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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 5 Issue 4 Highlights


So You May Know

The Events That Shaped & Influenced VolunTourism In Decade 1.0

Looking back over the last decade there are certainly some standout events that shaped VolunTourism. Some of them will be self-evident; others, however, may require a bit of an explanation to put them into context for you. Keep in mind, those that are most obvious have contributed in numerous ways since - ways that were not, at first, readily apparent.


When I started reviewing the decade that was, it immediately struck me as to just how much took place in a seemingly short period of time. Innovations, disasters, social upheavals - the list is long. So, I have made an effort to shorten the list. What I have tried to concentrate on are those events which:

  • Contributed to the overall growth & development of voluntourism
  • Expanded awareness of the concept, and/or
  • Generated interest in pursuing either the participation in or the adoption of voluntourism

[As you will note, I have not created a separate listing for My Space(tm), Twitter(tm), Facebook(tm) or numerous other social media and technological advancements that occurred during Decade 1.0. I think everyone realizes, at least to some extent, just how important these creations were, and have become, in the expansion of people's awareness of VolunTourism throughout the world.]

In reviewing these events, I have discovered that some fit, more or less, into one or another category (as listed above), while others clearly touch on elements that appear in each category. The events are presented in chronological order. The significance of each event, therefore, should not be measured by where it appears on the list. I have tried to comment in most instances as to the 'why' of the events importance, yet I would not expect others to concur with my assessment as these interpretations represent solely my opinions. Hopefully, therefore, if I have overlooked some events or there is some disagreement as to the emphasis on a particular event, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Here we go...

11 September 2001

We now have countless interpretations of what happened before, during, and after this day more than eight years ago. But for those who have not ventured to look at some 'science' around this event, I encourage you to read the explanatory description of data collected by the Global Consciousness Project entitled "Extended Analysis, September 11 2001 In Context." It is true that this event awakened a new commitment to service, especially in the United States, and galvanized our understanding of the economic importance of tourism on a global scale. But, and this is still a question that remains to be answered: Did it stir something, something perhaps forgotten or overlooked, in the collective consciousness of humanity?

October 2001 - CABI Publishing Releases - - Volunteer Tourism: Experiences That Make A Difference

CABI Publishing released Volunteer Tourism: Experiences That Make A Difference, by Dr. Stephen Wearing, in October 2001. This book represented the first substantive look at the potential transformational nature of volunteer tourism experiences for participants. Perhaps most important of all, Dr. Wearing provided a definition of volunteer tourism that has been cited and used by academics and students the world over ever since.

2003 - Tauck World Discovery Launches Yellowstone Guest Volunteer Program

When Tauck World Discovery launched its Yellowstone Guest Volunteer Program back in 2003, little did the company realize that it was setting a precedent for other tour operators to follow. This public/private partnership resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind support to Yellowstone National Park via the efforts of 10,000 participants over a six-year period. So successful was the program that TWD has moved from Yellowstone and has selected a new park, Grand Teton National Park, to continue this example of corporate social responsibility.

February 2004 - Travel & Leisure Magazine

One might not think of this as very significant, but when Douglas McGray inked an article for Travel & Leisure Magazine entitled "The Rise In Voluntourism," he opened the door for other travel writers and bloggers to begin using the term as well. This, to my knowledge, was the first mainstream travel publication to print a story utilizing the term 'voluntourism' in the article's title.

26 December 2004

The Southeast Asian Tsunami resulted in the launch of organized and 'un'-organized voluntourism efforts to a degree never-before-seen. Numerous NGOs and companies sprung up after this event in direct response to mobilizing voluntourists to contribute to the recovery efforts throughout the affected region. Some of these entities went on to later initiate services in other destinations throughout the world.

The economic impact, in particular, that this natural disaster had (as a direct result of the loss of tourism-generated revenues in the region) gave rise to the consideration of the socio-economic potential of voluntourism by travel & tourism industry representatives throughout the Pacific Rim. Destinations that had perceived voluntourism as a demonstration of ‘weakness’ – the antithesis of the pristine destination view as portrayed on the cover of a glossy travel brochure – began to rethink voluntourism’s applicability.

29 August 2005

Hurricane Katrina is arguably the event that had the most dramatic influence on voluntourism in Decade 1.0. The Gulfcoast Convention & Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau relied heavily on the influx of voluntourists to ignite economic activity, not to mention the direct and indirect assistance to residents through innumerable service projects. Soon thereafter, the state of Louisiana, led by then Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, recognized voluntourism as a strategic travel initiative to assist in the socio-economic recovery of the state.

Although voluntourism in the region was initiated out of a sense of urgency (clearly in direct response to an external driving force), travel & tourism industry professionals as well as nonprofit organizations made significant strides to collaborate in ways that had not been previously witnessed, even when considering practices that developed via the response to the Southeast Asian Tsunami. (One of these practices being 'voluntourism' within the meetings & conventions market.) Some of these practices have continued to mature over the four-plus years since Katrina and have been adopted in other destinations worldwide.

August 2006 Travelocity Launches Travel For Good

When Travelocity launched Travel For Good in August 2006, other online travel portals began to take notice, as well as Travelocity's vendors and partners. By featuring voluntourism as one of the pillars of the program, Travelocity displayed uncommon foresight in recognizing a travel trend that was (and still is for that matter) very much in its infancy.

