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February 2006 - Study and Research

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FEBRUARY 2006 - Home


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Study and Research

Choosing Your Conservation-based Volunteer Tourism Market Segment With Care - - Part II

This month we once again welcome Alexandra Coghlan to the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist. Ms. Coghlan writes to us from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

In the last article, I introduced my conservation voluntourist research which found that, according to a pre-trip survey, most conservation volunteer tourists currently fall into one of two categories based upon their motivations and socio-demographic profiles: the young college/post-college market and the mature 50+ market.

The young market focused more on personal development, novel experiences, having fun, discovering new things, meeting new people, helping the researcher, and developing skills & abilities. The mature market was interested in learning and helping the researcher, supporting the organization, doing something meaningful, learning about wild animals, experiencing new cultures and having fun.

This month I take the research a step further and explore how and if the socio-demographic profiles and motivations of the two groups affect their conservation voluntourism satisfaction with the actual conservation expedition activities. In other words, is there a connection between 1) who the conservation voluntourist is and why they are participating with 2) her/his satisfaction with the experience, or are there other factors which occur during the trip that affect the conservation voluntourist experience?

To answer this question, the conservation volunteer tourists sampled in the pre-trip motivational and socio-demographic study were also asked to describe their best and worst experiences of each day, their on-site emotions, their daily satisfaction levels and their evaluation of the activities in which respondents participated. Data were collected two ways: 1) through surveys that were distributed to the conservation volunteer tourists of five organisations and 2) the use of daily diaries. Both sets of data were collected on-site during the conservation voluntourist experience.

The conservation voluntourists’ experiences: Certain elements stood out as being instrumental in forming what the conservation volunteers’ interpreted as their best experiences. The most common ones were:

1) Seeing and learning about the animals and plants:

  • "seeing and handling a honey possum for the first time"
  • "finding elephant poo!"


Tuesdays 10am ET/7am PT

2) The Social aspects of the trip:

  • “meeting some fabulous people from all different backgrounds. The group’s reaction to me not diving – they were great!”

3) The work and opportunities to help the researcher:

  • “best experiences were days when I joined activity teams whose work I understood and was able to assist with. Combined with this was the successful gathering of animals, their identification and understanding of their role in the life of the surrounding environment”

4) Discovering A New Place:

  • “going into the virgin rainforest that only a few people have been there”

5) Personal Discoveries:

  • “Finding that warm, humidity-free temperatures improved my stiff joints and itchy eyes, finding that my hearing was more acute than that of many fellow travellers (particularly helpful for bird calls). Finding that I could walk as far and as fast as most. Feeling hopeful that I can undertake further such expeditions”

6) New Experiences:

  • “man-oh-man, with eyes open they (best experiences) happen all the time. Watching the cattle slaughter with the whole village and knowing that it meant that the first stage of the MPA (marine protected area) was in place, a megapod of dolphins at 6am on the way to a dive, going octopus fishing with a local woman, and live fishing with two men, watching sunrises over the village and sunsets over the sea. Learning a few new words every day. Brushing my teeth outside before bed with the waves crashing in front of me and stars up above. There are oh-so-many. Too many to list…”

Conservation voluntourists also reported their worst experiences. There were three main categories of worst experience:

1) Discomforts During Expeditions:

  • “arriving at campsite after 12 hour drive and after dark and feeling tired irritable and disorientated.”

2) Personal Limitations:

  • “I felt too old and rather a blob, I think this should be my last adventure. Although I still enjoy things of this kind, it is probably hard on the rest of the party”

3) Missed Opportunities and/or Expedition Failures:

  • “not being able to complete a walk to check traps in a particular area. The track was washed away from recent heavy rain”
  • “the waiting for materials. Lots of unnecessary waiting. That was boring”

The Conservation voluntourists’ on-site emotions and satisfaction levels: The main emotions reported were feeling contented, fulfilled, calm, happy and pleased. Fewer conservation volunteers felt optimistic, encouraged and excited. Conservation volunteers were also likely to feel medium levels of loneliness, worry, irritability and frustration and low levels of sadness, depression and discontentment. The conservation volunteers’ satisfaction focused on seeing things that other travellers were unlikely to see, as well as experiencing unique or special moments.

The conservation volunteers’ evaluation of the activities: Of greatest benefit to the conservation volunteers was learning fieldwork skills, developing other skills, handling animals or plants, collecting data and diving, trekking, camping or sailing. The conservation volunteers also felt that the work was interesting and their free time was relaxing, however they did not necessarily feel that the work was as varied and challenging as they would have liked, that the training was useful or challenging, or that their free time was interesting, stimulating or varied.

So how do all of these tie in together to form a picture of daily activities, motivation fulfillment and on-site emotions and satisfaction levels? Using the diary extracts, along with the reported on-site emotions and satisfaction scores from the survey, the conservation volunteer’s daily activities were then tied into her self-reported motivations. An example from a conservation voluntourist’s diary is reported below.

Day 1 “trying to get skin samples by poking at the dolphins! The dolphin got freaked out, then I got freaked out and ended up getting nothing which was a shame but still good anyway”

Day 3 “ definitely driving the zodiac and sitting there when Emilio drove it across the waves. It was really fun. I also climbed up the stairs to the mast, it was scary at the start, but once I got up there it was so rewarding”,

Day 6 getting samples and spotting a sperm whale. The genetic work was so much fun and we spotted lots of cetaceans today; common dolphins, striped, pilot whales and sperm whales. Today was the best day so far”

Day 10 going up to the mast, sitting on the bowsprit, especially when I was lying on the net and seeing dolphins bow-riding before me. It was awesome”.

What I found was actually a bit surprising to me: fluctuations of daily emotion and satisfaction scores do not appear to relate to overall motivation fulfillment, which actually occurred most days. Instead, the diary extracts revealed that only four key factors seemed to contribute towards high satisfaction scores and positive on-site emotions. These four elements were:

  1. Learning
  2. Having Fun and Socialising
  3. Experiencing New Things
  4. Contributing to a Worthwhile Project

By using a variety of methods, these four elements were identified consistently as key in shaping the overall assessment of the trip, and distinguishing the experiences that contributed to overall satisfaction from the less important elements that detracted from the experience on a daily basis.

It was found that the conservation volunteer tourism experience led to episodes of learning and introspection that volunteers did not anticipate before the experience was complete, and were therefore not included in the volunteers’ reports of pre-trip motivations and expectations. In other words, pre-trip responses about motivation and expectations were incomplete because the conservation voluntourists could not imagine ahead of time the full extent of the experience!

I hope that this article has increased understanding of how conservation voluntourist’s experiences are interpreted and shaped. I found that, despite the inter-personal variations that existed among conservation volunteers in this study and how they felt about the expedition lifestyle on a daily basis, the presence of four key characteristics (learning, having fun and socialising, experiencing new things, and contributing to a worthwhile project) appeared to be the most crucial elements to the enjoyment of and benefit from the experience.

Hope you enjoyed this month’s Research Forum! Perhaps your organization would like to take a stab at some of it’s own “on-site voluntourist research”. If you have any questions about how to go about doing so, please contact Nancy McGehee at nmcgehee@vt.edu, or e-mail Alexandra Coghlan at alexandra.coghlan@jcu.edu.au Next month, you’ll once again be hearing from me, Nancy McGehee, about some of the exciting work I’ve been doing with our own Los Niños!

Nancy McGehee, PhD., Virginia Tech University

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.

Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech

Blacksburg VA


For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum. Go There >>>

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