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Volume 5 Issue 3 Highlights


Study and Research


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.


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.” 

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,

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’:

Experiences of Their Interaction with Their Maori Hosts

The nature of the volunteers’ experiences and the relationships they developed with their hosts can be illustrated in the following quotes:

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:

Additionally, one of the volunteers experienced the following:


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.

Nancy McGehee, PhD., Virginia Tech University

 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
Blacksburg VA

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

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