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August 2005 - Study and Research

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.


AUGUST 2005 - Home


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Study & Research


Study and Research

VolunTourism: Making The Personal Political

Welcome back! If you recall, last month we launched a new research segment of The VolunTourist. What we aim to do is to present to you abbreviated, non-academic versions of some of the cutting-edge research that is being conducted in voluntourism all over the world. The focus of this segment will vary greatly from month to month. It may include such varied topics as:

  • What voluntourism organizations can do to maximize the voluntourism experience -and ultimately increase the likelihood of a repeat experience- after participants return home
  • An exploration of consumer interest in voluntary service components as add-ons for existing tourism activities, or
  • How to best accommodate VolunTourists with physical and/or mental challenges

The following is the second installment, a kind of “Part II” to the research we discussed last month. As you may recall, I conducted a study with a volunteer tourism organization (with the pseudonym Green Voluntourism International, GVI for short) which focuses on a wide variety of short-term, international projects. I discussed how network ties established and self-efficacy gained as a result of a voluntourism experience positively impacted participant’s social movement participation.

This month, I am going to talk about another important “social perk” that I unearthed while conducting my research that also comes from the network ties established and self-efficacy gained through volunteer tourism: these elements provide exposure to issues and social problems via a voluntour that can inspire participants to “make the personal political”. In other words, an individual’s personal day-to-day expenditures become actively and consciously influenced by her/his political beliefs.

For example, voluntourists who have been inspired by their experiences to view the personal as political may decide to:

  • Frequent only socially and environmentally sustainable businesses
  • Avoid restaurants that they feel exploit local citizens or discriminate against certain groups because of their color or sexual orientation, or
  • Boycott corporations based on their records of fair labor practices


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Recognizing that the personal is political comes out of the recognition that the “battlegrounds” of change in society are often located in the economic sector. You might also think of it as putting your money where your heart is or voting with your dollars! In both my research with Green Voluntourism International (GVI) and with subsequent research that has included a vast variety of types of voluntourists, young and old, secular and non-secular, short-term and long-term, over a wide variety of races, religions, and abilities, I saw abundant evidence of this time and time again. The research showed that a voluntourism experience profoundly affected even the most simple, day-to-day elements of the lives of its participants.

The following are excellent examples of the very similar answers I received from two very different voluntourists when, during separate interviews, I asked each how their day-to-day lives had been affected by their voluntourism experience:

“ Maude ”: Since my involvement in [voluntourism] and my international travel I’m just profoundly affected by the want and misuse of space that I see. It would be really easy just to get into focus on how bad everything is but I try not to do that. When I came back from Beijing , I sold my house and bought a much smaller house, and the kitchen is quite small, we call it our European kitchen. You definitely have to do the butt dance in the kitchen. And I think I am much more aware of the impact that we have with overspending and overheating and over-everything. I recycle and reuse and think about things before I buy them….. I could go on and on…….

“ Jim ”: There is not a day that goes by that you don’t think of the value of things …..It does not mean that it is just going to influence your actions or whether you buy something or not, but it is also a realization that you have seen what someone could actually do with $20.00 and you think twice before spending it.…as a result, I have become more charitable, both with my money and also with my time.

So, once again, what does this mean for you, the voluntourism operator or NGO? The answer to this one may fall under the “be careful what you wish for” category, because the very people you are inspiring to make the personal political may be thinking about their next voluntourism experience, or recommending one to a friend, and looking right straight at YOUR organization, YOUR voluntourism program, and applying what YOU helped them to learn.

So, are YOU worthy of their dollars?

Are YOU operating within the parameters of sustainable development?

Are YOU engaged in fair and equitable business practices?

Are YOU environmentally conscious?

These are not easy questions to answer.

Many of you are operating non-profit organizations on a shoestring budget, and many of these practices are difficult to achieve under those circumstances. Nevertheless, you must be prepared to answer the hard questions when they come from potential, and/or repeat, voluntourists. If you are currently unable to meet their demands, you need to be able to show them that you are on the right track.

Do you have a “Responsible Voluntourism Plan”?

Does the plan have goals and objectives that will help you to make progress toward the ultimate goal of sustainability?

Are those goals operationalized, with a timeline?

Many of you may be uncertain of where to start, how exactly to determine the ‘best practices” of sustainable, responsible voluntourism. If so, you need to know that your customers, if they haven’t already, will soon be asking. A good place to start will be at the 2006 VolunTourism Forum & Expo, which will be held February 20 – 22, 2006 in Baltimore , MD , USA .

One major area of discussion will be centering on this very issue: Responsible Voluntourism. In the meantime, I welcome your comments, insights, and suggestions on the topic! Next month we will be joined by a different researcher, with a much different area of research, so stay with us! As always, I invite your questions and comments.

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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