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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 8 Issue 4 Highlights

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"Is Luxury Voluntourism On The Decline?"

This "question" found its way into my inbox in late November 2012 from a senior editor at Conde Nast Traveler. Intriguing indeed, given that more than four and half years had passed since Conde Nast originally covered voluntourism in May 2008. I responded to the original email which prompted a more detailed response including requests for insights and answers to a series of questions. What follows is some of the correspondence between us along with answers to the questions posited by the senior editor.


Back in May 2008, Conde Nast Traveler covered the subject of voluntourism via an article by Dorinda Elliott. It was the first time the magazine had dedicated serious ink to the unfolding intersection between travel & tourism and voluntary service. At this point, voluntourism was in its prime of acceptance, but oh how the times have changed.

Nearly five years later, the love-fest with voluntourism has certainly passed into a more guarded stance by many writers and authors. Questions abound. And the ones that follow, from another editor at Conde Nast Traveler, give us some indication as to the shift that has taken place.

Email #1

Hi David,

I am a senior editor at Condé Nast Traveler and was hoping you might have time for a very brief Skype interview. I am writing an article with another editor here about hotel volunteer programs and what has struck both of us is that it appears there are fewer offerings from luxury hotels and resorts now when compared to 2009. Rock Resorts has quietly dropped its Give and Getaway program, Four Seasons programs now appear to be limited to only select resorts, and in our experience test-driving a few volunteer programs (at two Ritz-Carltons and an independent resort), the properties seem to have been caught by surprise that someone actually wanted to volunteer. 

I don't know if my impression is wrong, or perhaps the future of voluntourism lies somewhere besides luxury hotels. Anyway, would it be possible to get your perspective, either by email or phone?


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Email #2 sss

Hi David,

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So was just hoping to get a sense from you of how you see hotel voluntourism programs within the larger context of voluntourism. My sense working on this story is that there seem to be fewer hotel and resort programs for guests (Rock Resorts having ended their Give and Getaways; harder to find Fairmonts, Four Seasons and others with programs). But I don't know if you disagree. Anyway, a few questions...

If there's anything really big you think I'm missing, please let me know.
As I wrote yesterday, my sense is that the hotel voluntourism programs we've checked out are underwhelming, which isn't of course to say that we are being critical of voluntourism broadly. I'm just not sure that a Four Seasons is the place to go if you want to volunteer while traveling.


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Let me start by saying that the world has changed dramatically over the last, almost five years now (April 2008) since the Ritz Carlton launched Give Back Getaways and Conde Nast covered this subject in May 2008. First of all, transparency has become a major issue. People want to know everything there is to know about financial transactions, most especially when those monies are directed toward charitable/philanthropic entities or programs. This transparency has even entered official development assistance (ODA) as entities like the World Bank have launched the Open Aid Partnership to demonstrate where the money is going, what it is doing, and how local communities are responding to the efforts that are being offered.

Complementary to the above is a desire for "voluntourists" to go direct, to bypass the 'middle-man' as they can follow their money, follow their efforts, and know that it is, at least in their mind, going directly to the recipients of their monies and service. This has presented itself in the form of a notable decline in intermediary-structured programs, leading to the surmise that "voluntourism is dead." The reality, however, is that the triumvirate of - "going direct," advancements in technology & localized internet connectivity, and expansion of social media - has made it possible for individuals and groups, who wish to do so, to organize their own engagements in most every part of the world with local community actors.

Additionally, the media has become far more critical of voluntourism. This has come in two primary forms - questioning the legitimacy of programs, and raising questions of the harm that voluntourism can do to host communities, especially orphans. Orphanage voluntourism has been a major focus of media-generated critique following the November 2010 article by Ian Birrell in The Observer, which flowed from an academic article out of South Africa on this very subject in August 2010, co-authored by Dr. Linda Richter.

And we cannot forget the growing number of natural disasters around the planet which have motivated travelers to forego holiday-making in certain destinations, seeking to support the entities dealing with these tragedies, and reallocating resources accordingly.

Key point: There is no over-arching mechanism to track and post what voluntourists and hotels/resorts are doing at the destination level. A data collection platform could go a long way in assisting hotels/resorts in posting this information so that visitors, as a primary stakeholder audience, could see it, review it, and consider it. Every property should have a mechanism for tracking and posting its own socio-environmental investments and that of its guests for ready consumption of any interested parties.

What I am suggesting here is that whether individuals participate in voluntourism programs at hotels & resorts, regardless of their demographic, is not so much related to what program they have to offer as much as it is a function of whether they ask their guests to participate or not. This is easier said than done.

