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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.

Volume 5 Issue 4 Highlights


Study and Research


Eliza Raymond
Global Volunteer Network

For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, I am pleased to focus on Eliza Raymond’s research interest in the potential for voluntourism to lead to cross-cultural understanding. Her research was done through the University of Otago, New Zealand, under the guidance of Dr. Michael Hall. Eliza’s academic background is in geography and tourism. More recently, Eliza has been working for the Global Volunteer Network with their partner organization in Peru as well as in their headquarters in New Zealand.


'Become a citizen of the world’

‘View a culture from the inside’

‘Create a community without borders’

Statements such as these are commonly found on voluntourism websites and promotional material. In fact many voluntourism organizations (VTOs) are even named after the assumption that voluntourism leads to cross-cultural understanding, for example ‘Cross Cultural Solutions’, ‘Global Citizens Network’ and ‘United Planet’.      

In addition, academic research has often pointed to the opportunities created by voluntourism for developing global citizenship amongst participants. It has been suggested that the interactions between volunteers and their hosts allow voluntourists to gain a sophisticated understanding of the local culture in which they participate, as well as the issues facing their host communities (see Jones, 2005; Lewis, 2005; Wearing, 2001). Moreover, some group programs attract volunteers from all over the world and the friendships developed between volunteer tourists can also reduce racial, cultural and social boundaries (see Higgins-Desbiolles, 2003; Hustinx, 2001; McGehee & Santos, 2005; McIntosh & Bonnemann, 2006; Wearing, 2001).

However, there is increasing debate as to whether we can assume that being a voluntourist automatically leads to a deeper understanding of other cultures. For example, Simpson (2004; 2005b) suggests that gap year VTOs use a simplistic view of ‘the other’ so that ‘difference’ can be sold and consumed. She argues that sweeping generalizations of destination communities are used in promotional materials and that there is often a lack of critical engagement during volunteer programs (Griffin, 2004; Simpson, 2005b). Consequently, it is suggested that voluntourism, as with other forms of tourism, has the potential to be used as an opportunity for voluntourists to confirm, rather than question, previously conceived ideas (Simpson, 2005b).

Despite varying opinions on whether voluntourism leads to cross-cultural understanding, it can at least be assumed that this is a goal of voluntourism. This study therefore took a new approach to this topic by focusing on the role of VTOs in facilitating the achievement of this goal. While the responsibility of developing cross-cultural understanding is not only that of the VTO, it is argued that they can have an influence.


To address this topic, an Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider, 1986) was carried out with 10 different VTOs from around the world. The VTOs were selected so that a range of projects could be researched varying from two-week group projects to long-term individual placements. Interviews were conducted with representatives of each VTO, representatives of the projects where volunteers were placed, and the volunteers themselves.

The interviews focused on identifying good practices by using positive questions. While problems and challenges still arose in interviews, the focus was to approach such issues in a more constructive and positive manner. The preliminary results from the research were then placed on a blog so that the participants could comment and share their opinions.


Throughout this study, numerous examples arose which illustrated that voluntourism has the potential either to break or reinforce cultural stereotypes. Volunteers expressed a range of opinions on their host communities ranging from a real desire to integrate and understand the local culture, to an ‘othering’ approach towards the ‘dangerous’ local people:

This research also highlighted the impact that VTOs can have in facilitating the development of cross-cultural understanding. Three key recommendations can be made.

Recommendation #1: Expose Volunteers To Other Cultures

If cross-cultural understanding is to develop, there must of course be opportunities for voluntourists to interact with other cultures. This can occur in two main ways.

a) Interaction between volunteers of different cultures

Existing work suggests that group voluntourism programs can lead to cross-cultural understanding through the relationships developed betweenvolunteer tourists (e.g. Hustinx, 2001; McGehee & Santos, 2005; McIntosh & Bonnemann, 2006; Wearing, 2001). However, while this occurred in some of the case studies involved in this research, certain VTOs cater primarily for one or two nationalities and attract similar types of people to their programs. Notably, one program involved in this research catered almost exclusively to British gap year students and, in an informal conversation, one volunteer tourist admitted that she felt as though she was ‘back in boarding school’ because she was living and working with volunteers of the same nationality, age, and background.

b) Interaction between volunteers and local people

While this occurs naturally to some extent through volunteers’ work, several VTOs involved in this research highlighted the importance of deliberately creating opportunities for exchange between volunteers and their hosts. One opportunity involves placing volunteer tourists in host families in order to enable greater immersion into the local community. In addition, interaction can be facilitated where volunteer tourists work alongside local volunteers/staff and through social occasions in which both volunteers and local people participate. For example, on the final day of one volunteer program, hosts and volunteers were both involved in culturally representative performances that included singing, dancing and story-telling. Through such activities, this program was able to move away from the typical forms of cultural consumption associated with conventional tourism, to an exchange model based on mutual cultural appreciation.

