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April 2005 - Feature Article 2

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VolunTourism: The Foyer in the Mansion of Global Service

VolunTourism, the integrated combination of voluntary service and the best of travel and tourism – art, culture, history, geography, and recreation, is really a segue to the vista of service options that span the globe. Tourism presents the unique addition to volunteerism of providing an educational context from which a more comprehensive understanding of a destination and its residents can be developed. It is likely, in fact, that the voluntary service portion of these travel experiences will be significantly enhanced simply through having a greater perspective of the region, its people, and natural environment.

But how does a tour operator, incentive house, or nonprofit organization deliver the best possible VolunTourism experience for its clients? Well, to fully answer this question, I will use an analogy – the analogy of a foyer in a mansion.

A foyer has characteristics and specific design features that set it apart from other areas in a mansion. Characteristics may include: 1) welcoming/inviting, 2) simply furnished, and 3) well-lit. Specific design features may include: 1) a closet or coat-rack, 2) access to other rooms, and 3) a larger, sturdier door. If a VolunTourism practitioner is to be successful, analogous traits and elements should be incorporated into the overall travel experience for VolunTourists.

Welcoming & Inviting – If you want to reduce anxiety and increase comfort level, make sure that your VolunTourism programs offer a friendly and supportive environment for guests. If local residents and community members can be involved in welcoming VolunTourists to the destination as part of a reception or “first-day gathering”, this will set the tone for the entire trip.

Simply Furnished – This implies that the environment in which VolunTourists meet community members and participate in their volunteer activities may be quite different than the ornate surroundings of the four- or five-star accommodations in which guests may find themselves during their stay. Community meals, in contrast to the lavish cuisine of these establishments, may also be very simple and characteristic of the foods consumed by local residents. The simplicity of the "space" also extends comfort to local residents so that they do not feel out of place given the stark surroundings of their own homes and villages.


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Well-lit – Volunteer offerings should be clearly described prior to arrival on site at a work project or activity. Participants should know the type of labor, degree of social interaction, and skill-set expectations in advance of participation. Orientation to issues of cultural sensitivity – what to wear, how to introduce oneself in the native tongue, hand gestures and other idiosyncratic behaviors, as well as photography, and interacting with children, is critical to the success of the experience for all parties – residents and VolunTourists alike. There is no such thing as "too much" information when it comes to delivering clarity and purpose as to the tasks ahead and the variety of interaction that may occur.

A Closet or Coat-Rack VolunTourism experiences should give participants – residents and VolunTourists – a place to remove some of their prejudices, pre-conceived notions, judgments, and other “cultural & personal coats.” Work projects are excellent for this purpose, but so are visitations to cultural centers and historic sites. Greater will be the level of acceptance as education and knowledge improves throughout the entire trip. Remember: VolunTourism is the “integrated combination” of BOTH voluntary action and tourism. The tourism aspect of the experience can prove to be the sandpaper that removes the rough edges of indifference and cutlural ignorance prior to voluntary service activities.

Access To Other Rooms – VolunTourism is an opening to the possibilities of future voluntary service and world travel. It is possible that VolunTourists will choose to move to new adventures like volunteer vacations, “volunteer sabbaticals,” service learning, or even “Peace Corps-like” options. It is also possible that VolunTourists will choose to visit different countries and destinations, or more remote locations as a result of their participation in VolunTourism. Having a glimpse of what rooms are “adjacent” to the VolunTourism foyer can prove invaluable in forming future life and travel habits.

A Larger, Sturdier Door – We all crave safety and security. Because VolunTourism experiences are taking us beyond our “comfort zone,” it is important to maintain safety and security on the physical, as well as, the emotional level for VolunTourists and residents. This comes naturally over the course of time as partnerships with local communities flourish. Local residents become more secure in connecting with visitors and incorporating them into their lives - understanding that these visitors are here to assist them in improving their life situations. VolunTourists benefit from the “at-ease” nature of residents and information on how you, as an operator, are creating a safe and secure environment for them.

VolunTourism offers a balanced approach to service and travel. There is plenty of room for expanding one’s view of the world, and improving the conditions of that world and its people, while incorporating a comfortable and leisurely approach to it.

We are not all servants of the masses like Mother Teresa - ready to dedicate our lives to eliminating poverty, leprosy, and class struggle. But we can be introduced to these societal issues and challenges in a way that is non-threatening and respectful of our relative levels of understanding and desire to address them. Wisdom-guided exposure to the destination AND its needs through this foyer in the mansion of global service is the essence of VolunTourism.

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