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Voluntourism: really giving something back?

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OrphanageVolunteer tourism is on the rise, and women make the biggest contribution. Is it right?

Voluntourism has become a multi-billion pound industry.

In the UK alone it is estimated to be worth over £1.3 billion, with over 1.6 million volunteers heading overseas every year.

Specialist tour operators have been set up across the western world to ship willing participants to work on development projects in some of the world’s poorest nations.

Some of these are not-for-profit organisations, there are also plenty of commercial enterprises eager to take your cash in exchange for a ‘meaningful and rewarding experience’ with a community half way across the world.

Volunteering abroad is no longer a niche market; it has hit mainstream tour operators and if you’re not up for slumming it with the gap year students, you can opt for a luxury voluntourism experience, combining five star accommodation with a community project.

This desire to ‘give something back’ in this way is apparently something that appeals mostly to women; according to an article by CNN, 70 per cent of volunteer tourists are women.

The voluntourism industry may have started with young gap year students eager to improve their CVs but, according to the feature, more and more older women are taking up the opportunity.

Alexia Nestora, founder of the blog, Voluntourism Gal, told CNN: “Now tourism companies are catering for an older niche and they seem to be mostly women, a large number either divorced, widowed or retired and looking to start something new.”

“Women really want to connect to people and relate to different cultures when they travel, they don’t want a fly-by experience. Voluntourism gives them this.”

More interesting however, is the claim by some academics that women are more likely to opt for a voluntourism experience to offset the guilt they feel for taking a break.

According to Annette Pritchard, director of the Welsh Centre for Tourism Research and author of ‘Tourism and Gender’, “these holidays offer women a sense of empowerment and a sense of freedom.

“It’s a liberation from the day-to-day routines, but more importantly it’s a guilt free way of enjoying the time off.”

But is it?

VSO raised concerns as far back as 2007 about the negative impacts the fast-growing sector was having on local communities and the volunteers themselves.

The organisation accused gap year providers of pandering to the needs and desires of volunteers rather than focusing on the benefits to local people.

With the huge costs often associated with voluntourism, it’s no surprise the focus is often on the end consumer, and that end consumer is usually wealthy, middle-class and western.

A 14-day five-star trip to India with four days volunteering in a school or on a building project costs £3,600 without flights with Hands Up Holidays.

Real Gap Experience offers four weeks in Thailand mixing adventure travel and the notorious full moon parties at Ko Phangan with volunteering at schools and orphanages, for £800 excluding flights.

The problem with short-term, unskilled volunteering is it can actually do more harm than good.

A 2008 survey by MSNBC suggested that construction and working with children were the most popular options for volunteers abroad, but both risk having a detrimental effect on the host communities.

Last year an investigation by Al Jazeera revealed how voluntourism has become a lucrative business for Cambodia’s orphanages.

It discovered that 70 per cent of the country’s estimated 10,000 orphans have at least one parent living, and that many were being exploited by the volunteer organisations and orphanages to generate money.

The investigation found children being kept in abject poverty just to solicit further donations from wealthy western volunteers.

Similar stories have come out of Ghana, with AIDS orphan tourism being reported, and following the earthquake in Haiti.

Al Jazeera also reported on the psychological impact on the children, of being cared for by a string of strangers without developing any meaningful relationships.

The tragedy of Cambodia’s orphans, and may others, is that so many of them do have families, many of them women forced to sell their children as they have no viable alternative.

One project, the Safe Haven Children’s Trust, is attempting to reunite children with their families in Cambodia, but orphanage tourism is still big business.

There are still any number of voluntourism trips available to orphanages in Cambodia. Projects Abroad for example offers month-long placements in Siem Reap from £1,295 excluding flights.

A scathing blog on the Independent’s Independent Voices highlights another problem with volunteering abroad; it takes work away from local people.

Unwitting tourists signing up to build schools and houses often take away the need for paid labour, leaving local people out of work.

There are many other issues relating to volunteering abroad that make it a particularly grey area; is the money going to the right place? Are the volunteers a drain on scarce local resources? Do they have the relevant skills? Are the projects really needed?

Tourism in developing countries already has more of a negative impact on women than men; according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), women tend to be concentrated in the lowest paid and lowest status jobs in tourism and perform a large amount of unpaid work in family tourism businesses.

If left unchecked and unregulated, volunteer tourism risks creating an even bigger gap between developing countries and the West; the very worst examples can exasperate existing problems and lead to further dependence on handouts.

As VSO has highlighted, there is a danger of volunteer tourists becoming the new colonialists.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) has launched a set of voluntourism guidelines specifically aimed at commercial operators across the globe, while Tourism Concern, a UK-based charity which campaigns for ethical tourism, has set up the International Volunteering Standards Group (GIVS) and works with ethical and responsible volunteering organisations internationally.

Look for Tourism Concern’s GIVS logo if you’re thinking of volunteering abroad, and see Condé Nast’s simple list of dos and don’ts for some initial guidance.

  1. Thank you very much indeed for the mention in this article, and for helping to raise further awareness about these issues.

    Benedicta Bywater
    Founder of Safe Haven Children’s Trust

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