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Study and Research
UNDERSTANDING THE VOLUNTEER TOURIST: A QUALITATIVE INQUIRY
Justin Taillon, M.B.A., Ph.D. Student
Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences
Texas A&M University
Tazim Jamal, Associate Professor
Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences
Texas A&M University
For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist, our research guests are Justin Taillon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dr. Tazim Jamal (email@example.com) from Texas A&M University. In their research, they examine the motivations of volunteer tourists in an effort to more fully understand why there is such a broad divide between the number of actual participants and the number of individuals who have expressed interest in participating as volunteer tourists. Additionally, they question whether entities within the volunteer tourism community are, in fact, utilizing appropriate marketing and promotional efforts, especially given their discovery of the importance of word-of-mouth promotion. Finally, they recommend additional research be conducted to build on the qualitative data collected through their study and suggest that more comprehensive understanding of benefits accrued, or not, by host communities be studied in the future.
Voluntourism is growing rapidly. Proponents of voluntourism argue that anybody, from any walk of life, can participate in it (Wearing, 2001). More than 55 million Americans have participated in volunteer tourism on some level. This is an astounding figure, especially when compounded with the fact that over 100 million more say they would be interested in participating in such an activity (Travel Industry Association of America, 2007). A significant majority of persons interested in volunteering (and traveling) have not done so.
Research has yet to support any specific reason for the gap between those who wish to participate in voluntourism and those who have successfully participated in a volunteer activity which involved traveling to a particular destination. One possible explanation may lie in the lack of effective marketing to potential voluntourists. Potential participants tend to be unaware of how to find voluntourism experiences that match their interests, abilities, and preferences, while marketing models that address these needs continue to be lacking (Mahony, & Van Zyl, 2001).
One of the critical gaps in marketing research that may help address the above challenge is research on volunteering motivation, an area of study which is in its infancy. There are several widely cited motivations for volunteer-based travel in the research literature. Wearing (2001), for instance, offers the following seven:
- travel and adventure,
- personal growth,
- cultural exchange and learning,
- professional development,
- right time and place,
- and the individual program itself.
The Travel Industry Association of America (2007) found a wide array of reasons for participation in volunteer tourism, but the most frequently cited motivation centered around a desire to “do something good.” Brown and Lehto (2005) argue, however, that this altruistic picture is a lot more complicated and is mediated by marketing messages. Their research indicates that there are two types of volunteer tourists: the “volunteer-minded” and the “vacation-minded” tourist. Those that fit the first type seek out opportunities that support their altruistic tendencies, while travelers in the second type choose their volunteering location based on vacation advertising and promotion materials. These two mindsets have to be kept in mind during research as the motives, values, and decision-making approaches of each differ.
As Brown, & Lehto (2005, p. 494) state, “Substantially more research is needed in this area to better attempt to understand the dimensionalities of the motivational and benefit factors of volunteer tourism and the interplay of mass tourism motives and volunteer motives.” Research is necessary to understand voluntourist motivation and because the exploration is investigative a qualitative approach was taken in this study.
The purpose of the exploratory study outlined below was to conduct an in-depth qualitative investigation of what motivated people to participate in voluntourism, and the benefits of doing so. Interviews were conducted with forty-four individuals in the United States and Canada who had participated in voluntourism within three years of graduating from a university, or while enrolled at a university. Purposive sampling was employed to obtain this set of respondents (university students and graduates makes up a significant market of volunteer tourists).
Of the forty-four, twenty-seven were female and seventeen were male; the sample ranged from nineteen to over seventy years of age, and included voluntourists from seven Canadian provinces and more than ten U.S. states ranging from New York to California and Washington to Florida. Participant names and contact information were forwarded by three volunteer tourism organizations operating in both the United States and Canada that were approached to participate in this study. Interviews were primarily telephone-based. Semi-structured questions were asked of all interviewees and unstructured open-ended follow-up questions were subsequently asked:
For the purpose of this study, a voluntourist was defined as an individual who utilized “discretionary time and income to go out of the regular sphere of activity to assist others in need” (McGehee and Santos, 2005, p. 760) while also being 100 miles or more from their home for a minimum of twenty-four hours. Responses were coded for major themes and categories.
Forty-two different countries or states in the United States were visited by the forty-four respondents. These participants were involved in activities that ranged from teaching children or surfing in Rio de Janeiro to distributing plants to farmers in famine stricken areas of Eritrea and Ethiopia. Most respondents had spent at least two weeks in the destination, living with the locals of the region they were visiting.
An important theme that emerged was that many participants chose voluntourism activities in order to spread their personal beliefs, which were primarily religious. This type of motivation does not fit into the earlier mentioned categories by Wearing (2001) but is in alignment with the findings of McGehee and Andereck (2008). One respondent who traveled to Ethiopia stated, "It was my desire to serve God by going out to do some of this type of work.” Another respondent who traveled to Uganda, when asked what primarily motivated him, answered, “All God-related churchy stuff.”
