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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 6 Issue 4 Highlights



VolunTourism 2011: What Can We Expect In The Year Ahead?

Whereas VolunTourism 2010 will be remembered as the Year of the Critics, VolunTourism 2011 is shaping up to be the Year of Small & Medium-sized Destinations (SMDs) and NGOs, with a major twist, in developed countries. That's right, cash-strapped municipalities and NGOs, grappling respectively with lost tax revenues and steep declines in philanthropic giving in the continuing aftermath of the Economic Meltdown, will turn to VolunTourism in 2011. By leveraging travelers' resources - their money, their time, and their bodies & minds, SMDs and NGOs will certainly stretch their own resources, but most important of all, they will move travel from a transaction to an exercise that is more firmly rooted in the relational. What else can we expect in 2011? Read On...


Over the years, we have become accustomed to large destinations adopting VolunTourism. Cases in point:

In early December 2010, the Tourism Authority of Thailand released a press statement discussing, in part, how Thailand would be marketing voluntourism experiences in the country for 2011 to travelers hailing from the Middle East and Europe. The opening salvo of the press release reads:

In similar fashion, Tourism Toronto recently released its "Tourism Toronto Business Plan & Annual Budget 2011", in which it discusses voluntourism from the meetings, conventions, and incentive travel perspective. Page #10 of the plan begins like this:

In 2011, the domination of large destinations in the VolunTourism space is going to change, thanks in part, to the ongoing fallout from the 2008 Economic Meltdown. But we must also give the Economic Meltdown some credit: "making money for the sake of making money is not as acceptable as it used to be."

Therefore, we should anticipate a couple of approaches from Small & medium-sized municipalities and NGOs. First, and primarily, we will see the creative leveraging of their dwindling financial resources coupled with the generating of unanticipated revenues & inkind contributions via VolunTourism in an effort to overcome budget shortfalls. Second, we will see an exploration of VolunTourism as a means to put a different face on the "Economic Engine" that is tourism as a means of embracing a more conscious-style of capitalism, one that is socially involved and invested as well.

Small Destination Volunteer Tourism Pilot Scheme: Byron Shire, New South Wales, Australia

On 19 August 2010, the Byron Shire Council reviewed a research study - - Sustainable Backpacking: Understanding the Ecological and Cultural Footprint of Backpackers in the Byron Bay Community. What will be of interest to most of you is that the researcher, Ms. Mary Grygiel of Villanova University, asked a question of the approximately 100 backpackers who were surveyed: "Would you be interested in getting involved to make Byron Bay a greener destination?" Here are the results:

Ray Moynihan, in his piece entitled "'Volunteer Tourism' Coming Soon" for The Echo, writes:


This lines up well with the second scenario mentioned in the Introduction (above) regarding the more conscious side of capitalism and a socially engaged tourism sector. I think Byron Shire, like other small destinations around the world, has a real advantage in getting the necessary buy-in from key stakeholders. When one is asking whether local residents are involved in the development of voluntourism programs, I don't think you can get much more of a definitive level of residential involvement than the local, in this case, "shire" council, including the mayor.

[Please note: I will not go into the advantages that, particularly, small destinations have over larger ones, as this is a major task, and one not suited for the focus of this article. Suffice it to say, there are notable advantages, and we will be keeping a close watch on Byron Shire and others throughout 2011 as these efforts unfold.]

2011 - Major Emphasis On Volunteering

In the relatively immediate aftermath of September 11th, George W. Bush called on Americans to be of service, to volunteer in their own communities and the world at large. Since that time, the message has been re-emphasized via studies released regarding the improved image of America in places like Pakistan when U.S. citizens volunteer there. Three Cups Of Tea and Leaving Microsoft To Change The World, for example, have discussed the efforts of Americans to first, through travel, discover the world around them and, subsequently, the challenges that other peoples are facing, and to figure out how to support the alleviation of those challenges through voluntary service and direct contributions. And this has clearly carried on throughout the decade that was.

But, now that ten years have passed, the Global Economic Crunch has not subsided, terrorism appears to be more of a global and local threat than it was before, and there are questions being raised about whether volunteering in other lands is truly beneficial for host communities and residents, will we still see the same emphasis on voluntary service in the U.S. that we saw in 2001? And, for that matter, will we see other nations who have been impacted by terrorism - - Sweden, Germany, the UK, as examples - - follow a similar pattern of soft-diplomacy and improving the image of their respective countries in foreign lands by emphasizing the importance of citizens going abroad and volunteering?

VolunTourism 2011: Four Things To Watch For

  • An increase in the number of Small & Medium-sized Destinations and NGOs adopting VolunTourism;
  • An increased emphasis at a global level on volunteering and therefore a natural segue to voluntourism;
  • A noticeable, possibly dramatic drop in children-centric voluntourism, and
  • A gradual increase in the adoption of voluntourism by travel aggregators, consolidators, and affinity groups, as well as eco- & environmentally-focused entities.

