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FEATURE ARTICLE 2

VolunTourism: The Next Destination

The question may have crossed your mind: "What is likely to be the next destination to declare itself a host for VolunTourists?" Well, this article offers a few, likely candidates and some insight into what factors may contribute to the viability of a country or region ultimately becoming a VolunTourism destination.

On December 9th, 2006, the Jordan Tourism Board North America (JTBNA) announced that it will begin offering voluntourism opportunities to tour operators. Malia Asfour, Director of JTBNA, made Jordanian voluntourism official at the third annual Smithsonian-JTB luncheon held at the US Tour Operators Association (USTOA) annual conference in Scottsdale, AZ. Although Jordan became the first country in the world to make this historic move, they are not the first to explore the potential of targeting travelers who have the volunteer spirit.

Honduras & VolunTourism

In 2003, The George Washington University conducted a student-evaluation trip to Honduras. The purpose of the trip was to determine who was traveling to Honduras, and why. A group of students from the GW School of Tourism began researching the various market segments that travel to Honduras. What they discovered was that travelers to Honduras fell into four basic categories: there were scientists, academics, volunteers, and those interested in being educated while in the destination.

Photo Courtesy Of Ambassadors For Children, All Rights Reserved

For each category, there was a corresponding element, or elements, in Honduras that matched a goal or objective of a particular audience. Some scientists, academics, and those interested in educational travel were drawn to orchid varietals found only in Honduras. The group also discovered, in their research, that volunteers had been coming to Honduras since hurricane Mitch hit the area in 1998. It was estimated that roughly 90 percent of the travelers to Honduras were spending time volunteering to support the rebuilding effort following this apocalyptic hurricane.

This was the first time that a destination had tried to organize itself around scientific, academic, volunteering, and educational travel collectively. The group of students from George Washington University decided that an acronym could be used to promote the four target audiences. SAVE was christened to represent each of the categories of travelers to Honduras. After reviewing the research of the students, the Tourism Board of Honduras determined that they would use the acronym in marketing their country. The “V” in SAVE was not designated as voluntourism, per se, but it certainly set the precedent for other destinations to look at the potential of this market.

VolunTourism: A Response To Tragedy

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The Southeast Asian Tsunami rejuvenated this growing commitment to voluntary service when thousands of individuals traveled to the region in an effort to assist those whose lives had been torn asunder by the devastation. Whether helping to clean up or rebuild in the aftermath of one of the world’s most traumatic disasters in history, travelers were delivering a message that service is no longer considered just an “at-home” offering.

The progressive track for voluntourism was further displayed following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005. The Gulf Coast CVB and the New Orleans CVB decided to adopt voluntourism as a means to help rebuild the cities that were devastated by the hurricanes and to promote tourism. More than 50,000 travelers came to the Gulf Coast in late 2005 and 2006 to support this initiative.

VolunTourism: A Proactive Approach

In Rhode Island, however, voluntourism has been developed, not in response to disaster, but as a means of enhancing the destination and its natural and historic treasures. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council announced in October of 2006 that they are now offering a voluntourism itinerary for visitors to the state. Travelers will engage in numerous activities including supporting some of the local museums, cleaning up the river itself, and assisting local farmers in various chores and in harvesting various food products. Bob Billington, Director of the BVTC, wants travelers to experience a part of the United States that is unique and rich in the history of the founding of the American Industrial Revolution and what better way to do so than through VolunTourism.

Now that several destinations have determined that voluntourism is a viable option for meeting the demands of conscientious-minded travelers, we want to explore what will likely be the next official voluntourism destination. What destinations offer the greatest potential for voluntourism, and why? Let's look at some of the contributing factors that make destinations good candidates for voluntourism.

Photo Courtesy Of Ambassadors For Children, All Rights Reserved

Contributing Factors

Contributing Factor I: Tourism Elements Within The Destination

Regardless of how beneficent or selfless an individual may be, the destination is still what rules the decision-making process as to where VolunTourists travel. Art, culture, history, geography, the environment, unique recreation elements – all play a major part in the selection of a destination. Whether VolunTourists seek to discover the remnants of ancient shrines to civilizations of the past or unveil the latest expressions of fashion and local cuisine, the destination is the supplier/fulfiller of desires that may have been percolating for decades within the hearts and minds of such travelers.

There is an affinity for a particular aspect of the destination and connection with it delivers a sense of accomplishment within itself. The accomplishment builds momentum that carries over into the service side of the VolunTourism experience and supports the VolunTourist in addressing even the most challenging circumstances with a sense of joy and appreciation. Those destinations that host a wide array of these “tourism amenities” have a substantial advantage in drawing VolunTourists.

