Study and Research
THE CULTURAL DIMENSIONS OF VOLUNTEER TOURISM
Dr. Anne Zahra, Senior Lecturer, Department of Tourism & Hospitality
The University of Waikato
For this issue of the Research Forum, Dr. Nancy McGehee welcomes Dr. Anne Zahra. Anne has had a twenty-five year personal involvement in volunteering both as a volunteer working with rural and urban poor in less developed countries and as an organizer of educational-based development projects for volunteers in Fiji, Tonga, India, and the Philppines. She has also coordinated AusAid projects in South America through her long-term involvement with Reldev Australia Limited, an NGO registered with AusAid. In this brief, Dr. Zahra discusses the experiences of voluntourists in the cultural context of the Maori people in New Zealand and how this compares to 'traditional' cultural tourism.
This research study looks at the nexus of the volunteer and cultural tourism experience. It can be argued that volunteer tourists in their search for new travel experiences reflects’ peoples increasing desire for altruism, self-change, and to be able to piece their individual experiences together into a coherent story that says something about who they are; to confirm their identities and provide coherence within an uncertain and fragmented post-modern life. One dimension of this experience of their journey of discovery is the cultural encounter with host communities. Whereas traditional cultural tourism often implies the commodification and staging of culture for consumption, volunteer tourism depends on active involvement and reflexive interaction on the part of the volunteers. Volunteer tourists can observe the environmental, cultural and social problems of a destination they visit. Such experiences can cause greater awareness of self, as well as value, identity and lifestyle changes among participants and also hosts (Ari, Mansfeld & Mittelberg, 2003; Higgins-Desbiolles 2003; Wearing, 2001, 2002).
This research sought to examine whether the experiences gained by volunteer tourists are different in the context of cultural tourism. Specifically, do volunteer tourists gain different meaning from their interactions with indigenous communities than those tourists who participate in cultural tourism? The research also provides insights into the nature of volunteer tourism experiences in a cultural context within a developed country, rather than the more widely reported experiences of volunteer tourists working on environmental projects in developing countries.
Copyright © Anne Zahra, All Rights Reserved
The volunteer programme organised by Reledev Australia Ltd, an Australian non-government organisation registered with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) that provides community and education development projects in Asia and South America. In addition to community development projects, Reledev organises projects in which young volunteers aged between 16 and 26 years from Australia and New Zealand participate in projects in less developed countries around the world and in Australia and New Zealand. One week of a two week project was based in the Bay of Plenty in the North Island of New Zealand which has one of the highest proportions of Maori among the local population in New Zealand. Typically, participants pay for their own airfare, accommodation and transport in the destination. The research employed in-depth interviews, diaries and participant observation to examine the pre-, during, and post-trip experiences of twelve Australian visitors undertaking organised volunteer activities in a Maori community whilst staying on a marae (Maori village or traditional meeting place).
Experiences of Maori Culture
The volunteers’ experiences of Maori culture were based on an experience of cultural ‘difference’. Whilst volunteers expected to receive a traditional view of Maori culture, their experience on the marae and dealing with the children and their families in a suburban community related predominantly to the contemporary lifestyle of Maori, including for example, experiences of contemporary Maori family values, association with tribal gangs and drugs, cultural ‘rules’, and the sense of community spirit.
The volunteers described how “The [Maori] kids have let us see what life is really like for them”, “it’s more hands-on; learning about everyday”, “we even got involved in the subculture”, “this is a modern and ‘real’ experience; we were treated like we were from here.” The nature of Maori family values was a feature of what the volunteers learned about Maori culture from their trip. They described Maori culture as, “having such a strong feeling of family”, “they’ve got attitude with the kids as part of the gangs, but they all look out for each other”, “they put themselves last.”
Copyright © Anne Zahra, All Rights Reserved
As volunteers, the respondents learned a lot about the complexities of the contemporary Maori lifestyle by visiting Maori in their own homes. As participants recounted,
“I went to one of the kid’s family home; Jess came with me; we aren’t allowed to go anywhere alone. The home was small, simple and tidy; everything was normal. The garden was nice. But when we went to another little boy’s house, you could see the attitude of lack of care; junk in the garage and backyard, kitchen a mess, kids toys everywhere and clothes. We asked his sister, who was very shy, where their mother was and she said in the bedroom stoned with her boyfriend. Us two girls felt very uncomfortable and scared. We had never been near anyone so close who was stoned before; it was the stuff of movies and hip hop songs.”
