demand for both sustainable vacations (eco-tourism) and volunteer vacations (service tourism). And they are having to learn how to work together in ways that benefit both as they both compete and collaborate in these new markets. Today, ecotourism is a multibillion dollar a year business, and service tourism is a rapidly growing market. It’s hard to say just how big the market for volunteer vacations is, however, since it’s not clear when to categorize short-term volunteer service as such. But with Volunteer Vacations being offered on core travel sites like Travelocity (Travel For Good) it is clearly a profitable mainstreamed market. What is also clear is that more and more service assignments are being billed as volunteer vacations. For example, Global Volunteers, which has sent out over 25,000 volunteers in the past 25 years, now refers to their volunteer assignments as “Volunteer Vacations”. Similarly, Global Service Coprs, which has a 15-year history of providing “Service Learning Programs”, has rebranded itself as a provider of “Volunteer Vacations” without actually changing what they do. With all of this rebranding of volunteer service trips and mission trips as “adventure service travel” or “volunteer vacations”, one has to wonder if taking volunteer vacations is what young service volunteers have been doing all along. But, perhaps this rebranding is attracting new recruits; people who wouldn’t otherwise sign up to be volunteer might do so if it’s sold as an adventure vacation with some service activities patched in.

Red Flags Waving

As voluntourism goes mainstream, and the market for volunteer vacations grows, the dangers of unscrupulous operators getting into the game also increases. The evolution of ecotourism is instructive for what surely lies ahead for voluntourism. As the economic incentives increased, some tourist operators simply rebranded their nature tours as eco-tours and essentially used marketing to “greenwash” thoroughly unsustainable practices, such as driving jeeps off-road through the wilderness or paying indigenous people to dress up and role-play to the stereotyped expectations of outsiders. Well-intentioned eco-tourists ended up on vacations as environmentally destructive and economically and culturally exploitative as they come. There are even cases of governments evicting local indigenous people to make room for ecotourism developments from the Philippines to Bangladesh, Brazil, Botswana, and South Africa.

So what lies ahead for voluntourism? The customer-centric focus elevates the experience of the traveler over that of the community where the volunteer activities take place. One website advertises volunteer vacations under the headline “Volunteer On Demand…At Your Convenience.” This may make good business sense – the traveler is paying, the community is not – but there is bound to be some conflict with what the traveler wants and makes good sustainable community development sense. Sales pitches of “getting re-energized”, taking a “tax-deductible vacation”, and gaining an “amazing sense of camaraderie” with fellow volunteer team members beg the question of who is serving who, reduces the community to a tourism product, and sells access to them as part of an experience package.

One has to wonder where this leaves vulnerable communities. When making a profit drives business decisions over traditional service values like “do no harm” or community agency, one has to be a bit pessimistic about that the impact of the volunteer service. That said, I would guess that there will be marked difference between the for-profit tourist operators who begin offering volunteer vacations as part of their portfolio of products and the not-for-profit volunteer service agencies that simply rebrand their learning and service trips as volunteer vacations. The core business experience of a tourism operator is less well suited than that of a volunteer service agency or a development NGO to ensure that the voluntourist’s activities contribute to the development objectives of the community in a culturally sensitive and sustainable manner.

Hope for the Future

Obviously, I’m not the first to feel uneasy about the concept of voluntourism and several organizations are making efforts to help the new market avoid getting corrupted by the economic incentives. A number of ethical codes have been developed for ecotourism operators. One of the earliest is from the Ecotourism Association of Australia, which adopted a Code of Practice in 1994 and has an Eco Certification Program in place. They even have some guidelines for the ecotourists, which I think is great idea. Something similar should be developed for voluntourism. A consortium of legitimate and ethical providers of volunteer vacations would have a market incentive to do this and pay for the operation of a certification program.