Contributing Factor II: Existing VolunTourism Operators

Some destinations have been the beneficiaries of inbound voluntourism operators (VTOs) for years. These entities have generated tremendous support through delivering, to the destination and its residents, people of all ages and countries of origin. Such visitors are endowed with a sincere desire to alleviate poor quality-of-life issues for those living in less than adequate conditions or to improve and sustain the natural environment. Many of these VTOs are led by a committed staff that first developed a passion for the well-being of a destination through a personal connection to the residents, particularly in the case of tour operators that hired locals as guides and translators.

Photo Courtesy Of Ambassadors For Children, All Rights Reserved

Contributing Factor III: Small Population-Base of Volunteers

Not all destinations have a supporting infrastructure to meet the needs of their respective populations. Some governments are busily attending to the maintenance of law and order rather than focusing on lack of education, public health, or poverty concerns. Although volunteering is one approach to addressing social challenges, if the preponderance of the residents are unable to render voluntary service because they must valiantly pursue their own self-preservation, this option is non-sustainable. Thus an outside source of volunteers is needed to bolster any sustainable effort toward improving the health, education and welfare of residents.

Contributing Factor IV: NGOs, Market-Perceived Social Concerns and the Philanthropic Potential

A destination may incorporate strategies to “hedge” its visitors from the social concerns facing its residents. Prior to the advancement of communications technology, destination narcissism may have been relatively easy to employ by those wishing to hide or deny the presence of NGOs in certain destinations. But with growing populations in and around tourism “hot-spots,” it is virtually impossible for destinations to protect visitors from poverty and destitution.

Rather than continue to review these as blights on the destination, it is better to embrace them as opportunities to draw a group of travelers that may never have set foot in the destination previously because guest opulence has been construed as abhorrence in comparison to the status of its residents. And for those travelers who have somehow managed to circumvent these areas within a destination, we may find that they have progressed to a point at which they are now prepared to contribute to the improvement of the livelihoods of local residents through “giving with both hands.”

Having NGOs with a long-term, historic track record in the destination can also signal to potential visitors that it is safe to participate in voluntourism itineraries. Residents are more likely to accept the generosity of VolunTourists in villages and locales in which they have become accustomed to hosting visitors and working collaboratively to address social concerns. NGOs may also prove valuable in reaching out to their donor bases and transforming those who have traditionally written checks into VolunTourists also.

(I think it is important to note in this section that quite a number of NGOs have been started over the years by VolunTourists that decided to stay indefinitely or return and commit their personal resources and connections to serving residents.)

Photo Courtesy Of Bike & Build, All Rights Reserved

Contributing Factor V: VolunTourism Champion within the DMO

If you have ever had the pleasure of meeting someone who is enthusiastic about service, yet balanced and pragmatic in that enthusiasm, you will understand how important a figure of this type can be in the development of voluntourism for a destination. Having such an individual established in a leadership role within a destination marketing organization (DMO) can represent the essential ingredient in the development of voluntourism in a given destination.

A “voluntourism champion” does not let small obstacles and established protocols stand in the way of creating and implementing a plan for supporting travelers in doing what is naturally appealing to them in the form of rendering service. This individual recognizes that the wellbeing of the resident AND the traveler can potentially be fulfilled by linking community need with “voluntourist” desire. A voluntourism champion will formulate a new approach that considers mutual reciprocity with benefits accruing to all stakeholders and participants.

Contributing Factor VI: Global Climate Change and the Threat of Natural Disaster

For those destinations that want to impress the world with their foresight, incorporating voluntourism into an Emergency Preparedness Plan (EPP) is an excellent way to demonstrate the wisdom and experience gained from reviewing the challenges faced by other destinations. This may seem incredibly obvious, but following a disaster, most destinations adopt what could be termed as a “voluntourism-by-default” approach. This was evident in Southeast Asia and the US Gulf Coast where the destinations scrambled to organize themselves to receive the outpouring of sympathy from millions of people worldwide. Wholly unprepared to channel this compassion and desire-to-serve, these destinations gave us a glimpse into the realm of “what-not-to-do.” These living case studies give destinations an opportunity to equip themselves with a well-conceived voluntourism blueprint from which to institute a plan should the need arise. And through this process, what a destination may discover is that it has present opportunities for voluntourists without awaiting future devastation.

What Will Be The Next VolunTourism Destination?

Photo Courtesy of Robert Kolesar, All Rights Reserved

The Case for Baja California

Baja California has a number of features that make it a prime candidate for voluntourism development. These include fast-growing gateway communities such as Tijuana, Mexicali, and Tecate. Baja also features an increasing tension between NGOs, environmentalists, and concerned citizens and the entrepreneurs and investors who want to develop its “ Wild Coast.” In addition, Baja is home to numerous indigenous communities throughout the region, and its proximity to the United States and Canada - two leading incubators of global voluntourists – makes it an ideal destination.

