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Volume 6 Issue 2 Highlights


Study and Research


Jenny Morgan, Programme Officer,
Overseas Development Institute, London, UK

As most of our regular readers know, there is much debate over what benefits short-term volunteer tourism can bring to international development. As a fulfillment of her MSc in Development Studies (2009) at London South Bank University in the UK, Jenny Morgan undertook a study of the volunteer tourism industry; in particular, assessing what benefits it can bring to international development. Following a review of relevant literature, Jenny, using both quantitative and qualitative questioning, questioned the four main actors within the volunteer tourism chain: sending organisations; previous/current volunteers; partner organisations and host organisations/projects. In total, Jenny conducted 42 surveys over 2 months, and what follows are the major findings from her study.


International volunteering is part of the wider international development agenda and international volunteers are often considered development workers in their own right. Traditionally, international volunteering opportunities have tended to be long-term skills-based placements, run by development agencies, humanitarian organisations, NGO’s, educational institutions, and religious groups. However, a rejection of mass-tourism and demand for more authentic and meaningful forms of travel has resulted in a surge in demand for short-term volunteer opportunities from individuals who are unable to commit long-term but wish to ‘give something back’ during their leisure time. My research has shown, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the main motivations of volunteer tourists include a desire to help, the possibility of a unique travel experience, and personal development.

Volunteer tourism offers hybrid options posed to meet the demands of tourists

Volunteer tourism offers new opportunities for the tourism industry. Its development has created the need for partnerships beyond the traditional tourist supply chain. In addition to the normal supply chain participants (i.e. airline companies, accommodation providers, etc), there are four main actors within the volunteer tourism chain: sending organisations; volunteers; partner organisations, and host organisations/projects. The diversity and breadth of the volunteer tourism sector makes it very difficult to establish a clear business model. Volunteer tourism offers hybrid options posed to satisfy the demands of tourists, and volunteer placements tend to be flexible to ensure ultimate convenience.

In 2008, the market for volunteer tourism in Western Europe (which is dominated by the UK) grew around 5-10% from the previous five years (2003-2008) and in 2006 it was worth approximately US$150 million (Mintel 2008). This growth has been facilitated by the sheer number of sending organisations involved, the variety of destinations and types of projects available, and the increasing range of target markets – short-term volunteering opportunities are now easily accessible. My research found that many of the sending organisations are commercial (profit-based) organisations with the newest additions being conventional tour operators. Commercial organisations cite reasons for moving into the sector as 1) having identified a worthwhile project in a country they were already operating in, and 2) in response to consumer demand – to the joint benefit of the sending organisation, the volunteer, and the local community. However, critics suggest that the financial motivation of such commercial organisations prevails over any consideration of their development impact.

Africa, Asia and Latin America are the most popular destination regions. The most common duration is 1-2 weeks, with most volunteers being students, and those taking a career gap. The most popular types of projects were education and training, construction, and working with children.


If short-term volunteering opportunities are well-organised and thought out, tourists can use their leisure time and discretionary resources to great advantage

Volunteer tourism is seen (Coghlan 2007; Ellis 2007; Lyons 2008; McIntosh and Zahra 2007; Mustonen 2005; Wearing 2001) to have strong links with sustainable tourism (sustainable tourism products are defined by Mintel (2005) as ‘products which operate in harmony with local environment, community and culture, so that these become permanent beneficiaries); offering a sustainable alternative to the consumptive trends of mass tourism and creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the host community and the volunteer.

Short-term volunteering opportunities allow more people (who would otherwise be unable to commit time) to participate in volunteering overseas. The sending organisations questioned as a part of this study sent on average over 1000 volunteers each in 2008. If these short-term volunteering opportunities are properly conceived and well-organised, the leisure time and discretionary resources of these tourists can be used to great advantage.

The majority of sending organisations (that responded to this study) confirmed that they chose placements in discussion with local partner organisations, NGOs/charities, and local community representatives, which could suggest active consideration of local development needs or just the necessary means for sending organisations to secure placements.

Host organisations/projects assert that volunteer tourism has great impact on the local community, particularly in more remote, rural areas. My research found that direct benefits to the community include increased manpower and direct financial support through placements. Indirect benefits include increased local employment (facilitated by the injection of revenue) and improved facilities (schools, parks and daily activities).