Ethical Volunteering is a site that offers guidance to would-be volunteers about choosing a volunteer program. I like this approach; most tourists are just not going to know what questions they should be asking about volunteering or sustainable community development, and they are going to go with what feels good – something that any savvy tourism operator or marketer will know how to manipulate. Ethical Volunteering offers suggestions like exploring how the volunteer program partners with local organizations, asking what eco and ethical policies are in place, and what the time frame is on the project the volunteers will be involved with. These are key questions. If the local community is not involved in decisions about the design and ongoing management of the project, then they can just as easily be a victim of the project as a beneficiary of it. And if the organization offering the volunteer experience has no long-term and regular presence in the community, then questions about disruption and sustainability naturally arise.

Xola Consulting is a group that works with tour operators, government tourism boards, and NGOs to develop adventure and volunteer travel programs that are sustainable and capable of promoting economic and environmental development. I would think that as the market for volunteer vacations grows, the market for consultants like Xola would grow with it. The hope would be that such consulting firms would be as concerned about the well-being of the communities impacted by voluntourism as the economic viability of their client’s volutourism projects. Again, now would be the time for established volunteer service programs to step into this market to help ensure the ethical and sustainable qualities of the volunteer service activities as tourism operators move into the voluntourism market.

There are dozens of organizations providing volunteer vacations, and many (not all, but many) seem to have a well-thought out, balanced, and ethical approach. Among these are, Globe Aware, and Global Volunteers.

In the future, the lines will continue to blur between adventure tourism, ecotourism, and voluntourism. The market will continue to grow for these alternative vacation experiences. Inevitably, unscrupulous operators will enter the market as it grows richer, and the service aspect is likely to get watered down as the focus of short-term volunteer opportunities moves toward customer satisfaction and away from quality, ethical, and sustainable community development. But, there is hope too if the legitimate volunteer organizations recognize that this shift in the tourism market is both an existential threat and a fantastic opportunity. If they step in now to provide consulting services, to shape a code of ethics, and to operate a certification program, they can help ensure that voluntourism does right by both the tourist and the communities they volunteer in.


* I’m not saying this hypothetically; I’ve spoken with people who are among the very poor in each of these countries about their tourism industry and how they feel about it.

(The third image of photographers and children is from Tourism Concern.)


Tags: , , , , , ,

Categories: Volunteering


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

44 Comments on “The Future of Voluntourism”

  1. Jim Hunt
    July 11, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    I found the article thoughtful and helpful, especially with the relevant links and brief assessments of those links. There are also other service communities relative to the environment worthy of note that do service abroad such as Sierra Club and very big organizations for seniors that offer service opportunities–these should be assessed as well since seniors have different health issues that younger people. The Peace Corps’ program wasn’t just adventureism–there was a serious Cold War component to it as well since JFK was concerned about the revolution of rising expectation in “Third World” countries–so it was an arm of U.S. foreign policy–not just to provide an adventure for young adults. The Peace Corps turned into more than that in that it raised a cadre of young Americans more aware of global issues of poverty that changed their lives as academics, voters and concerned citizens. This reverse “transformation” is a key element to any short term service project and should not be under-estimated in its value or worth. What is important is the subsequent follow up on the nature of the learning and trtansformation that has taken place.

    • July 16, 2010 at 12:34 am #

      Thanks for your thoughts Jim.

      I didn’t mean to imply that the Peace Corps was “just adventureism.” By saying that its founding can be seen as the beginning of voluntourism in the US, I was merely implying that prior to 1961 the number of overseas volunteer opportunities was quite limited and that the motivations of such volunteers is often a mix that includes both altruism and adventureism. Of course, the value of Peace Corps can be debated on a number of levels, including as an instrument of US foreign policy, as an agency of international peace and development, and as a transformative influence on young citizens. But I think you’re right in that it has profoundly changed a couple of generations now of young citizens and I agree whole-heartedly that the value of this transformation should not be underestimated.

      I almost mentioned the Sierra Club, which leads over 90 service trips (which they now call “volunteer vacations”!) each year. A number of the other organizations I looked at also stratified some voluntouring opportunities to gear them toward seniors.