9 December 2006 Jordan Tourism Board Announces Voluntourism Program

This probably surprised a great many folks; I know it did me. It was the first time that a tourism board, for any country, had announced a full-fledged program to assist inbound tour operators in identifying and coordinating voluntourism experiences. The announcement came at an industry event and at a time when tour operators were still very much in ‘discovery-mode,’ simply trying to define what voluntourism meant. If you need an historic ‘first-country-to-adopt-voluntourism’ header to add to your voluntourism Wiki, then the Jordan Tourism Board gets the nod.

19 February 2007 USA Today Uses 'Voluntourist' For The First Time

I remember looking at the front page of the USA Today on the morning following my mother's passing. I could almost see her smile as I read the headline: "Katrina 'Voluntourists' Make Labor A Vacation." I was preparing to step into a voluntourism workshop for the fourth year in a row at the 21st Annual Educational Travel Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, and I could hardly believe my eyes. Not only was it a significant day, as I was very much processing what had happened the night before, but I realized, which was also pointed out to me later by Steve Richer, former Executive Director of the Gulfcoast CVB, that this was the first time that any major news publication in the world had used the term 'voluntourist.'

August 2007 The Voluntourism Row In The UK

It started simple enough - an article in a UK newspaper, The Guardian, replete with a picture of Prince Harry, entitled "You're Better Off Backpacking - VSO Warns About The Perils of Voluntourism." This led to numerous other articles throughout the UK and blog posts the world over. Good stuff, indeed.

October 2007 Finalized Purchase Of i-to-i By The Merged TUI Travel PLC

I think this caught a number of people off-guard. In fact, I don't think any U.S. media even covered this story at the time. Although the formal details are difficult to acquire, the gist is that First Travel PLC finalized the purchase of i-to-i from Dierdre Bounds around this date for an estimated $16 million USD.

Granted, i-to-i's business model at the time had been built around Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), but the firm had also made inroads into 'meaningful travel,' i.e. voluntourism, in the years leading up to the sale. At the same time, TUI AG was negotiating a merger with First Travel PLC to become one of the largest, if not the largest, travel companies in the world. That merger eventually went through to create TUI Travel PLC. And, as you may have gathered, i-to-i is now one of the brands within the TUI Travel, PLC stable.

1 April 2008 The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company Launches 'Give Back Getaways'

Well, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ if we have to select only one entry for 'Voluntourism Event of Decade 1.0,' then you have to give serious consideration to “Give Back Getaways.” Representing a continuing evolution of the long-standing socially responsible engagement of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, this voluntourism program has certainly created ripple effects throughout the luxury tier.

However, the most significant contribution the program has made, in my opinion, is as a global example for accommodations of all shapes, sizes, and amenity levels to consider implementing. Unanticipated though it was (please remember, this was pre-economic meltdown), we can be appreciative of the fact that a brand known for its service excellence has ventured into the realm of assisting travelers in delivering excellent service to destinations around the world.

The Global Economic Meltdown

To attribute the Meltdown to any one set of dates or time period would be trite. The fact is that the event was years in the making and will be years in the unmaking. What I will say is that it drew more interest to voluntourism, not necessarily for the reasons one might appreciate, but realistically as an alternative form of travel with a potentially lower price tag associated with it. Was this a good thing? A bad thing? I think it was just a thing. Clearly, it became something that led many of my conversations with members of the media.

There's something else, though. The Meltdown had two diametrically opposed results. For some, a turtle-like mentality became the focal point of their voluntourism operations. For others, it became an opportunity to network, retool, and relaunch their efforts. There was very little 'gray' in the decision-making processes.

2009 – The Year That Was…

It is difficult to select one singular event in a year that was marred by global economic and environmental challenges – all of which raised our awareness of the importance of service and stretching our respective finances through cooperation. There were many items of note: the inauguration of Obama; the publishing of numerous books about and including the topic of voluntourism; well-researched, well-written, and constructively-critical articles on voluntourism; the adoption of voluntourism by numerous destinations the world over; the launch of new voluntourism programs; and Brazil’s selection to host the Olympics in 2016, just to name a few.  

Concluding Thought

Decade 1.0 saw a mix of externally-diven and internally-driven motivations for the development of voluntourism programs and initiatives around the world. Some were formed out of necessity, survival in fact. Others came from a true desire to change course, to act more responsibly and to balance entrepreneurial activities with social beneficence. Can we redirect ourselves to a more proactive approach to voluntourism in Decade 2.0?

Looking forward, it is said that the days surrounding a new year (in this case a new decade as well) are most auspicious for initiating changes in the human brain, particularly in forming new good habits or eliminating those which no longer serve us. There is one habit that I would like the VolunTourism Community to adopt with the advent of Decade 2.0: an 'asset-based' mentality. Let's create a common vision that seeks not first to reveal the 'needs' of people and/or places, but is habituated to uncover the jewels, hidden though they may appear to be, awaiting our expanding discovery process. It is my hope that in this new light the voluntary service aspect of voluntourism will evolve beyond a 'needing-to-be-fixed', transactional mindset to an 'experience-worth-sharing', relational modality - and what a fine resolution for Decade 2.0 that would be.

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