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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 7 Issue 3 Highlights

Barrett's Organisational Consciousness Model


Governmental Regulation of Voluntourism: No Longer a Matter of If, But When?

What happens when you take a multi-billion dollar (USD) industry that moves millions of people around the planet, employs tens of thousands, impacts millions of individuals, especially residents in local communities, sprinkle bloggers' and media's obsession with its potential negative impacts, and add a dash of academic journal articles questioning its ethics? You have all of the ingredients necessary to compel governments to step in and start taking control of the situation. Tanzania has made its emphatic statement: "If you so much as pick up a shovel..." it will cost you - $550 to be exact. Sure, they've done this before, back in 2009, but not so explicitly. While there appears to be a preoccupation with setting global guidelines for voluntourism, is anyone paying attention to the fact that some countries may be on the precipice of setting voluntourism policy?

"Out Of Africa"?

"Tanzanian law is very strict on visa categories. A recurring problem encountered by U.S. citizens is that volunteer activity – even if the traveler is paying for the volunteer opportunity – is prohibited on a tourist visa. U.S. citizens traveling to Tanzania for short- or long-term volunteer projects should review their status with the sponsoring organization before entering the country.” U.S. State Department website 

Such moves by governments raise many, many questions for those of us who are not privy to direct interaction with the decision makers. We could create a long list of speculation as to why this is taking place, but I would like to offer three scenarios, in lieu of the fact that the Tanzanian government seems to be very quiet on this issue, and, somewhat surprisingly, so do members of the voluntourism sector.

Scenario #1 - Tanzania Wants NGOs and Volunteers OUT!

Having spent several months in Jordan, now, I have had plenty of opportunity to be exposed to some of the downside associated with NGOs and donor agencies. The stories will take one through an emotional rollercoaster - anger, sadness, grief, resentment - and leave you with more questions than answers. So, I can absolutely understand that Tanzania may be completely fed up, that they may simply want NGOs and volunteers out of the country.

Yet, they may not be interested in saying so publicly. Thus, raising the fee for the volunteer visa, which may very well accomplish the desired goal, does so without the redundancy of an accompanying official explanation.

Scenario #2 - It's All About the Money

Volunteers do not generate much revenue for Tanzania. Their expenditures are often minimal due to low-cost housing, in some instances provided freely for those staying for a certain period, or, as has been mentioned elsewhere, through leakages if they stay in foreign-held investment properties. Their contributions to the Tanzanian economy are, therefore, negligible. The only means of insuring that Tanzania can garner additional funds from them is to charge them when they enter the country. Simple. Direct.

Panigram Resort Mustard Field

Consider this: we have no way of measuring the economic drain of volunteers on the local economies in countries - how much does it cost to cover their waste disposal, for example? Thus, if they only come to volunteer, there has to be a means of balancing the financial liabilities with some sort of tangible offset. Logical.

We also do not know what the impact is on the existing tourism sector. Are volunteers, for example, those which are not truly voluntourists, reap benefits of accessing the tourism assets of Tanzania without paying for the privilege to do so? Or paying a reduced price while steering clear of the in-destination tour companies and guides who offer these services for a living?

Scenario #3 - It's Enforceable

When only charging $120, it may not be economically feasible to enforce such a rule. Whereas there may be numerous entities which bring volunteers to Tanzania and tell their volunteers to only purchase a tourist visa, the chance that the Tanzanian government will enforce such a rule is very small. The cost of gasoline, paying a staff person, or two, to go around to NGOs - it simply cannot pay for itself.

However, at $550, plus potential penalties, covering the expenses of enforcement, with a 'profit' so to speak, certainly seems realistic.

It should be clearly stated that none of these scenarios are based on any known facts, documentation, or input from the Tanzanian government. All that is known, and has been confirmed by the Tanzanian Embassy in Washington, DC, is the fact that the visa fee has been raised from $120 to $550. There are other possible scenarios, too numerable to count, but until the Tanzanian Government takes time out to explain this move, we will not know the truth behind it.