  2. Jenny Albertson
    July 11, 2010 at 11:01 pm #

    I understand what you are saying Aaron… Todd lives and works in Iraq and has said what a beautiful place it would be to visit and a tourist attraction if the people didn’t hate each other so much… Everything around him is a reminder of biblical times and he is constantly reminded that there is a God… If only we could go there to visit/help without the fear of being killed because of our beliefs… Very well written…

  3. Clare Scott
    July 12, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    Should organisations involved in community development be encouraging voluntourism at all, if the ‘volunteers’ are taking (potentially paid) employment opportunities from people who could (and should) be contributing to the development of their own community. When I took a team of young Christian volunteers to Rwanda in 1999, we ended up working alongside local community members who were rebuilding a school devastated in the years prior to the genocide. As my team nagged me for ‘something to do’, other than kick a football around with the local children, I learned that the other people working on the site were not happy giving us certain tasks to do (like mixing mortar and laying bricks) because they were being paid for what they did. The more ‘help’ our team gave them, the less they earned. And why should young university students from England need to learn how to lay bricks for fun when a local person could be doing it and being paid for it?

    • July 12, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

      I think you raise a valid question, which is why it makes sense that voluntourism projects are best done in partnership with groups from the the local community who decide what help is needed. The reality is that in many cases there simply isn’t the money available for certain kinds of paid work. Volunteer work theoretically can theoretically replace paid labor, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily does. This is the case whether you are volunteering at home or overseas (I rarely hear anyone complain to me when I volunteer at the food bank in my home town that I am taking someone’s job away from them.)

      I was involved in a very short term voluntourism project in Mexico late last year. We assisted in what was a long term project managed by a local women’s cooperative. We bought some building supplies and helped out with some of the construction, but we were there side by side with volunteers from the cooperative itself, along with some of their children, all of whom were pitching in. There were also some paid craftsmen doing skilled activities like electrical work, but the whole community was also doing volunteer work, and we who were doing the voluntourism were just part of a greater volunteer effort. To me, this is the sort of situation where voluntourism shines. It wasn’t about outsiders swooping in and rescuing anyone, but rather about assisting a project that they local community managed, as well about cultural exchange, and cooperation, bridging boundaries, and making contacts.

  4. July 14, 2010 at 1:06 am #

    Check out Corner of Love:!/group.php?gid=25993527690&ref=ts

  5. July 14, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    Yes, it is very hard to imagine businesses exploiting the needy for the sake of their customers’ “experience” and yet, I wouldn’t necessarily put it past Big Business to do so.

    I have always maintained the idea that help is only help when the recipient needs it and when it comes in a timely manner. Can this be an overriding theme with emerging eco-tourism programs?

    Lastly, what do you think, Aaron, is the likelihood of volunteer vacations involving children? While I envision the types of programs you’ve mentioned in this post as catering to adults with either deep pockets or resources for fund raising, how would/could families with children fit into the picture?

    Nice work, as always…

    • July 14, 2010 at 3:18 pm #


      Thanks for your comments. I think that the exploitation in this industry isn’t necessarily of that evil sort where the exploiters are aware they are explointing. I think it is more of the sort (perhaps even worse) where the exploiters think they are helping people! Certainly, the providers of voluntours are not “big business”; we’re talking about small to medium sized NGOs and a few early adopter tourism operators.

      As to the availability of voluntours for families, you are right that most are geared toward individuals. But there are some geared for families, or at least some that make room for families. For example, Global Service Corps has a tab on their main page for families who want to voluntour together.

    • July 14, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

      For what it’s worth, the organization with which I did a voluntourism trip with to Mexico last year, Global Citizens Network, is very family friendly. I was traveling solo on that trip, but on the trip there were two families.

