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June 2005 - Feature Article 2

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JUNE 2005 - Home


So You May Know
Wisdom & Insight
Supply Chain



Outbound VolunTourism: Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind - - Part I
Identifying "Risk" and "Lack" has been part of the process of developing any new venture or business enterprise throughout the history of business planning . For those that are pursuing VolunTourism, mitigation begins with knowing what obstacles you face.

VolunTourism is certainly unique in terms of its blending of two of the world's largest industries into one, but this does not relieve it from the challenges that beset every business venture or enterprise. In fact, it may be argued that the obstacles are twice as imposing due to the hybrid or cross-platform nature of VolunTourism.

Through research and discussion with Tour Operators, NGO's, and others that have embarked, or considered embarking, on such a venture, we have identified several "Risks" and "Lacks" that challenge the development of VolunTourism business strategies, products and services.

Some of the Risks include:

  • Investment Risk
  • Intensity Risk, and
  • Health & Safety Risk

Some of the Lacks include:

  • Lack of Supply/Demand, and
  • Lack of Clarity


Investment Risk - There are actually two sides of the Investment Risk issue. The first side is for the individuals and groups that purchase VolunTourism products and services. The second side is for the VolunTourism Operators themselves.


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The question that is often raised by "would-be" VolunTourists is: "Why am I paying to volunteer?" This is a legitimate question. "Would-be" VolunTourists reason thus: "If I am paying hard-earned money to participate in something AND am rendering service for which I am not being compensated, I need to feel that I am being amply rewarded for my investment."

For "would-be" VolunTourism Operators, the question is a similar one: "Why would I/we make an investment in creating products and services that are requiring individuals/groups to pay for something for which they would not, under normal conditions, generally do so?" Again, this is a legitimate concern.

Intensity Risk - This one, I think, is the most overlooked - especially by those who offer volunteer vacations. Intensity Risk has two primary features:

  1. Intensity of Interaction with Destination Residents, and
  2. Intensity of Labor

I recently watched a documentary entitled Vacations from the Heart. There were two activities that were highlighted - staying at an orphanage in Peru and construction work in a village in Costa Rica.

In the Peruvian orphanage, participants experienced an extremely high level of interaction with the children at the orphanage. VolunTourists fed them meals, played with them daily, and read stories to them. There was virtually no "escape" for the VolunTourists; had they felt any chal-lenge regarding the constant contact with the children, it would have been difficult for them to change the situation because they were co-habitants in the same facility.

In the Costa Rica scenario, VolunTourists were required to participate in such tasks as digging and trenching, mixing cement, and wood paneling. One of the participants mentioned how this type of work is very different than her desk job at home and certainly more physically difficult.

In either case, the intensity risk may appear more overwhelming in situations where VolunTourists feel that if they do not participate in the activities presented, they will be failing to fulfill their group duties.

Health & Safety Risk - VolunTourism can often take folks to remote locations for work projects and activities. Volun-Tourists will have contact with local residents, local cuisine, indigenous plants, and, in some cases, local livestock and domesticated livestock. Potable water, hygiene options, and bathroom facilities, may be an issue that impacts the health of VolunTourists.

Some of the work projects may involve thatching a roof, or digging a well, or other activities that involve risk. Safety can be a major concern in these situations, especially for unskilled VolunTourists that may be encountering this type of work for the very first time in their lives.


Lack of Supply/Demand - The supply of NGO's and nonprofit organizations is virtually unlimited. However, are all of these organizations prepared to partner with the tourism industry to create VolunTourism products and services? This is the big question.

But there is also the question of demand. Are there enough tour operators ready to embrace VolunTourism? Are there enough individuals prepared to become VolunTourists?

Any given market/destination is subject to dealing with Lack on either side - supply of NGO's and nonprofit organizations and the demand of tour operators or VolunTourists to select their destination as a place to participate in VolunTourism activities.

Lack of Clarity - When it comes to being of service and participating in charitable activities, relief efforts, or development work (see this months "Wisdom & Insight" article), one of the biggest challenges to overcome is the inability for organizations to know, ahead of time, exactly what tasks VolunTourists will perform when they arrive.

This is particularly true of relief efforts, less so for development work, and least likely among charitable acts. But it still does not eliminate the possibility that a VolunTourist may or may not receive full disclosure on potential activities as one might for a traditional travel experience.

This Lack of Clarity can be very challenging for those who want to know EVERYTHING about their travel experience prior to departure. It may also prove unnerving for those who have a sensitivity for timing issues and greatly appreciate an adherence to schedules.

Part II

In Part II of this series, appearing in the July issue, I will address the Risk factors identified above. I will discuss each one in-depth in order to assist readers in developing strategies for overcoming these challenges.

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