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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 9 Issue 3 Highlights

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"Voluntary Tourism & Responsible Tourism - What's Your Take?"

For this issue, we look to Australia and a 12 year student (Zoe) at the Charles Campbell College who sent in a request about voluntary tourism as part of an assignment for her study in tourism for this term. Zoe sent me an email asking a series of questions regarding the intersection of voluntourism and responsible tourism. Considering the recent move by ResponsibleTravel.com to jettison orphanage voluntourism programs from its website, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to respond to Zoe's queries for this issue's 3-Q's.

Question 1:

1) What does voluntary tourism mean to you? What does responsible tourism mean to you?

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Technically, I realize these are two questions, but I will answer them as one question because I believe that voluntary tourism and responsible tourism are related to one another, with one being perhaps best described as the pre-cursor for the other.

Starting with the latter, I think responsible tourism is framed around an ideal to which we all, as travelers, strive to achieve on some level. If we become "too responsible" based on these ideals, then tourism comes to an end. It will never attain the level of responsibility that can be framed in the context thereof, ironic isn't it.

On the other hand, voluntary tourism (I will use the term "voluntourism" hereafter) is a work in progress. It is an attempt, a rung on the ladder toward responsibility; but, it has some distance yet to climb.

What voluntourism does, however, is give us a chance to seed the transition from the competitive space in which tourism has operated since its inception to a space of collaboration, cooperation, and co-creation. By recognizing that tourism can indeed serve as a mechanism for delivering positive impacts to communities through the engagement of travelers in conservation-based projects or those which focus on the socio-economic well-being of destination residents, I think it will ultimately encourage everyone to approach tourism more responsibly.

The challenge with responsible tourism has been the idealistic nature of it. As an ideal, the pressure is placed squarely on people to make a decision - either I shoot for the stars and "become responsible" or I accept my fate and realize I simply cannot measure up to such an ideal - the "saint" or the "sinner." No one wants to be a "sinner" but unless you have a ladder for the "sinner" to climb, it is virtually impossible to become a "saint." Voluntourism changes the game as it represents an accessible rung on the ladder for every single traveler to grab hold of and start climbing. No barrier to being a volunteer in a destination exists, if, of course, you are willing to use your imagination.

Where responsibility is based on limitations, rules of conduct, etc, voluntourism is based on the singlehearted premise that everyone, EVERYONE, has something they can offer as a service to a host destination.

Question 2:

2) What negative and positive impacts does a voluntary tourist have on a host community? (Please give a couple of examples for both)

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Impacts on the community, both positive and negative, are inherent in voluntourism, as in any kind of tourism or interaction between cultures and peoples. What we would hope is that we can recognize that this is the case and learn to manage and to minimize the negative impacts while maximizing the positive. So let's start with some of the negative impacts.

Voluntourists produce waste, they use natural resources, they distribute their emotions, cultural idiosyncracies, and preconceived notions & judgments, whether they do so consciously or unconsciously matters not. These factors create impacts, negative impacts in most cases; they are, after all, humans. They aim to help from the context of knowing they can help, but not knowing exactly how to apply that helping, often placing their trust and reliance in those who offer voluntourism experiences to be the ones who have mastered this - a potential negative impact in the making if those voluntourism providers are themselves out of touch with the local community.

But there are also a series of mythic negative impacts created by voluntourists, ones that have been generated by some overzealous journalists and bloggers. For example, the "taking jobs from local people" myth - one of my favorites. Voluntourism brings jobs to local communities. How many women and men in my years of moving about the planet with voluntourism groups have earned money making meals, I cannot begin to estimate. Translators, guides, foremen, bus/van drivers, housekeepers - all of these individuals have been employed through voluntourism groups with which I have been associated. Voluntourism, as positive impact, creates jobs.

Voluntourists also deliver an inherent message to local residents - who you are, where you live, what you do - it counts. It counts enough for me to travel halfway across the world to come to your village, your town, your community to offer my gifts to you, whatever those gifts may be.

Anyone who has ever cooked knows that no matter how well you follow the recipe, no matter how good you intend to make the meal, something can always go wrong, and will. The souffle can fall in the oven; the guests can be delayed in arriving and the dressing for the salad can separate just as you put it on the table; there can be too little or too much salt for different palates, etc. So it is with voluntourism. Aim to mitigate and minimize the negative impacts, you will still have negative impacts. It is that simple. But if the company at the table is good, if the majority of the food is good, if the conversation is good, if the beverages are chilled or hot accordingly, if the silverware is clean, etc, then you can bet when all of it is done, the "impact" will be positive. I think this is what voluntourism aims for, completely successful 100% of the time or not. The aim is for overall positive impact. And, I think throughout most of the world, on any given day, this is what happens: net impact of voluntourism = positive impact for the host community.

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Question 3:

3) Do you think that the volunteers are responsible tourists?

What I think is that for the most part volunteers are aiming to be responsible stewards, on some level, for the planet and the communities to which they disperse in their respective quests for being of service. They are not necessarily more responsible than anyone else who travels. In fact, they may not even be aware of some of the elements of responsible travel because they may be inclined to separate themselves from the "tourism" part of their experience. In such cases, they can actually be very irresponsible tourists.

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This is a difficult situation, I think, for the voluntourism and responsible tourism movements. There are a host of individuals who want to separate the volunteer from the tourist, as if to suggest that a volunteer traveling in another part of the world is only a volunteer. This doesn't work, sorry to say. It is part of the reason we introduced the term "VolunTourist" - we do not want people to forget they are both volunteers AND tourists. Yet, you will discover that there are NGOs and universities, for example, which go out of their way to develop a distinction between what "they" do and voluntourism. This is unhealthy, I think.

If volunteers can see the underlying goal of responsibilty to be of service as an impetus to also explore responsibility as a tourist, we may discover how accessible that lower rung on the ladder toward responsible tourist, in this case, the voluntourism rung, actually is. It is a tough climb to responsible, however, and right now I think this is the biggest obstacle. The onus of responsibility is put too squarely on the shoulders of the "voluntourist," yet the supporting cast is far from responsible. What examples can they turn to? Do Aid/Development volunteers travel responsibly? Does the NGO Community have a responsible travel policy that it has unilaterally adopted for employees, donors, board members, and volunteers alike?

The point here is not to take responsibility away from the voluntourists. The point is to apply more of the weight of that responsibility to the supporting casts, particularly NGOs, universities, corporations and others that are involved in the promotion and delivery of voluntourism experiences. Hold voluntourists accountable, but do not pretend that they exist in a vacuum. This simply is not the case.

Language is an important part of this, of course, as volunteers do not like to be called tourists. Somehow, collectively, we have to come to a consensus that whether we personally identify with being a tourist or a volunteer that whatever identity we assume, we are aware of what a privilege it is to be either; and that both aspects are, by necessity, interconnected while volunteering in another part of the world. If we can see voluntourism as a privilege, then becoming a responsible voluntourist will likely come more naturally - in theory, being a responsible voluntourist will eventually be seen as an extension of one's voluntary service.


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