  6. mike
    July 15, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    I agree with what I think is the point of the post. For groups that we lead to various places in the world, our view of tourism, service or the blended voluntourism is to think of the journey as a pilgrimage. There is no “point” to the trip, it is rather a circle. The circle includes all aspects of preparation, including fund raising, the trip itself, and then the changed course when one returns home. The focus on a binary “point” of the trip, service or tourism, is a very limited and in fact wrongheaded view of the actual experience of travelers. If you go to only to serve, then you are the giver, the people are the takers, and where are you left when you come home? If you go for tourism alone, it is easy to believe that you are the taker, the place you are visiting is giving to you, and you come home with all of spoils. In truth, sometimes the actual result is the opposite. The giver becomes the receiver, and the receiver gives much more than they know. No wonder people get confused by the experience when they come home. They actually experience the opposite of what they expect. In either case, everything ends at the airport. Our approach is instead that when you come home you are simply moving from one part of the circle to the next. The rest of your life is not simply an “add on” afterthought, but a changed life course was an expected part of the journey from the begining.

    • July 15, 2010 at 10:20 pm #


      Thanks for that comment. Your philosophy echoes a lot of what we aim to do with medium to longish-term volunteers (2-4 years) at the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, where I’m a member of the Board. How re-entry is managed can be the difference between someone who looks back at their time as a volunteer with nostalgia and thinks “I was really idealistic and not a little naive, but that sure was a great, if confusing, experience” and someone who has worked through a process of reflection and articulation that allows that transformative experience to shape the trajectory of their “post-service” life as a “glocal” citizen.

      By the way Mike, what organization are you from?

  7. July 16, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    With permission, I am posting part of an email I received today from Catherine McMillan, Vice President- Volunteer Communications, Globe Aware.

    “…I just read your blog post and thought you did an
    outstanding job of discussing the benefits and potential problems with
    voluntoursim. In your section on “Hope for the Future” you mention the need
    for ethical codes that police organizations that do this type of work. This
    does exist– the International Volunteer Program Association is such an
    entity and all of the member organizations are held to high standards
    regarding their practices in the communities in which they work, how they
    use volunteer contributions, etc. In fact, when we get inquiries about
    opportunities I always advise potential volunteers to check and make sure
    that the organization that they will be volunteering through is an IVPA

    We work very hard to ensure that our projects are community identified and
    driven and that our work is sustainable in nature. I agree with you that
    NGOs are more able to work with communities in a culturally sensitive manner
    than for-profit outfitters. However, as voluntourism becomes more
    mainstream, more for-profits are taking notice and trying to take advantage
    of the potential profits to be gained from well intended voluntourists.
    People should be aware of the differences between these types of
    organizations and what they offer, their standards for working in
    communities, etc. Education is key.

    While voluntourism done wrong is indeed a threat, when it is done right it
    is truly, in your words, a “fantastic opportunity.” I have personally
    experienced this while taking my kids on our programs. It is a different way
    to see the world and it promotes the kind of peace, understanding, and cross
    cultural awareness that is needed in our world today.

    Job well done and thanks for sharing! … Have fun, Help people!”

    • July 16, 2010 at 12:23 am #

      The following is from the IVPA website (

      The International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA) is an association of non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges. IVPA is an association of volunteer sending organizations but does not organize or run its own volunteer programs.

      Membership with IVPA is a distinguished mark of excellence. We stand for responsibility in the field of international volunteer abroad programs. Our members are expected to uphold the IVPA’s Principles and Practices as guidelines for good programming as well as meet stringent membership criteria.

      IVPA promotes awareness and access to valuable volunteer programs abroad. IVPA can serve as a guide to anyone considering volunteering abroad or developing international service opportunities. This includes but is not limited to prospective volunteers, newly created volunteer sending organizations, corporations, and colleges and universities.

      IVPA is a forum for international volunteer program representatives (staff, board members, etc.) to share information and resources, develop new skills, and collaborate on cost-saving initiatives.

      Any program that regularly sends groups or individuals to work abroad as volunteers or interns, for any length of time, falls under the broad category of “International Volunteer Programs.” International volunteer programs offer unique hands-on learning experiences which promote cross-cultural understanding, cooperation, and solidarity among individuals and communities around the world. They encourage participating volunteers to examine how their work and daily choices back home can have an impact on economic and social conditions in other parts of the world.