Although volunteers may have some prior awareness of global development issues, the majority of respondents felt that providing tourists with opportunities to live and work amongst people from societies and cultures very different to their own has the potential to increase cultural understanding, social awareness and sense of global responsibility. A strong message coming out of the research was that volunteer tourism provides host organisations/projects with a voice; a means of spreading their message and inspiring long-term social movement and activism. Volunteers take their experiences home with them, and the majority of host organisations/projects confirm that volunteers tend to stay in touch when they finish the placement and return home, even actively fundraising on their behalf.


Despite these benefits recognised, volunteer tourism has come under intense criticism from academics, development organisations and long-term volunteering agencies. First, as trip length  decreases, volunteering placements are seen (Brodie 2006 in Frean 2006; Callanan and Mustonen 2005; Tourism Concern 2007) to be increasingly designed with the convenience and motivation of volunteer tourists in mind, rather than on the needs of the local communities they assert to be supporting.

First, as the length of the trip decreases, volunteering placements are seen  to be increasingly designed with the convenience and motivation of volunteer tourists in mind, rather than focusing on the communities they are supporting(Brodie 2006 in Frean 2006; Callanan and Mustonen 2005; Tourism Concern 2007).

Emphasis on the experience of the volunteer and not the impact on local communities is problematic

Second, sending organisations confirm that volunteer tourists, in a business sense, tend to be one-off customers (they are not expected to provide repeat business for the organisation as in many cases trips are considered to be a once in a life-time opportunity), so the priority is attracting volunteers rather than upon the impact that they have on host communities.

If a volunteer sees their efforts as futile then any capacity for social movement is limited

Third, the tourism industry is cyclical and demand-led and the popularity of destinations will vary over time. As a result, if there is disproportionate concentration on certain types of work or people, volunteering opportunities may cause uneven development (Simpson 2007), and/or create dependencies within host communities for services and products they are not in a position to support long term – it is unknown whether there are any contingencies in place for host organisations/projects should they fall out of favour.

Fourth, the emphasis on the experience of the volunteer is problematic. Sending organisations risk creating/reinforcing high expectations amongst volunteers regarding what can be achieved in such a short space of time. Host organisations/projects confirmed that volunteer tourists are limited to more simple tasks, small in scale, with minimal impact. Though volunteers may have good intentions, and while volunteers can gain a lot from their experiences, there is concern that they may take experiences too lightly and (depending on prior knowledge and experience) assume that development is simple, ‘something that can comes from outsiders (rather than local people and governments) and that can be done by unskilled, but enthusiastic Westerners’ (Simpson 2007). Short-term volunteers have very little time to adjust and truly understand the country and its culture and risk causing offence to the local community.

Fifth, related to this emphasis on the volunteer, placements are criticised as being repetitive and inconsistent - due to having been set up for volunteer tourists rather than as part of a long-term development strategy. My research found that not all volunteering placements are well conceived or well organised, and that sometimes there was a real lack of guidance for volunteers by sending and partner organisations. There was concern felt by volunteers whether projects were ultimately of real value to the local community. If a volunteer sees their efforts as futile then any capacity for social movement is limited.

Work needs to be done to achieve an appropriate level of standards and ensure that volunteer tourism positively benefits international development

Finally, this study found that the majority of volunteers did not have relevant qualifications or experience prior to volunteering, nor did they receive any training or instruction prior to departure. Host organisations/projects confirmed that if a volunteer possess specific skills, they do their best to utilise them, however If un-skilled workers frequently require assistance, they can risk being a burden on local staff and becoming a drain on local resources. The notion that ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’ is undermined when volunteer tourism has negative effects on the local community.

Conclusion and Lesson Learning

The longer a volunteer can commit the more meaningful their contribution is seen to be

Ultimately, this study found that the longer a volunteer can commit, the more meaningful their contribution was seen to be; as short-term placements are typically small in scale, benefits tend to be limited. However, it is increasingly recognised that tourism can contribute to the reduction of poverty in less developed countries - a principle export in a third of all developed countries, it is the primary source of foreign exchange amongst the least developed countries (UNWTO 2006). Therefore, the role and potential benefits of volunteer tourism should not be discounted, particularly as there is always likely to be a level of demand for short-term volunteer placements.