Giving USA reported in its 2012 Annual Report that between 2001 and 2011, giving internationally by U.S. residents grew 167.1% (adjusted for inflation) during that period. The people who made that possible are very likely the same guests staying at hotels & resorts. If they aren't volunteering, I would argue that someone isn't asking.

Hurricane Katrina had a real impact on getting hotels to begin adopting voluntourism, out of necessity, originally, but then with the response in New Orleans & the Gulf Coast it was anticipated that other destinations could similarly incorporate voluntourism. The responses to these programs have been mixed.

The past five years have seen a significant increase in small and boutique accommodations entering this space. Mermaid Cottages on Tybee Island, as an example, uses twitter and social media to encourage visitors to "voluntour" on the island to support the upkeep of the destination. And this is just one of hundreds of properties across the planet which have followed a similar approach.

These smaller properties are directly connected to the local communities, and this, I think, gives them a decided advantage over bigger properties. The "owner" of these properties will actually be the person telling voluntourists about what they can do to support the destination and may even go so far as to volunteer beside their guests to support people and/or the environment. It is this personalization which may make these properties more appealing in comparison to more well-established properties and their corresponding brands. Leading by example is a powerful motivator.

The environment - conservation & preservation - is a very safe haven for hotels. Engaging guests in such activities has greater and greater appeal, particularly in connection with global climate change. Each natural disaster is bringing us to a new place of realization - nothing is certain anymore. Supporting the environment can prove beneficial not only to host communities, but the world as a whole, or so it can be perceived, and legitimately so.

Sea turtle conservation, for example, has been a significant "hit" for hotels & resorts for more than a decade.

But I am not so sure it is the "what" they are focusing on as much as it is the "how" they approach these activities. When the entire hotel/resort staff are invested in a program - from top-to-bottom - have participated in it themselves, and have a "green light" from management to discuss it with guests, as they would any other type of activity available to people in a given destination, then I think you have the makings for a successful program. If a "voluntourism" program is on the tip of the tongue of every member of a hotel/resort's team, then you can be virtually guaranteed of its success. Executives and staff alike must be so confident in the property's investment in a given program that they cannot wait to share it with guests. Some properties have succeeded at this - either because they are so small, or because all of the executives & staff have participated.

There is another interesting move that is worth noting. Over the last several years, there have been an increase in programs directed toward staff at resort properties. "Voluntourists" have actually gone and spent time with staff, engaging them in conversational English. These conversations assist staff in becoming better communicators, and this are not just "front-of-the-house" staff. These are also housekeeping staff, groundskeepers, and others that may have minimal contact with guests. Yet, their improvement in being able to speak basic English supports those chance engagements with guests to be that much better. It also gives the staff an opportunity to move along the chain of employment to higher positions and better pay. Conversational English is something to be very aware of in the hotel/resort space, particularly in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

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Families, of course, are pressing to be more involved. Couples, particularly for conversational English with staff, are good candidates. Professionals, ages 26 - 35, produce the most number of voluntourists out of any demographic.

Again, I am not sure, however, that this is a demographic issue. I truly believe it is an "ask" issue.

The Independent Sector, a nonprofit out of Washington, DC, used to conduct an annual survey - "Giving & Volunteering in the United States" -- funded by the MetLife Foundation. In their last publication, 2001, they discovered that, "when asked" 84% of people over the age of 55 would volunteer. When not asked, only 17% would volunteer. That is significant, to say the least. 

What I am suggesting here is that whether individuals participate in voluntourism programs at hotels & resorts, regardless of their demographic, is not so much related to what program they have to offer as much as it is a function of whether they ask their guests to participate or not. This is easier said than done.

Giving USA reported in its 2012 Annual Report that between 2001 and 2011, giving internationally by U.S. residents grew 167.1% (adjusted for inflation) during that period. The people who made that possible are very likely the same guests staying at hotels & resorts. If they aren't volunteering, I would argue that someone isn't asking.

Final Thoughts...

Conde Nast Traveler has since run the article alluded to above -- "Do Hotel Volunteer Programs Stack Up?" You can provide your own commentary as you read through the article as to whether any of the above points were captured in the final product.

There is something to keep in mind, however. Much of what we are seeing in today's writing on voluntourism is the frustration of navigating the integration of two things -- volunteering and tourism -- that seem so diametrically opposed to one another. Corporations struggle with bringing something into their folds that has no apparent "profit-driven" outcome associated with it. On the other hand, nonprofit & social-centric organizations have conscientiously rebuffed "profit-driven" outcomes in an effort to maintain a certain "saintliness" for their respective activities. Neither approach will function in the world that is being reborn before our very eyes.

The growing pains of this integration, what voluntourism represents in essence, will drive entities back and forth between the voluntourism adoption and elimination process. Those entities which stick with the process will discover that it is not the world around them which has changed, but they themselves who are co-creating that new world order.

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