      If you represent an organization that is involved in international volunteer exchanges, and would like to become a member, please contact

      • July 18, 2010 at 9:44 pm #

        Tourism Concern

        I just found the website for Tourism Concern, which fights exploitation in tourism and campaigns for more ethical, fairly traded forms of tourism. Good for them.

  8. Joel
    July 16, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    A friend sent me the link to this blog, and I think is a really important conversation, especially for the people who are going in short term mission/volunteer-trips. I have done community development in Guatemala for several years (though I am not living there right now), and being a Guatemalan one of the things that has hurt me the most is seeing the paternalistic view of people coming from “developed” countries. I think the problem is when this NGO’s and service organizations, and of course the volunteers, assume they know what people need. They go with their own agenda, and do what they think is necessary. But, the reality is that they have abused and oppressed the community because they have neglected the capability of the locals to see what they need. And, trust me, people in these communities know what they lack. I would say that the only way to do this kind of “tourism” is through a previous relationship with the NGO and the community the “tourist” is planing to serve. It would be more sustainable if once the group, family, or whoever is having the service-vacation, has the commitment to support what is happening in a specific community, willing to sustain the relationship with the community as well.

    Thanks a lot for starting this conversation. I wish more people would reflect on this issues.

    • July 16, 2010 at 9:30 pm #


      I appreciate your thoughts, thank you for sharing them. You’ve articulated something that I’ve written quite a bit about, which essentially boils down to this: volunteers need to have a set of principles guiding their service that is well thought out. If they don’t, their service can turn into something ugly, something that neither they nor the communities they intend to serve would ever choose. I have included a link below to a paper I wrote about ten years ago, which is the source for the name of this blog, “Staying for Tea: Five Principles for the Community Service Volunteer.” I may break it up into bits at some point at post it here as a series, but for now, you can read it online or download the pdf from The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship website.

      Staying for Tea article

      By the way, I love Guatemala and its people and have spent about 6 months cumulative there from a number of visits over the years. You may have recognized that the woman featured in my blog’s header is a Guatemalan woman I visited with about 5 years ago in a village called El Chorro.

  9. Steve
    July 16, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    I live in Guatemala, and see how those who are purely tourists, and those who altruistically sign on for a tour help the country. And tourists have actually affected government policy. But those with consciences seem to feel there is something not quite right…that tension between bringing your dollar to a needy country and being content to just say you came to enjoy yourself. The White Man’s Burden goes on vacation.

    Clear definitions could help. Charitable endeavor or entertainment? Missional vacation or vacational mission? The question is, ” who cares, and are they mutually exclusive? ” If motives matter…the answer must be yes. But a muted yes, as good intentions do not make for good outcomes. Tourists provide profits for the rich, and an almost living wage for the lucky poor who work the resorts and restaurants. Christ motivated missioners should have a better impact.

    Truth and transparency might be the best safeguard for those who wish to help.

    But when Money is to be made, it often seems that truth is the first casualty. There are a number of areas where the dollar will be the temptation to avoid truth in this realm…

    One: the operators and facilitators. Their goal is profit, ostensibly, and nothing wrong with that…however there is a real tension between what brings both short and long term profit, and what is good for the community.

    Two: The NGO’s. One NGO operator/business man in Guatemala enjoys the squirms when he asks missionaries; ” If they brought no money, would you still invite STM’s?” The squirm is from the marketing literature that extols the need of the community, rather than the NGO’s dependence on STM bucks.

    Three: the community itself…who says no to people who show up with a lot of cash? Whatever they are asked, the answer might be what they perceive as expected.

    Are these three groups of recipients of the [*.tourism] dollar interested in the tourists/team members apart from being a source of financial resource? An honest answer to that question might help the ” customer/donor” decide how to spend/steward his money.

    • July 16, 2010 at 9:42 pm #


      As I mentioned to Joel, I am a huge fan of Guatemala – it is a beautiful country with beautiful people (at least outside of the capital – sorry, but truth before flattery, right?) At any rate, I wanted to reply to one particular point you made at the end of your comment about the community.