If we review the contributing factors for Baja, you will find support in each category. Art, culture, history, geography, environment and unique recreation elements abound. There is an exceptional cadre of voluntourism operators (VTOs) in the region. The fast-growing populations in each gateway city prove unwieldy for an already-stretched social infrastructure, particularly because the vast majority of the population growth is occurring at the lowest end of the socio-economic continuum. Voluntourists already have a tradition of traveling to these destinations and are aware of the social concerns faced by the residents, not to mention the recent increase in US-backed forces to curb illegal border crossings. There are several figures within the Tijuana Board of Tourism, the Baja Board of Tourism, and the Mexican Board of Tourism, who understand the role that voluntourism can play in advancing the region. And, believe it or not, Baja is threatened by drought, earthquake, and hurricane potential.

(In some of these communities tourism is a seasonal opportunity. VolunTourism may be able to extend a seasonal period of tourism by adding a month or two on either end of the season.)

Baja rests comfortably below the world’s fleeting economy represented by the state of California. The growth of service learning and volunteering opportunities in the state of California opens up the possibilities for students and families to easily travel south of the US Mexican border. It is here that they will be able to render more valuable service to those in need. As the Hispanic presence continues to grow in the United States & Canada, Baja California may represent a great resource for those interested in learning more about the dynamics that are being created in metropolitan areas throughout these countries. Politicians, academics, and social scientists – all represent key players who can bring VolunTourism to the region.

Photo Courtesy Of The Pepy Ride, All Rights Reserved

The Case for the Mekong Region

The Mekong Region is comprised of the following countries and areas: Cambodia, Guangxi and Yunnan, China (PRC); Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam [Source: Mekong Tourism Office (MTO)]. The MTO represents an incredible resource for the potential development of voluntourism in the Mekong Region. It was established with part of its mandate being to initiate tourism as a means to alleviate poverty within the region and support gender equality and the empowerment of women. This solidifies interest from the standpoint of a DMO champion.

In terms of additional contributing factors, we know about the wealth of art, culture and other tourism elements. We are also aware of the potential for disaster – i.e., the Southeast Asian Tsunami which, although on a relatively small scale, still impacted Thailand. If one takes the time to review the itinerary listings for voluntourism operators, one will discover that a large number of them offer itineraries to this part of the world. These countries do not host a large in-country volunteer base, and it is nearly impossible to deny the presence of NGOs and grassroots organizations to address poverty, illiteracy, health, and other social concerns facing the general population.

The Case for Morocco

Photo Courtesy Of Xola Consulting, All Rights Reserved

Morocco is a gateway to the Sahara in the south and the Mediterranean Sea in the north. Tourism is well-developed in the major urban areas including Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh. Morocco has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and this naturally improves its appeal to travelers, particularly those who may be interested in addressing social challenges.

A group of voluntourism operators currently takes travelers to Morocco primarily to support local orphanages. There is not a large base of in-country volunteers and the poverty in the rural regions of the country, including illiteracy, access to water, and post-natal and maternal health pose significant, real challenges. Whether there is a DMO champion or a serious disaster threat to the region is still a question. But the other contributing factors may sway a DMO champion to adopt voluntourism even if one does not exist at the present time.

The Case for India

The link between India and Western society is transitioning on a daily basis. With improvements in technology, outsourcing of business transaction systems and customer service has increased dramatically in India. Not to be outdone is the incredible march of spiritual disciplines rooted in the Vedic and Hindu traditions of the guru-disciple relationship to the West. Tourism plays a significant role in supporting the Indian economy.

In regards to each of our contributing factors, the only one that is in question is whether India hosts a DMO champion in support of voluntourism. There is a large number of voluntourism operators in the country, the disaster potential is illustrated with an uneasy regularity, and the participation of NGOs and grassroots organizations to address social issues is, by and large, pervasive throughout the country.

Final Thoughts

The destinations touched on here may or may not become future VolunTourism Meccas. But clearly, there are elements offered by each that demonstrate the potential. Some destinations will continue to evolve with or without the “blessings” of a DMO due to their proximity to a nearby market of voluntourists. Others will continue to experience social challenges that are in such contradistinction to the tourism elements available in these destinations that they will naturally become primary options for future voluntourism development.

The question, perhaps, is more philosophical in nature than I have really presented here. If a destination can reap the rewards of having voluntourism without actually incorporating it into its existing marketing and promotional activities, then why not take advantage of this opportunity? This will be something to ponder for a follow up article. In the meantime…

What destination do you think will be next? If you have a thought, make sure to contact us.

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