You may see them on your summer Instagram feed– exploring a foreign land and culture in the Dominican Republic, taking pictures with the large turtles of Costa Rica, or building schools in China. They are what is known as volunteer tourists.
Volunteer tourists, or voluntourists, are part of a rapidly growing industry that sends volunteers on international trips to aid a certain community, orphanage, school, or a similar institution. This aid can come in the form of teaching a class in English, building a medical clinic, or helping in the farm fields. The industry spends an estimated $2 billion on 1.6 million volunteers every year.
On the surface level, the premise of volunteering abroad seems promising. Participants spend a part of their summer or gap year charitably, seeking to learn about another culture, to add to their résumés, and to gain an experience in which they help another community in the world.
However, at a second glance, the industry of volunteer tourism is a bit more complex.
Volunteer tourists take on work they would not usually do, whether it is construction work or another form of manual labor. These volunteers are usually under– qualified and are not specialized in the work they’re performing– most are constructing a school or teaching a class for the very first time.
Meanwhile, locals who are qualified and even paid to work, are put aside. This begs the question: does volunteering abroad benefit the community in “need,” or does it benefit the volunteer?
Volunteer tourists have an even more negative impact in some other areas, most notably orphan volunteers. These are missions in which the volunteers are the temporary caretakers of kids whose parents have died or are otherwise unable to care for them. Research suggests that the constant arrival and departure of volunteers causes the children to develop attachment disorders. Some of the less well-intended orphanages even sustain poor conditions within their facilities to attract more volunteers and donations.
In the past year, voluntourism has been an issue on the receiving end of media criticism. From an editorial from the New York Times in March 2016, to a satirical Instagram page highlighting the seemingly absurd and ignorant actions of some voluntourists regarding the culture and peoples of the destination they’re visiting, the negatives of the industry are being brought to attention. A stream of Twitter posts from renowned author JK Rowling last August brought attention to the effects of orphan volunteering and voluntourism as a whole.
This is not to say, however, that volunteer tourism is a lost cause. Volunteers with specialized skills can positively impact the communities in which they serve. Trained medical professionals, educators, and others with needed skills can help where they are needed, while remaining cautious of the organizations they partner with.
The Telegraph published a list of questions a volunteer should ask when picking a company to travel with.
When looking at the upsides and downsides to volunteer tourists and voluntourism as an industry, Mary Mostafanezhad of the University of Otago puts it best-– it is “imperative that we look beyond the individual, sentimental experience to understand its broader implications.”