      Three: the community itself…who says no to people who show up with a lot of cash? Whatever they are asked, the answer might be what they perceive as expected.

      One of the key principles for good community service volunteerism is to focus on community values and if any envisioning or planning processes are done (for example for a project design), then use an asset-based approach rather than the traditional deficit approach that we all know as the “needs assessment.” I encourage you to read through my paper “Staying for Tea” and would direct you to Principle 3: “Focus on Values” where I go into some detail about this.

      • Steve
        July 24, 2010 at 4:27 pm #


        Thanks for responding…and the link to an incredible treatise. May I quote it when speaking to NGO’s here?!

        I agree with the asset based approach. There is so much going on in the target communities that is invisible to well intentioned outsiders.

        Given the time it takes to discern those assets, and this context of Voluntourism, it may be it may be good to just say again; ” Come, and spend your money in the community, and come back again, and again, and keep spending, and then, and still; one should come with an awareness that what one doesn’t know vastly outweighs what one does know. But hopefully, with time and open eyes, the outsider can discern which local mover and or shaker is a possible partner. THEN ask what the assets of the community are. And ask with an intent to listen to the answer, and not readily filter the words offered in response.

        I have been blessed with poverty* for much of my time in Guatemala, and it has allowed me to experience the non monetary abundance of wealth in the “poorer” communities. Unfortunately, in a Heidelberg Principle sort of way, the wrong questions of cash rich well intentioned visitors can cause useless answers, and distracted programs.

        * I say poverty like most of us Americans. That is, although I am more than blessed with sustenance for my primary project, I never seem to have the money available when approached with requests for financial help.

    • July 24, 2010 at 11:42 pm #


      Yes, you are welcome to quote from Staying for Tea. The article is being used by volunteer sending organizations in their orientation of new volunteers, in the classrooms of a half-dozen universities, and by at least one university’s international service and learning programs. For the sake of doing good work and for the sake of the communities hosting service volunteers and NGO workers, I am happy to have more people talking about the ideas articulated there.

  10. July 17, 2010 at 5:50 pm #

    I am so glad to have found your website and this discussion through a Globe Aware Tweet!
    I myself grew up going on mission trips with my church youth group, and quickly found that serving people while traveling was a passion of mine. I took a gap year after High School and went for a Christian based service trip with Youth With A Mission. This 6 month trip opened my eyes to some of the issues you brought up in the Future of Voluntourism.
    I would like to reiterate the point you made about any grassroots NGO offering volunteer vacation opportunities. Do NOT trust just anyone because they have the NGO designation!
    I unfortunately know of a woman who went to do a research project for her masters degree with such an organization, was charged an outrageous amount of money and was put in harms way multiple times. The story ends with her getting robbed of everything she had just before flying out, and needing the help of the Dutch Embassy to get herself home.
    I have witnessed derelict Peace Corps and NGO projects in rural Kenya, as well as felt useless in a volunteering situation where there was no work set aside for the group to do. I found that sometimes the best spent time is just visiting with locals, and learning about their lives. Showing sincere interest in a person and making a friend, is service to anyone.
    Any “outsider” coming into a destination cannot assume a particular solution is appropriate or create a sustainable project without the full effort and cooperation of a community. A community knows what their major issues are and viable solutions to solve them. Therefore, I personally advocate only volunteer vacations that work with a community when developing projects.
    I also believe that a serious application process is necessary to weed out those people that may distract the group from the volunteering tasks at hand. In order to work efficiently the group, volunteers must maintain a sense of morale, commitment to the project, and selflessness. Even one person with a bad attitude can ruin the momentum of an entire group. As volunteer vacations become more mainstream, this is an even increasingly more important issue. I sure don’t want to be stuck in a volunteer situation with someone complaining about everything!

    Thanks for the great points made about volunteer travel, and resource links!