Recommendation #2: Provide opportunities for experiential learning

This research supports existing work relating to the importance of experiential learning and the inaccuracy of assuming that contact with the ‘other’ will automatically result in a broadening of horizons and a greater understanding of host communities (e.g. Crabtree 1998; Griffin 2004; Jones 2005; IVPA 2007; Simpson 2005a, b). The VTOs involved in this research used a range of different techniques to encourage reflection amongst their participants. For example, some volunteers were asked to keep a journal so that they would reflect during and after their program and other VTOs had written requirements such as applications, essays and/or evaluations. In addition, group discussions were conducted in several programs to explore broader issues surrounding the project and role plays were carried out to encourage volunteers to identify with local people.

Recommendation #3: Involve Local Staff

This research highlighted the importance of developing programs with local people so that volunteers are involved in work that is appropriate and that does not undermine the value of local paid staff. Clearly, this is important not only for ethical reasons but also to ensure that positive relationships develop between volunteer tourists and the host organizations with which they are working. In addition, it is essential that host organizations are in control of the program so that projects are not inappropriately imposed on host communities. This also helps to ensure that an environment of shared power and purpose develops between ‘host’ and ‘guest’.


Voluntourism potentially provides the opportunity to develop cross-cultural understanding and a sense of global citizenship among participants. However, the findings from this research suggest that the development of cross-cultural understanding should be perceived as a goal of voluntourism rather than a natural result of sending volunteers overseas. It is suggested that VTOs can play a role in facilitating the achievement of this goal through careful management prior, during and after volunteer programs.

This study points to a number of areas for future research. It is suggested that research involving host communities could provide a valuable avenue to explore this topic further. In addition, the factors influencing cross-cultural understanding need to be examined in greater detail, including the role that VTOs can play in facilitating this, but also the relationship of volunteer tourism to the broader research literature with respect to tourism, volunteerism and intergroup contact. It is hoped that continued research into this topic will contribute to the development of voluntourism as a unique form of tourism that facilitates positive international understanding and solidarity.


Crabtree, R.D. 1998, ‘Mutual empowerment in cross-cultural participatory development and service learning: lessons in communication and social justice from projects in El Salvador and Nicaragua’, Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol. 26, no. 2, 182-209

Cooperrider, D. L. 1986, Appreciative Inquiry: Toward a methodology for understanding and enhancing organizational innovation, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, Ohio

Griffin, T. 2004, A Discourse Analysis of UK Sourced Gap Year Overseas Projects, Unpublished MA thesis, University of the West of England, UK

Higgins-Desbiolles, F. 2003, ‘Reconciliation tourism: Tourism healing divided societies!’, Tourism Recreation Research, vol. 28, no. 3, 35-44

Hustinx, L. 2001, ‘Individualisation and new styles of youth volunteering: an empirical exploration’, Voluntary Action, vol. 3, no. 2, 57-76

Jones, A. 2005, ‘Assessing international youth service programmes in two low-income countries’, Voluntary Action, vol. 7, no. 2, 87-99

IVPA 2007, IVPA Principles and Practices, http://www.volunteerinternational.org/index-principles2.htm (accessed 4 December 2006)

Lewis, D. 2005, ‘Globalisation and international service: a development perspective’, Voluntary Action, vol. 7, no. 2, 13-25

McGehee, N.G. & Santos, C.A. 2005, ‘Social change, Discourse and volunteer tourism’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 32, no. 3, 760-779

McIntosh, A.J. & Bonnemann, S.M. 2006, ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF): The alternative farm stay experience?’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol. 14, no. 1, 82-99

Simpson, K. 2004, ‘Doing development’: The gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development, Journal of International Development, vol. 16. 681-692

Simpson, K. 2005a, ‘Dropping out or signing up? The professionalisation of youth travel’, Antipode, vol. 37, no. 3, 447-469

Simpson, K. 2005b, Broad horizons? Geographies and pedagogies of the gap year, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Newcastle, UK

Wearing, S. 2001, Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that make a difference, CABI, Oxon

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 Eliza Raymond at elizaraymond[at]gmail.com

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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