“There was a discussion with four of the group asking lots of questions about the history of Maori, especially in this area. Why are they marginalised – economically, socially, broken families, drugs, that it’s ‘cool’ to drop out of school; why were Maori discriminated against in the past? Why in modern society we have this culture of drugs, sex, girls who get pregnant at 15 or 16 years of age. Is it okay for societies to have a blended family, that is brothers and sisters from different mothers and fathers; they have the possibility of completing school but why will these cute kids drop out? Is it because the foundation and support and encouragement to learn weren’t there in the early years? Is it the peer pressure or culture fostered by the gangs? Who has gone wrong – society, the family, how many generations back? The experience is really making them think about things they have never thought about before.”
The volunteers also compared their experiences of staying on the marae and working in the community with a day visit to a commercialized Maori cultural attraction in Rotorua. Their perception was that the nature of their experience on the marae was more genuine and ‘real’:
“To think this is all the tourists see; I think we are going to leave New Zealand so much more enriched having seen the real Maori; how they live in the modern world yet they still have their identity.”
“When I go back to Australia, I will have something in common with the other people who have been to New Zealand; yet all they have seen is one side, but I have also seen the other side.”
“At Rotorua, we saw Maori culture more the way New Zealanders want you to see it; with the tourist parks you only see certain aspects but with working with the kids, they opened up and you see them in their natural environment and it’s like you’ve been here for ages.”
Experiences of Their Interaction with Their Maori Hosts
Copyright © Anne Zahra, All Rights Reserved
The nature of the volunteers’ experiences and the relationships they developed with their hosts can be illustrated in the following quotes:
“We learned a lot from the experience but the biggest things we got out of it were the personally meaningful relationships. We got to know them so well; it was like we’d known them our whole life. The smallest things could bring a smile to their face and if you remembered their name, it meant so much. They smiled all the time and it made you feel so good; we touched those kids.”
“Most of us had special kids, like one or two kids we connected with; leaving them was the hardest part, I was in tears, so I rang her last night; we had a great relationship. They’re expecting us to write to them. They love me so much it’s just amazing.”
As with any cross-cultural experience, there will be situations that arise that may create tension between the host community and the voluntourists. Analysis of the transcripts and journal entries also showed experiences when the nature of the interaction between the volunteers and their hosts was difficult, as the following quote demonstrates:
“I found it particularly hard to be with children, to talk to them; it’s hard for me with other people; I normally don’t talk to people until I know them and I find it a bit harder to relate to kids.”
Additionally, one of the volunteers experienced the following:
“Even the first day for us was hard as we didn’t know what to expect, like playing sport; I didn’t know if they accept a girl in the boys team; you don’t know how they are going to react or if they’re going to turn around and get you into trouble. A lot of the kids swore; you don’t know if you can get smart back to them as you don’t know how they will take it. We got worried about all the gangs.”
The group of volunteers experienced an ‘alternative’ Maori cultural product through their volunteer work; one that they perceived as rich in authentic cultural content, genuine and reflective of modern Maori life in New Zealand society, one where they saw the development of close personal and ‘sincere’ relationships, and one that led to self reflection among the volunteer participants. Volunteer tourism developed in this manner perhaps offers volunteer tourists an antidote to the serial reproduction of indigenous cultural tourism experiences and a new engaging experience of discovery for the tourist.
Ari, L.L., Mansfeld, Y. & Mittelberg, D. (2003) Gobalization and the Role of Educational Travel to Israel in the Ethnification of American Jews. Tourism Recreation Research, 28(3), 15-24.
Higgins-Desbiolles, F.A. (2003) Reconciliation Tourism: Tourism Healing Divided Societies! Tourism Recreation Research, 28(3), 35-44.
Wearing, S. (2001) Volunteer Tourism: Experiences That Make a Difference. Oxon:CABI Publishing.
Wearing, S. (2002) Re-Centring the Self in Volunteer Tourism. In Dann, G.M.S. (Ed.). The Tourist as a Metaphor of the Social World, Pp. 237-262. Oxon: CABI Publishing.
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 e-mail Anne Zahra at a.zahra[at]waikato.ac.nz
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>>>
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