The Orphanage Debate - More Fuel for the Policy Fire

More than a year has passed since Dr. Richter wrote the following:

Since her article first appeared, there have been numerous articles, news reports, and even movement in the Cambodian government to begin seeking a means of assessing what programs are truly legitimate. The questions surrounding the true benefit, or lack thereof, for children living in orphanages and being serviced by inbound volunteers, particularly via short-term placements, are becoming more prevalent.

Dr. Richter's article focused on South Africa. As it so happens, the Minister of Tourism for South Africa, Marthinus von Schalkwyk, recently announced the launch of the National Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism (NMSRT). This effort occurred in stages, including one that involved the input and rigorous review by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). The SABS "is a statutory body that was established in terms of the Standards Act, 1945 (Act No. 24 of 1945) and continues to operate in terms of the latest edition of the Standards Act, 2008 (Act No. 29 of 2008) as the national institution for the promotion and maintenance of standardization and quality in connection with commodities and the rendering of services."

The Responsible Tourism Requirments include four sections: 1) Sustainable Operations and Management, 2) Social and Cultural Criteria, 3) Economical Criteria, and 4) Environmental Criteria. Of great interest to those in the voluntourism sector will be the items that appear under #2 - Social and Cultural Criteria:

National Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism South Africa

NGOs connected with orphanages - those which accept travellers, i.e., volunteers coming into South Africa under a tourist visa - will likely be viewed as entities within the tourism sector. Thus, requirements such as those listed above will be the standard by which these NGOs will also be held accountable. Some NGOs may already adhere to any/all of the above requirements; clearly, however, those which do not will have some challenges in the future, in the event, of course, that these standards become mandatory in the years ahead. But will lack of compliance, even if standards are not mandatory, result in voluntourists going elsewhere to organize their experiences? Or will NGOs elect to partner with in-destination tour operators to handle the in-country coordination of voluntourists? And how will this impact service activities in orphanages? Many questions will need to be answered.

The Challenge that Lies Ahead

To think that we can rely on millions of voluntourists to have similar insights to those expressed by Nandi Scherbl (above) is unrealistic. With greater numbers of voluntourists traveling across the globe, the likelihood that 'harm' be generated, unconsciously or otherwise, will only increase. Nations cannot rely on voluntourism providers to set the needs of communities ahead of their own respective needs, just as they did not with the tourism sector. They will eventually need to act, some more quickly than others, and they know this all too well.

This is not an enviable task, not for anyone. But if the voluntourism sector embraces the opportunity to be part of this process, it will likely run more smoothly and serve to be mutually beneficial, far more so than if governments are left to craft legislation and voluntourism policy on their own. Yet, this also requires the entities, which move travelers around the planet to participate in voluntary service activities, to see themselves as part of a larger body - one that is deemed touristic in nature, particularly in the case of short-term engagement. This, too, will prove challenging.

Global Glimpse

Final Thoughts

Prior to writing this piece, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues about regulatory efforts of governments in connection with voluntourism. He shared the story of the development of au pair regulations in the U.S. decades ago. Some businesses were ahead of the curve and spent time lobbying the U.S. Government on the issue. They benefited when regulations were eventually passed, as they were the first-in-line to receive approval for operations. Other entities had to wait as many as five years to receive the same designation.

The VolunTourism Community does not want to find itself in such a situation. It is decidedly unpleasant. Nor is it pleasant to have a government step in, as Tanzania has done; just ask the voluntourism providers who serve Tanzania what it was like to have the price of their voluntourism programs rise $400+ (USD) overnight, as was the case on 1 July 2011. How does one absorb such a cost? Pass it along to the voluntourist?

One thing we have to explore in greater depth is how "volunteer-only" placements - those programs that do not emphasize tourism at all - are impacting the tourism economy. Of course, this was mentioned briefly in Scenario #2 above, but there is no indication that a researcher has devoted effort to discover if, in fact, there is direct loss to the tourism economy if individuals come only to volunteer. Do they actually participate in the tourism economy if it is not built into their itinerary? And how does the tourism sector respond to this? Would its members push governments to establish legislation to counter this effect?

Global guidelines will not impress governments. Revenue-generation and looking out for the best interest of the citizenry are traditionally the foci of governments. If the intersection of volunteering and travel is seen as counterproductive for either of these, then expect legislation to come more quickly.

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