Nevertheless, a number of recommendations can be made to the volunteer tourism industry as a result of this study.

  • In order to maximise the potential benefits of volunteer tourism for international development (sustainably in the long term), work needs to be done to achieve an appropriate level of standards and ensure that volunteer tourism is correctly managed at all levels of the chain.
  • Sending organisations have a major role to play, not least by educating volunteers. Volunteers need to be made aware of the complexities of development, and what can be achieved, realistically, in the short-term – whilst working to change the perceptions of the local community as being ‘subordinate’ or in need of being ‘helped.’ In fact many tour operators already have responsible tourism policies that cover interaction with local staff and impact on the environment that should be publicised and widely communicated.
  • Volunteer placements need to be aligned with the development policy of the host region, and local communities should have a platform to clearly state their development needs. Sending organisations should then work alongside local and national development actors to ensure that the work is not futile and that specific development needs are being met.
  • Arguments regarding the extent of any benefit versus potential damage to the host community prompts consideration of whether or not negative elements of this nature could be minimised if the industry were suitably regulated. Existing guidelines (Tourism Concern; Comhlámh) need to be developed (in collaboration with ‘traditional’ volunteering organisations and development agencies).
  • Finally, when evaluating the effectiveness of volunteer tourism, it is important to recognise what the “success” is being based on: whether it is the experience of the volunteer, or what the placement itself brings to the host organisation/project and the local community (as these results can be very different). Literature reviewed placed a lot of emphasis on the benefits accruing to the volunteer rather than the host community. It is also important to distinguish between one-off projects that have a clear and tangible result and are easier to assess in terms of success, and those placements which are based within organisations or part of a long-term programme.


Callanan, M. and Thomas, S. (2005) Volunteer tourism: Deconstructing volunteer activities within a dynamic environment in Novelli, M. (Ed) (2005) ‘Niche Tourism: Contemporary issues, trends and cases’ Oxford: Elsevier

Coghlan, A. (2007) ‘Towards an integrated image-based typology of volunteer tourism organisation’ Journal of Sustainable Tourism Vol. 15, No. 3, pp.267-28

Comhlámh (UDb) ‘Volunteer charter and sending organizations code of good practice: Short term volunteering for long term development’ [Online] Available from: http://www.comhlamh.org/assets/files/pdfs/Code-of-Practice%5B1%5D.pdf [Accessed 05 October 2008]

Ellis, S. (2007) ‘Voluntourism: Pros, cons and possibilities’ [Online] Available from: http://www.energizeinc.com/hot/2007/07feb.html [Accessed 14 March 2008]

Frean, A. (2006) ‘Gap years create new colonialists’ The Times newspaper, 15 August 2006, London [Online] Available from: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/holiday_type/gap_travel/article609259.ece [Accessed 05 October 2008]

Lyons, K. D. (2003) ‘Ambiguities in volunteer tourism: A case study of Australians participating in a J-1 visitor exchange programme’ Tourism Research Vol. 28, No. 3, pp.5-13

McInotsh, A. J. and Zahra, A. (2007) ‘A cultural encounter through volunteer tourism: Towards the ideals of sustainable tourism’ Journal of Sustainable Tourism Vol. 15, No. 5

Mintel (2005) Travel and Tourism Analyst ‘Sustainable Tourism’ February 2005

Mintel (2008) Travel and Tourism Analyst ‘Volunteer Tourism – International’, September 2008

Mustonen, P. (2005) ‘Volunteer Tourism: Postmodern Pilgrimage’ Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 160-174

Simpson, K. (2007) ‘Is voluntourism doing any good? No!’ Wanderlust Travel Magazine Issue 88, June/July 2007 [Online] Available from http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/article.php?page_id=88 [ Accessed 14 December 2008]

Tourism Concern (2007) ‘Gaps in Development: An analysis of the UK international volunteering sector’ London: Tourism Concern

UNWTO United Nations World Tourism Organisation (2006) ‘Tourism and least developed countries’ A sustainable opportunity to reduce poverty’ Madrid: UNWTO

Wearing, S. (2001) ‘Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that make a difference’ Oxon: UK: 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 Jenny at: jenny-morgan[at]hotmail.co.uk.

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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