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November 2005 - Study and Research

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Study and Research

VolunTourism - Can It Influence Mass Tourism?

This month I am extremely pleased to welcome Stephen Wearing to the Research Forum section of “The VolunTourist.” Stephen writes to us from the University of Technology in Sydney Australia, where he has been experiencing, writing about, and commenting on volunteer tourism for many years. Stephen was one of the first researchers to recognize the area of volunteer tourism as unique, special, and worthy of a systematic and thorough academic research agenda.

 Amongst those of us who study volunteer tourism, discussion of the research agenda has actively turned toward one question: how can we protect volunteer tourism from becoming commodified and turned into just another form of mainstream tourism? Conversely, how can mainstream tourism be positively influenced, and perhaps decommodified, by volunteer tourism? Commodification occurs where the final outcome of a product is solely defined by its economic value. In other words, all that matters is the bottom line and profit. In general, that is, mainstream tourism is very focused on the commodification of all its products in the search for global profits and the tourist dollar.

Decommodification places social objectives and human rights such as the right to work or to a decent standard of living over that of economic value. In place of the nearly exclusive pursuit of industry profits, volunteer tourism has the potential to prioritize social value on local environments and economics. These may include:

*The unique approaches of indigenous or host communities;

*The quality of interaction of tourism with local communities and with nature;

*The ethics of care for nature;

*A greater appreciation of the consequences of human action on nature and local communities.

 So, what are the steps necessary to assure that the focus of volunteer tourism continues to be on helping communities, the environment, and researchers to improve the state of the world? Equally important, how can volunteer tourism positively influence mainstream tourism? The following are some of Dr. Wearing’s comments on the subject.


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The invention of the term 'volunteer tourism' itself is the result of:

  1. An increased recognition of, and reaction to, the negative impacts being caused by mass tourism, and
  2. The recognition of the importance of giving back something and conserving natural environmental quality.

The underlying ideology of volunteer tourism represents a transition in society from ‘travel to take’ to ‘travel to assist’ – putting something back while you travel. Volunteer tourism may offer an alternative direction but has tended to suffer, at times, from a lack of differentiation from other forms of tourism or volunteering. We often refer to volunteer tourism with the assumption that we all mean the same thing, when in fact we may not!

So, just to clarify, when I use the generic term ‘volunteer tourism’, I am referring to those tourists who, for various reasons, volunteer in an organized way to undertake vacations that might involve:

  1. Aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society,
  2. Restoration of certain environments, or
  3. Research into aspects of society or environment.

As most of you know, volunteer tourism can take place in varied locations such as rainforests, biological reserves, or bustling cities. These operations and their projects obviously vary in location, size, participant characteristics and organisational purpose. Activities can vary across many areas, such as scientific research (wildlife, land and water), conservation projects, medical assistance, economic and social development (including agriculture, construction and education), and cultural restoration. There is usually the opportunity for volunteers to take part in local activities and interact further with the community.

Hence the volunteer tourist contribution is bilateral, in that the most important development that may occur in the volunteer tourist experience is that of a personal nature, that of a greater awareness of self. That is, they are seeking a tourist experience that is mutually beneficial, that will contribute not only to their personal development, but also positively and directly to the social, natural and/or economic environments in which they participate.

In principle, volunteer tourism as a leisure experience offers the potential for increased understanding between guest and host nations of the local community and economy in a decidedly decommodified manner. Volunteer tourism has caught the imagination of many local communities, governments, international organizations and the tourism industry.

There is a current debate worldwide concerning the benefits and costs of volunteer tourism. This is generating more and more interest in the potential of volunteer tourism, particularly by operators in the tourism industry. While volunteer tourism is increasingly being seen as a way to promote sustainable tourism, it is also seen as being able to provide valuable income.

The key question then becomes: can a philosophy and practice of volunteer tourism beyond market priorities be defined and sustained in the global marketplace of mainstream tourism? In effect, can volunteer tourism resist commodification, and, to go even further, actually influence mainstream tourism? I argue that volunteer tourism offers a model that challenges the commodified practices of global tourism – from the motivations of the volunteer tourist to the method of operation of the bodies that engage in it.

If we consider volunteer tourism as a part of the idea of sustainable or alternative tourism, it can be seen as a growth area and has the potential to influence change in the tourism industry overall. Volunteer tourism may create an awareness of a need for the following:

*Tourist infrastructure which is sensitively developed where the tourism industry accepts integrated planning and regulation;

*Supply-led (as opposed to demand-led) marketing by the tourism industry;

*The establishment of carrying capacities (environmental and cultural) and strict monitoring of these;

*The environmentally sensitive behaviour and operations of tourists and operators of all types of tourism.

A wide range of institutions and organisations do, and will continue to, play an important role in providing volunteer tourism experiences. The type of organisation varies considerably and a number provide international support and sponsorship for the implementation of research projects and community development. These organisations facilitate the volunteer tourism process through provision of necessary resources that may not otherwise be available and objectives that move beyond the commodified process found predominantly in the tourism industry. The international scope of these organisations can prove invaluable assistance in terms of their accumulated knowledge and experience. These types of organisations provide a large number of recruits through volunteer tourism with free time and money to spend on sustainable development efforts. The greatest potential to both preserve volunteer tourism and influence mainstream tourism may very well lie with these organizations.

So what can these organizations do to try and achieve these lofty goals?

*A cultural and ethical framework that promotes host self-determination in the industry is central to the volunteer tourism experience.

*Operators who are willing to be slow in developing a product that will then allow input from host communities and aim to have minimalistic impact by staying within the social and physical carrying capacities of an area.

*Organisations who see their operations as a two-way interactive process between host and guest whereby the natural resource amenities, the local community and the visitor all benefit from the experience and the visitor can actually make a substantive contribution.

Although there has been some progress in volunteer tourism through industry, government and association initiatives, the majority of effort by the mainstream tourism industry has been focused towards self interest rather than through a true attempt to be sustainable. Modern tourism has created multi-national economic investment and the extent of tourism practices' impact on both the host and guest has been great in a relatively short period of time. Thus, it may be unrealistic to expect that full scale responsible tourism practices adopted by volunteer tourism organisations will be embraced or endorsed immediately by mainstream tourism. However, as indicated above, if volunteer tourism is effectively regulated and practices of sustainability established, a more viable and rich volunteer tourist experience is possible, as well as a potential positive influence on the tourism industry overall.

Hope you enjoyed this month’s Research Forum! If you have any questions or comments, please either submit your questions to the VolunTourist newsletter, or e-mail Stephen Wearing at S.Wearing@uts.edu.au. Next month we hope to once again hear from Dr. Wearing.

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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