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December 2005 - Study and Research
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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.

Study and Research

VolunTourism & Community Development

Once again, 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. This month Stephen has contributed an essay based on his field experience with volunteer tourism that focuses on the unique opportunities that can occur between volunteer tourism and community development.

The history of host communities and mainstream tourism has been an interesting, if not controversial, one. Many of the ideas that have supported the development of a community based approach to tourism have come about through the enormous impacts that tourism developments in the 1980's had on host communities. These communities often had little say and control in the development that was occurring. The social impact of unrestrained tourism developments caused upheaval in many communities.

{To elaborate a bit, the term host community is used here in a broad sense. It refers to a group of people who share a common identity, such as geographical location, class or ethnic background, or who share a special interest, such as a common concern about the destruction of native flora and fauna and are the community associated with the destination area of the tourist.}

Tourism planning is often done without host community involvement at the outset. Many tourism projects are prepared by professionals or managers without input from the host community. When these projects are made available for community input, usually not until the final stages of development, they often fail to get support as they do not meet community needs or values. In addition, many social groups within the host community often feel helpless and frustrated because they are unsure about how to get their concerns addressed at any point of the development process.

In looking at approaches to Volunteer tourism, we must examine:

  • The values on which it is developed,
  • The goals of its development, and
  • How it impacts the host community.

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In mainstream tourism, we often find an unquestioning acceptance of the effects of unrestrained development of the natural environment, such as the exploitation of natural resources. Numerous critiques by environmentalists and others have attacked this pro-development viewpoint. Volunteer tourism also tries, I believe, to move beyond the more selfish focus on ‘self’ - so apparent in today’s societies (and travel behaviour is no exception). Volunteer tourism recognises the effects of visitors on an area and does not hold a naive faith in the so-called benefits of development as unrestrained growth of tourism; but rather, seeks to use tourism to provide other types of resources focusing on community-based projects.

It is one thing to talk about the ideas, values, and principles of community and how they fit into the world in which we would like to operate; but it is another to actually do something about it. Most tourism is self serving in the sense that what it creates in host communities is really to benefit the tourist. Volunteer tourism seeks to provide resources that are directed toward the community and the needs they have identified as important for their development. But, volunteer tourism is not just ideas, values, and aspirations for a better world in a broad sense. In many circumstances it concerns itself with how tourism in destination areas can be used to support and enhance the local community.

How can volunteer tourism operate within this context?

The first aim is to ensure communities in the wider sense have input into what happens with projects that are to occur, be that in a destination or for conservation or scientific reasons. Tourism destinations are often made up of a series of separate `places' such as landscapes, wildlife, or specific activities. The people who best know and understand how these areas function are the people who deal with these places on a regular basis: members of the host community who use the area regularly, rather than the travel agencies or other transient organisations that bring people in and out of the area.

However, rarely are members of the community asked by private operators what their vision is for the area. Nor have members of the host community traditionally been part of the planning process. Likewise, planning decisions have often been made by people who do not understand the intricacies or functions of the destinations and attractions of the region. As a result, the tourism destination created does not suit community needs or use the resources to their best advantage.

This article suggests that volunteer tourism can offer a different outcome in that it is an approach that recognises the inter-dependence of tourism on the host communities culture and ecology:

  • Volunteer tourism is, in many cases, enabling and exploring ways of enhancing the sustainability of tourism, often eliminating or ameliorating negative consequences
  • Volunteer tourism is aligned with a wider range of values and behaviours than mainstream tourism. It has degrees of altruism and conservation of community benefits and generally acts positively for both the environment and the local community.
  • Volunteer tourism can be seen as an approach to tourism that moves it beyond the main stream and into the ideas that support general volunteering, but where it engages generally with a host community and/or projects that help to the wider global community.
  • Careful analysis, organisation, and planning can help enhance the positive aspects of volunteer tourism development and alleviate the negative. Because each community is unique, each must make its decision based upon local circumstances. What has worked in one community may not apply in another.

There is a growing awareness within small communities of the benefits to be derived from developing volunteer tourism as part of their economics. Often this awareness comes on the heels of the declining traditional local industry such as agriculture or manufacturing. To be a truly successful part of a community's economy, tourism must be sustainable, even if only on a seasonal basis. To be sustainable, it must be properly planned and managed to ensure a continuing high quality experience for the visitor.

Not every community is suited for tourism development, nor is tourism suitable for every community.

Volunteer tourism offers a means to support community based projects without having to enter into the infrastructure required for more mainstream tourism. Volunteer tourism can play a valuable role in the development of community, particularly in rural and under-developed areas. Its ability to empower and involve all members of host communities through acknowledging the valuable contribution they make can enable more effective and equitable planning for community. Volunteers can provide the resources to sustain community projects that are not tourism-related and assist communities as they explore other types of development.

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

nmcgehee@vt.edu

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

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