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August 2005 - Wisdom & Insight
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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.

Wisdom & Insight

This month I received an email from Nikki Fisher, a writer for a travel publication called the Unique Traveller in Australia. Here is her question:

In thinking about voluntourism and talking with people, one last question has come to mind that I'd be interested in your response. I understand that voluntourism is about both assisting people who live in the countries you've mentioned and secondly that the tourist is 'rewarded'  in terms of feeling that they have made a worthwhile contribution, but I'm wondering if voluntourism projects ever attract criticism for being an opportunity for wealthy westerners to go into other cultures and make a contribution that they feel better about but perhaps may not really be in the best interests of say traditional cultures. I hope that makes sense and doesn't sound too cynical but it is a question that has come up recently that I would like to address in the story. My thinking at this point is that organisations offering voluntourism trips would be working in close consultation with local people and that would be the strength of their projects. Any thoughts you have on this would be greatly appreciated.

You have good questions, Nikki.  You seem informed about the "dangers" of instituting voluntourism for the sake of voluntourists.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind.

1) There are really three types of service that can be rendered

a. Relief - we saw this in conjunction with the Tsunami Disaster - there is an immediate need for folks to volunteer their time and support.  Likely, if this was to become part of VolunTourism "packages," then the VolunTourists would have the traditional tourism aspects of the VolunTourism experience as part of a "post-voluntary effort" portion of the trip.

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b. Direct Aid - by this term we are referring to those populations that cannot "fend" for themselves.  This would include aid to orphanages, homeless shelters, locations that support those with disabilities, etc.  The key here is that these populations require services and the social, economic, political, and cultural structure of the destination makes it nearly impossible for their needs to be met.

c. Community Development - this is where the comments that you have made are most important.  Now we are talking about marginal populations - those that if they get a little "bump" of support then they will be able to make a
noticeable change in their ability to become more self-reliant.  This includes activities like building schools, roads, and other infrastructure - needs that have been identified by communities, but in which the residents work alongside the VolunTourists - shared labor, shared interest, shared reward!

2) Tourism Operators & NGOs will vary on their acceptance of any of the above three options.  

You will have purists among the NGOs (in category "c" above) that will emphatically deny that tourism has a place in community development; that it is impossible for people to volunteer only a short period of time to make a
difference in meeting the needs of the populations being served.  

This may very well be true, in many situations, but not all.

The point here is to keep in mind that VolunTourism, if it is really developed properly, will serve both the residents and the participants.  Tourism Operators must be educated so they can make a determination about which of the above scenarios works best for them.  

If they are just getting started, well, then they may want to select direct aid.  No community will turn them down if they are supporting those who cannot support themselves - granted there are guidelines on how to do that, of course.  

But if they really want to make significant contribtuions to "self-reliance," then they will want to get involved in supporting community development work.This is possible with the following: a good NGO, a steady stream of VolunTourists, and adequate education for residents - both prior to, and following visits from VolunTourists.

Communication is the key; and, most assuredly, the understanding that what VolunTourism really has at the heart of it all is getting to know your global neighbor through interactive service.

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VolunTourism:
A seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel—arts, culture, geography, and history—in that destination.

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