Some will also remember that 2001 was designated as the United Nations International Year of Volunteering (IYV). Are we likely to see a resurgence in global emphasis on volunteering as a result? Certainly, the European Union is doing its part with the designation of 2011 as the European Year of Volunteering (EYV). So far, it does not appear that other nations will follow a similar path; however, this could change as the year progresses and UN Volunteers cranks out its public relations campaign on the subject and continues to stress the importance of volunteering to support the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

What will all of the focus on volunteering do for VolunTourism? Good question.

At the very least, volunteering will be a regular topic for the media. Likely there will be progress reports from the European Union on the European Year of Volunteering. I am also comfortable in assuming that the United Nations Volunteers program will do its part as it pertains to the 10th anniversary of IYV and the final-trimester-push toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. In the U.S., the U.S. Peace Corps turns 50 and under President Obama's guidance there will likely be some encouragement to engage Americans to volunteer both domestically and internationally, probably with greater emphasis on domestic volunteering. And, lest we forget, 2011 is a big year in Australia as Australian Volunteers International celebrates its 60th anniversary.

All of these efforts will translate into making volunteering top-of-mind for NGOs and nonprofits, for governments, for companies, and for citizens the world over. Nevertheless, voluntourism stakeholders - - voluntourism practitioners, the travel industry, NGOs, and local communities - - will still need to do their respective parts to insure that the push for volunteering does not completely overwhelm the necessity of contributing to the economic well-being of destinations through touristic engagement. Blending and balancing the two will be the major task in 2011.

Will 2011 Mark The Elimination Of Child-Centered VolunTourism?

There comes a time when one is forced to ask that age-old, infinitely powerful question: "Is it time to move on?"

This question, or should I say, "Is it time to move on from child-centered voluntourism?", has been confronting voluntourism practitioners since August 2010 when Professor Linda Richter, PhD, posted an article in the Newsletter of the Human Sciences Research Council entitled "Inside The Thriving Industry Of AIDS Orphan Tourism." A substantial set of articles, blog posts, facebook links, and tweets have followed with variations of one underlying message - - "voluntourism does more harm than good, and, in particular, it exploits vulnerable children."

If you are a business-minded person, which, whether you represent an NGO or a company, many of you are, it is now very, very difficult to continue operating programs that are designed to focus on vulnerable children, especially orphanages. In 2011, therefore, you will likely see a significant fall-off in child-centered voluntourism projects.

It is troubling, of course, to think that one report, misconstrued and misinterpreted across multiple platforms, will, in all probability, result in the greatest harm to orphans and children. The corresponding commentary and, in some cases, vitriol, has pasted a 'bull's eye' squarely on any voluntourism practitioner who attempts to work with children, most of all, vulnerable children. There is no way that a business can justify continuing a relationship with orphanages and children's centres given the situation with which they are confronted, other than personal integrity and an unrelenting belief that what they are doing is, in fact, in the best interest of the children.

Can this integrity and sense of purpose overcome the negative complex that has saddled child-centric voluntourism? Full recovery is unlikely in 2011.

Past Performance Indicative Of Future Results? 

Against the backdrop of all of the volunteer-centric focus we will see in 2011, there are a couple of milestones to mention as it pertains to volunteering and travel. Travelocity's Travel For Good Program will turn "5" this year and Earthwatch Institute and the advent of 'volunteer vacations' will turn "40." Change Ambassador Grants from Travelocity will continue to be attractive as the jobs market recovers ever-so-slowly and people access other outlets for creative thought and the exercise of their unique skillsets. Environmental 'Citizen Science', the core of Earthwatch Institute's activities worldwide, will also continue its upward trend with growing concern regarding climate change and other environmental issues.

The successes of Earthwatch Institute and Travel For Good have been well documented over the years by academics, journalists, and participants alike. The question for 2011, therefore, is a relatively simple one: "Can we expect a continuation of these successes and will they, in turn, catalyze others to engage in the design and development of similar programs?"

It is an excellent question to consider. Earthwatch Institute is fast approaching 100,000 participants in its expeditions since its inception in 1971. Travel For Good should surpass 40 Change Ambassador Grants by the end of 2011. In the case of the latter, the exposure and recognition that Travelocity is receiving through its initiative is steadily increasing. This will not go unnoticed by competitors and by others within the travel field. In the case of the former, we have already seen similar programs become established over the years - Biosphere Expeditions and Blue Ventures being two examples of Citizen Science in the marketplace. The success of all of these programs, and the growing emphasis on the environment, will result in a gradual increase in the number of Eco-voluntourism programs throughout 2011.

Final Thoughts

To wrap this up, let's recap. In 2011 we should see:

  1. An increase in the number of Small & Medium-sized Destinations and NGOs adopting VolunTourism;
  2. An increased emphasis at a global level on volunteering and therefore a natural segue to voluntourism;
  3. A noticeable, possibly dramatic drop in children-centric voluntourism, and
  4. A gradual increase in the adoption of voluntourism by travel aggregators, consolidators, and affinity groups, as well as eco- & environmentally-focused entities.

I must admit, I am most intrigued by item #1 on this list. I have often mentioned that we have yet to truly tap into the creativity that can blossom from VolunTourism. I believe that small destinations are the incubators of that creativity. We'll have some indication of the truth behind this assertion as 2011 unfolds.

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