    • Steve
      July 24, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

      To your comment: “I found that sometimes the best spent time is just visiting with locals, and learning about their lives. Showing sincere interest in a person and making a friend, is service to anyone. ” I say amen and amen. The personal touch may have an effect more lasting than the shack construction that might have seemed the primary purpose of the trip.

      As well as application process, though, we really need to recognize that false advertising will generate ill will, and attract folks who will behave badly on the trip. That one person with a bad attitude might be reflecting a less apparent discord. Sometimes someone is simply being an ass or having a bad day in an uncomfortable environment. But they might be the “canary in the coal mine” who is most sensitive, albeit unconsciously, to the disparate stated and the actual motives of those in charge of the effort.

  11. July 19, 2010 at 2:55 pm #


    Good synopsis of the benefits, pitfalls, and application of voluntourism. I believe that it can be a valid concept to help the world.


  12. Nate Brown
    July 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    I think community-based tourism ( plays into your discussion here, and hopefully will expand in the future.

  13. July 29, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

    Voluntourism is a great opportunity for all people. Now people can travel and have a wonderful vacation quite inexpensively while helping out others who are less fortunate, it is a win-win!

    To explore voluntourism opportunities and to read stories from people who have done these events, please visit

    • August 4, 2010 at 11:35 am #

      Although my spam filter wanted to keep your comment out, I went ahead and checked out your organization. I’ll give my readers the opportunity to form their own opinion. In the future, however, I would prefer comments to do more than advertise – perhaps responding to some of the concerns I raised about voluntourism.

  14. Clare Scott
    August 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    Aaron, have you heard this piece on ‘poverty tourism’, which I just picked up from the WVI website:

    • August 5, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

      Thanks for sharing that Clare. I reposted on Staying for Tea’s facebook page and put the link up on my twitter account as well. It is a good interview. I wish the host had used the more euphonic “Community Tourism” rather than “Poverty Tourism.” But, it does seem like a good example of how an organically-grown, community-let tourist project can be empowering to the community. And, actually, that was my other little pet critique of the piece, Josh only mentioned the economic benefits of employment and tourist bringing dollars into the community as how they are empowered. It seems to me that having control over who is coming into their community and what they are seeing and hearing would be the real source of empowerment. Being able to retell their own story as agents rather than letting a tour guide write the script on them as subject would be at least as beneficial, in terms of “empowerment”, as the few jobs created as a result of increased visitors. Thanks again for sharing.

  15. August 11, 2010 at 8:17 am #

    It’s important to understand people’s experience of what it is to be “visited.” Great article from the NYT highlights this: “Slum Tourism: People think they’ve ‘seen’ something & then leave me & my family where we were before”

  16. August 11, 2010 at 2:51 pm #


    I’ve been working on a follow up post tentatively titled, “Tourism Types & Development: a Ranking from Worst to Best.” (I’d happily take suggestions for a snappier title.) Slum tourism (also known as “poverty tourism” or “poorism”) is one of the types that I score and rank. I hope to post this on Monday, the 17th.

    Thanks for the link, I’ll be sure to read it before posting.

    • Steve
      August 12, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

      How about “a Rating of Voluntourism; or A Dummy’s Guide to Slumming”


  17. September 23, 2010 at 10:51 pm #

    Hi Aaron, I just wanted to add my own thanks for a great post. I’ve been following a number of voluntourism blogs, and I think you hit it right on the nail.

    To add to the conversation, I think in today’s world it has become increasingly difficult for interested volunteers to find quality information (such as blogs like this one), which leads to unrealistic and failed expectations. It also doesn’t help that there are certain volunteer organizations that knowingly play on the ideals of volunteering, rather than the realities. If someone randomly decides to embark on a ‘volunteer vacation,’ and is willing to pay $2000+ for it, you better believe there is a company out there willing to take that money with little regard to the community where they will be sending that volunteer, and a bad situation ensues.

    It would seem to me than that more needs to be done to strengthen associations like IVPA (thanks to whoever shared that link), and foster an online environment of shared knowledge. This would hold volunteer organizations accountable, and improve the knowledge of volunteers before they establish unrealistic expectations.