For another who spent time in Israel as a volunteer involved in what she described as “mediating between classes” discussing religious beliefs was an important part of the experience. She believed class issues in Israel created problems for Christians wishing to visit their holy land and she worked with a Christian organization to bring wealthy Jewish and poor Muslim peoples together to create dialogue:
"In Israel there is such a big difference between the religions. It's a
class "structure" - comparable to India. They do it to themselves –
a few people ruin it for everybody. Sad - all the religions
should get along. That is what they teach."
A second important theme involved word-of-mouth recommendations. These were seen to play a pivotal role in facilitating the growth of the voluntourism industry. Data coding revealed ten topics that respondents discussed most commonly with potential voluntourists, based on the importance of the topic in their trip as well as the questions they received from potential voluntourist participants:
- tour operator or organization chosen to participate with
- health and medical issues
- financial situation
- political issues and situations
- professional benefits and course credit
- academic-based (thesis and/or dissertation research)
- and cultural experience
Word of mouth emerged as an important component in regards to decision making by potential voluntourists. One respondent who had traveled to Suriname to work in village orphanages for approximately three months said:
"The whole process was rigorous: screening, various fundraising,
time it took. You had to fundraise. You couldn't just pay for the trip out
of your pocket. You had to talk to groups, ask for money. If they gave you
money, you would go back and present what you learned back to them…Also,
how to fundraise, what to say, how to deal with people."
This respondent was trained to use word of mouth for the betterment of the organization with whom she was volunteering. Furthermore, she was not given the option of paying for her own trip. She spread the organization’s goals and hopes of finding future participants to others via word of mouth.
Implications for Future Research
Volunteer tourism is a complex topic, and much work needs to be done to identify visitor motivations plus benefits obtained, and compare these to the advertising and promotion strategies that are being employed. The exploratory study summarized above indicates that a critical area of future research is word of mouth promotion. This was perceived to be the most effective marketing method, according to most study respondents. Hence, it is possible that the diverse marketing strategies that many volunteer tourism companies partake in may not actually be producing efficient results, if word of mouth is as important as this preliminary study indicates. Further research is also needed to identify the role of religious beliefs and the motivation to disseminate these through being a volunteer tourist. Six participants expressed the view that discussing and spreading their religious beliefs was the main reason for them to participate in voluntourism and more than ten talked about religion playing a role in their decision to be a voluntourist.
One caveat of this preliminary study is that the focus on tourist motivation and benefits sought may overlook the fact that the host communities should also realize benefits from visitation by volunteer tourists. Or, a central government could reap the benefits of volunteer tourism in a particular location while the host communities may receive little benefit. Lack of positive community benefit was perceived on some level by nearly all respondents. One respondent who visited Ecuador for two and a half weeks in 2005 stated:
"Certain populations see "helicopter" research efforts, where people come
in and examine them, perhaps provide them with some good/service, then leave
without creating any real change or benefit…There was a lot of distrust from
certain groups of people we served; they never expect to see volunteers come
back or actually deliver something sustainable."
This idea was not investigated further for this study but the distribution of benefits is an important area for future research. There is a social responsibility involved in volunteer tourism, which many times stems from the consciousness-raising experiences felt post-volunteering, whereby host communities must grasp distinct benefits from volunteer tourism (Wearing, 2001; McGehee and Santos, 2005).
I hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum! If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to the Voluntourist newsletter, or send an e-mail to Justin Taillon (firstname.lastname@example.org) to learn more!
See you next issue!
Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>
Brown, S., & Lehto, X. (2005). Traveling with a purpose: Understanding the motives and
benefits of volunteer vacationers. Current Issues in Tourism, 8(6), 479-496.
Mahony, K., & Van Zyl, J. (2001, April). Practical strategies for pro-poor tourism: Case
studies of Makuleke and Manyeleti tourism initiatives. [Unpublished Working Paper].
London, England: Pro Poor Tourism Institute.
McGehee, N. and Andereck, K. (2008). “Pettin’ the Critters: Exploring the Complex relationship Between Volunteers and the Voluntoured in McDowell County West Virginia, USA, and Tijuana, Mexico.”In Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism, K.D. Lyons and S.Wearing, eds.
McGehee, N. & Santos, C. (2005). Social change, discourse, and volunteer tourism. Annals of
Tourism Research. 32(3), 76-776.
Travel Industry Association of America (2007). Travel Industry Association of America.
Retrieved March 18, 2007, from: http://www.tia.org/index.html
Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: Experiences that make a difference. Oxon: CABI
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