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November 2005 - 3Q's

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November 2005 - Home


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Expanding The Perspective on VolunTourism

Our “3-Q’s” for this month were answered by Dr. Margaret Graham, of Caledonian University, UK. Here is what she had to say in answer to our questions:

1. What would you deem as the underlying factors that contribute towards a growing interest in VolunTourism amongst leisure travellers?

Volunteer tourism is nothing new and has gained its respectability not least through its historic connection with eminent industrial philanthropists, social reformers, medical and Christian socialist missionaries. Bearing this in mind, the idealistic view would suggest a revival of humanitarian values among society. However, in recent decades volunteering generally has undergone a bit of an identity crisis. For some people it has carried the legacy of being an unpaid work activity associated with the leisure time of privileged people.

Further problems of definition emerged when international voluntary work became defined as a form of tourism. In this case the ideology associated with the concept of volunteering was perceived as not fitting comfortably with the ideology associated with the concept of tourism. Furthermore international volunteer project packages became viewed as the commercialisation of volunteering as an alternative holiday option. Here the underlying suggestion labels participants as exploiting volunteering as a means to further pursue lifestyle excesses associated with mass tourism and over-indulgent tourist stereotypes.

I think a more realistic view explaining why there is a recent increased interest in VolunTourism has to do with policy and the media. Firstly there is more encouragement by governments, employers, charitable organisations etc to involve people in voluntary work to build communities and help fill superfluous leisure time. As an effect the benefits of volunteering are being realised by a wider section of society. Secondly, there are more opportunities to volunteer abroad to include pre-arranged package deals on a range of volunteer projects. Thirdly and more importantly volunteer causes and opportunities to volunteer are being promoted much more effectively by the media. Information technology, particularly television and the internet contribute towards this increase. Finally people choosing to volunteer in communities experiencing entrenched poverty, have reassurances and increased confidence that the experience will be safe, worthwhile and involve like-minded people.


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2. How would you compare and contrast VolunTourism with other leisure tourism niches, e.g. adventure tourism, ecotourism etc.?

The concept of volunteering as ideology suggests an element of selfless altruism is involved in the activity. Therefore, the distinguishing factor when comparing VolunTourism with other tourism niche markets is the lack of any contribution towards a volunteering project with some mutual benefit being realised by a cause related goal. These goals would serve to benefit others, the natural environment or may involve the restoration or conservation of buildings or artefacts.

Adventure tourism involves realising personal goals and/or achievements through a range of holiday activities e.g. mountaineering, backpacking our travel which intrudes into isolated destinations and communities. Extremes of activities within this niche have been defined as ‘adrenalin tourism’ where the activity is physically and mentally challenging and may involve varying degrees of risk and danger.

However, at first glance there may appear to be only a fine line of difference between eco-tourists and volunteering. Indeed, eco-tourists share an ideology which controls their behaviour to support a cause. As tourists this would impact on an their choice of destination to ensure they uphold a scientific based set of principles they share with like-minded people. However, this tourism niche may not necessarily volunteer on an eco-tourism related project, although they are in sympathy with protecting the natural environment.

3. In the past we have considered whether VolunTourism could provide support for some tourism niches in the form of ‘value added’ for existing tour packages and offerings. What thoughts do you have on this potential opportunity?

I think this is a specific area for immense potential growth. This fits in with my field of research, namely cultural heritage volunteering.

The role of government including culture on the agenda for developing tourism and lifelong learning is particularly important here. People are being encouraged to be more aware of their roots and to have a pride in the heritage of their locality. There are a growing number of community projects geared towards facilitating more participation and awareness raising about local and national cultural heritage.

Volunteering roles are becoming particularly vibrant e.g. at events and festivals, all of which pull in local people and visitors to the area. Volunteering in not-for-profit visitor attractions has a long history but more recently it has been involving a wider section of the public. This includes volunteers supporting the work of key cultural tourism providers such as museums, art galleries, historic properties such as castles, houses, ships, and churches.

Another innovative example of volunteers supporting other tourism niches concerns the work of a group of community volunteers, the Inverclyde Tourist Group, who provide a highly professional information service and heritage tour for passing through cruise tourists. This service offers a free option for cruise passengers who are not participating in a pre-arranged commercial tour while the ship is in dock. These volunteers act as tourism ambassadors while fulfilling their interest and role in preserving the heritage of the local area.

Margaret Graham

Margaret Graham leads the research team at the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development which is based in Caledonian University, Glasgow. Her role involves working closely and collaboratively with industry partners from (large national tourism related agencies to small not-for profit organizations) as well as with other academics). Margaret’s PhD and main research interests are in the field of cultural heritage volunteering.

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