  18. December 3, 2010 at 4:59 am #

    Thanks Aaron for this balanced article.
    You are right to point out the risk of unscrupulous operators (supporting a Code of Conduct is one way to minimize this risk), and thank you for pointing out the efforts of ethical websites like Ethical Volunteering and Xola Consulting, both of which do great work.
    Christopher Hill
    Hands Up Holidays

    • December 13, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Christopher; sorry it got held up by the spam blocker for some reason. Best to you and your work.

  19. June 24, 2011 at 3:27 am #

    Hello, its good work raelly done at your organization.
    my concern is about hosting your volunteers here in Uganda.
    At Uganda Youth Skills Training project has volunteer opportunities and thought that we can partner in hosting your volunteers here in Uganda,
    l have founded an umbrella organization that is comprising over 200 community organizations and we will be ineed of your volunteer support, thank you and am looking forward to hearing from you.
    UYSTP,website link is
    For the case of Umbrella organization list of organizations will be sent to your office on request.

    • June 27, 2011 at 11:56 am #

      Thank you for your good work and invitation. If you are referring to the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, I should clarify that we do not send the volunteers. Rather, we provide support to a select group of volunteers that have accepted assignments with other established volunteer sending organizations. There are a few cases where the volunteer has made special arrangements with a non-sending volunteer organization – something like the Uganda Youth Skills training project – a volunteer accepting organization. What I will do is pass on this comment and your contact information to the Program Director at the Foundation. They will be able to look more at whether or not there is a good fit and could provide information to potential volunteers about your organization. Also, I’m planning on being in Kampala in early August and we could arrange to share a cup coffee and talk more about your work. Be well.

  20. May 28, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    Hi Aaron,
    Thanks for this post. I see it’s been up since 2010, but this is the first time I’ve found it. I really appreciate your thoughts, which are balanced, as well as the resources others have assembled and shared here. I’m going to look more deeply into IVPA and Tourism Concern. I’d also like to share resources I’ve been helping assemble – specifically for university faculty, students, and staff interested in engaging in critical & reflective service-learning. They’re here: .. as well as a blog post I contributed to Good Intentions are Not Enough that defends good and thoughtful voluntourism. It may come across as rather aggressive…… I had been reading a lot of strong, unbalanced critiques :). Thanks for your post!

    • May 31, 2012 at 10:52 am #

      Eric, thanks for pointing me toward Building a Better World. It looks like a good site; I’ll have to carve out some time to explore it. I also appreciated your article at Good Intentions – aggressive yes, but not inappropriate. Comments are worth reading through as well. I don’t know if you saw my other posts related to ‘Poverty Tourism’, but you may find them worth reading. Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance and Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0.

      • June 3, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

        Thanks for those links. They are excellent. I’m looking forward to more conversation.


  1. Tweets that mention The Future of Voluntourism | Staying for Tea -- - July 16, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Globe Aware, Emma Roche. Emma Roche said: RT @GlobeAware: Very sophisticated blog entry titled, The Future of Voluntourism, addressing vacationing on other ppl's disaster areas […]

  2. Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance | Staying for Tea - August 17, 2010

    […] tried to give a fair treatment of the subject in my post: The Future of Voluntourism, while raising the necessary red flags. Two other resources are: Voluntourism Gal, a blog […]

  3. Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0 | Staying for Tea - August 27, 2010

    […] on responding to the labor motives of volunteerism. In one of my very first posts as a blogger, “The Future of Voluntourism” I provide a more detailed explanation of this difference and its implications for development […]

  4. RANDOM NOMAD: Aaron Ausland, NGO Research Director & Development Practitioner « The Displaced Nation - November 30, 2011

    […] “The Future of Voluntourism” […]

  5. Voluntourism: What You Need to Know Before Signing up | jetsettimes - September 24, 2012

    […] also wrote a longer post dedicated to examining voluntourism here, and it is well worth the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: