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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

Holei Sea Arch

So You May Know

Could Voluntourism See Significant Growth During Obama 2.0?

Prevailing wisdom holds that a U.S. President awaits a second term in office in order to leave the proverbial legacy for which he will be known and remembered. With four years to concentrate on this life-long remembrance, we can only speculate as to the nature of Obama’s legacy. What is interesting, and presents an opportunity rarely encountered, however, is the fact that the United States will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of its National Park System while Obama is still in the White House. Equally intriguing is the ambitious goal the U.S. has to increase its inbound tourism numbers to 100 million international arrivals by 2021. Could a facilitated and coordinated effort to develop a robust U.S. Voluntourism Initiative, centered initially on the National Parks, enhance America’s image abroad by engaging international visitors in preserving these great open spaces and providing them opportunities to interact with the citizens living in the surrounding gateway communities?


To date, one long-standing aspect of U.S. Foreign Policy, as it pertains to improving the nation’s image abroad, has focused on sending its citizenry to countries around the world to volunteer. The U.S. Peace Corps is the epitome of this practice. Volunteers, young and not so young alike, have ventured forth from U.S. soil to lend what skills, wisdom, understanding, and experience they have garnered to be employed via a two-year-plus assignment in countries across the planet. These service placements may insert an individual in a remote village or urban community for any number of potential services to be implemented, or skills transferred, therein.

The U.S. has long seen itself as an exporter of goodwill, social investment, and general beneficence to the world at large. Post-World War II activity has served as a benchmark; yet, we may be entering a renaissance of international giving, and voluntourism, among other things, speaks to this. According to the 2012 Giving USA report, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of international financial gifting - - a whopping 167% (adjusted for inflation) between 2001 and 2011. There is also evidence that private development assistance (PDA) from the U.S. is likely to eclipse official development assistance (ODA), if it has not done so already, in the coming years.  Clearly, though, the approach of the Peace Corps, and other strategies to send U.S. goodwill abroad, has been the exportation of a U.S. image. Is there another, equally viable approach?

Importing Goodwill and Social Investment

Grand Teton National Park

If there is anything we may have learned from Hurricane Katrina, it is that the U.S. can also be an importer of goodwill and social investment. The roughly two million volunteers who have descended on the Greater U.S. Gulf Coast region over the last 7 years, have not all arrived with U.S. passports in hand. Canadians and Europeans have made the journey to the Big Easy to assist in a host of efforts to bring the city back from the brink of devastation. Whether these visitors, hailing from international points of departure, have spent time mucking out houses or supporting Mother Nature’s return, they have seen a different side of the U.S. than what is oft-portrayed through international media and Hollywood. With global climate change likely to bring more Katrina’s and more Sandy’s to the U.S., it is important to consider a shift in U.S. Foreign Policy – afford individuals a chance to come to the U.S. to lend a hand.

The U.S. has one of the most stringent visa policies in the world. Protecting its borders has become a monumentally defining task, particularly in the post-9/11 environment. Introducing legislation to facilitate the movement of international volunteers to the U.S. as part of his final term in the White House, President Obama could set the U.S. on a course of opening its communities and its natural environments to the influx of international goodwill. And such an effort could lead to a newly reformed perception of what the United States is, and what its people represent.
An unprecedented opportunity stands before a U.S. President – the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. National Parks. Currently, policy for international volunteers to serve on U.S. public lands, requires a J-1 Visa application and the acceptance thereof. This policy is cumbersome, to say the least. It does not encourage international guests to even begin to explore volunteering on U.S. soil. But this could all change with a strategic initiative to ease the restrictions of the J-1 Visa and introduce a new “voluntourist” visa to afford visitors the opportunity to volunteer in the U.S. National Parks. This, in turn, would strengthen U.S. visitation, drawing a heretofore untapped market of individuals who may be more inclined to visit the U.S. if they will have the option to volunteer as well.

Our research here at VolunTourism.org over the years has demonstrated that quite a number of individuals interested in volunteering internationally have never traveled outside of the U.S. It is quite possible that other countries could have a similar situation, where its citizenry may be interested in volunteering internationally, but may not have experience in traveling abroad. Providing them with an additional incentive could change a “no” or a “maybe” into a “yes.” Eager “voluntourists” who experience both the travel & tourism treasures of a destination as well as its people and environment through voluntary service in that destination leave with a very different picture than what is portrayed in the media.

Building A Goodwill Importation Initiative Via the U.S. National Parks

Tauck World Discovery (TWD) has engaged some 15,000 of its travelers since 2003 in volunteering in U.S. National Parks. So, travelers volunteering in National Parks clearly has a precedent to follow. Focusing on Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, TWD has demonstrated that travelers will set aside time to invest their personal effort in improving public lands. What if TWD had a voluntourist visa that it could offer to its international clientele? Can you imagine the amount of additional volunteering that could take place if international visitors could legally stand alongside their U.S. counterparts and roll up their sleeves together?

Most National Parks have an organization, or loosely affiliated entity, that serves as a “friend” to that Park. “The friends of” phrase usually precedes the name of the National Park and the group associated therewith sets aside time during any month to assist in the upkeep of a given National Park. With a “voluntourist” visa program for international arrivals, these “friends of” groups could set up times to host international arrivals, allowing them to join alongside their regular volunteers and create brand new interactions for visitors, giving them a glimpse of a U.S. that any nation would be proud to export as a symbol for which it stands. Intermingling the goodwill of U.S. citizens with that of international arrivals simply takes what is already happening in countless destinations across the globe on an annual basis and imports it into the context of some remarkably beautiful landscapes and historic treasures in the U.S. Whereas some destinations may be known for their ancient sculptures and man-made architectural wonders, the U.S. has millions of years of assistance from the even more ingenious hands of Mother Nature.  Geological formations, flora, and fauna have matured over millennia to create backdrops that make volunteering in U.S. National Parks an unprecedented opportunity for visitors. Hearts and minds cannot but be influenced positively when coming into contact with such unparalleled treasures. Facilitating this process could be a significant feature of a President preparing to leave a legacy for future generations.

Sea Caves

Obama Legacy: A Voluntourist Visa?

2016 marks the beginning of what could be a unique approach, through voluntourism, for U.S. Foreign Policy. How often have countries considered the importance of sharing their respective national treasures with international arrivals, via volunteering, to strengthen their respective perceptions in the hearts and minds of millions, if not billions?

Opening the U.S. National Parks through a dedicated voluntourist visa initiative, even if it began solely with visa-waiver countries, could go a long way in changing the perception of the U.S. abroad. Academic researchers have discovered that “voluntourists” have a different perception of the people of a space when they are able to interact with them and to serve alongside them. Why not bring this to U.S. soil? A concerted effort to enable such a scenario to play out would take full advantage of the 100 years of recognition of the natural wonders of the U.S. - - inviting visitors to not only celebrate with the U.S., but to also set the stage for future generations to enjoy and engage with these treasures.

Beginning with National Parks for a voluntourist visa program also reduces concerns by those who might put forward the opinion that volunteers would be taking U.S. jobs. We already know that the budgets for the National Parks will continue to be slashed under the new directives in Washington to cut spending. The National Parks will rely even more heavily on the donated time, money, and effort of volunteers. Opening a channel for goodwill to flow from global travelers will serve as a real example of what may be possible in what appears to be an era of collaboration unfolding across the planet. Using the "power of the crowd" through a voluntourist visa, President Obama could certainly use domestic resources to shift U.S. Foreign "public" relations.

Concluding Thoughts

In a world that is becoming ever-less associated with a nation-state centric systemization, the advancement of a voluntourist visa seems very timely. Strategically aligned with the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. National Parks, coupled with the ongoing challenges regarding U.S. Foreign "Public" Relations, a voluntourist visa could have some important outcomes: domestic economic & social ouctomes as well as global outcomes.

Shifting U.S. focus from being a Goodwill Exporter to a Goodwill Importer could also deliver some unimagined benefits. The results of importing goodwill could offer a dramatic point of departure for the U.S. - one certainly worth exploring, particularly in the context of the U.S. National Parks.


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