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Volume 3 Issue 1 - Wisdom & Insight

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Wisdom & Insight

The VolunTourism Chronicles: "A Graduate Student's Perspective on VolunTourism" and "The Anatomy of a FAM Trip"

In this issue we hear from Attila Woodward who is seeking to develop VolunTourism in Vietnam. We also get an update from Shawn Stratton regarding his Familiarization Trip to Ecuador.

In this first segment, Attila Woodward, a Master’s of Tourism Administration candidate at the George Washington University, delivers his thoughts on VolunTourism:

A Graduate Student's Perspective On VolunTourism - by Attila Woodward

In October 2006 I began my work as a VolunTourism research assistant at George Washington University’s Tourism and Hospitality department. My first assignment included familiarizing myself with scholarly articles on this topic. Despite information on the outbound market, there was little focus on the benefits on the receiving market (the destination and people itself). Following are excerpts of the most revealing findings that I came across. To most of you already familiar with VolunTourism, these may come as no surprise, but to a newcomer like myself, I found them rather fascinating.

Message 1 – A Growing Industry Segment but Lacking a Universally-Recognized Brand Name

Despite limited research into VolunTourism, as compared with other forms of travel, the appeal of volunteering away from home is growing rapidly. More tourists are seeking alternative tourism experiences to mass tourism and some are in search for nature, purity, wisdom or freedom – attributes that have been lost in their society. A published guide on VolunTourism in 2003 cited 275 listed VolunTourism organizations up significantly from only 75 listed in 1987.

In my readings I found that most scholars used different terms to describe VolunTourism. Terms included: volunteer tourism, volunteerism, development tourism and edu-tourism. Voluntourism encompasses all these, so why not call it by one name? We must not forget that despite VolunTourism, the general public is now being bombarded with other tourism terms such as ecotourism, community based tourism, pro-poor tourism, etc… If VolunTourism is to be marketed constructively to the general public, having one term would help position and build the brand name more effectively.

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Message 2 – A Western-Led Seasonal Initiative

VolunTourism traffic originates from Western countries (the United States and Europe) and travel flows to poor countries in the developing world. It encompasses all age groups, from 20 to 79 years of age. In the United Kingdom there are some ten thousand 18 – 20 year olds embarking in some form of VolunTourism. This is commonly referred to as the Gap Year. In general the flow of volunteer travelers from rich countries to poor countries has been called a “form of colonialism” and is highly seasonal – mostly occurring in the summer holidays when travelers have time to go abroad. Time spent volunteering in other countries ranges from entire trips dedicated to helping communities and other leisure trips that allot several hours to a volunteer activity. This left me with one very important question. What happens to the communities in need during the low seasons?

Message 3 – Growing Commercialization and Poor Packaging

With the gap year in the United Kingdom becoming increasingly popular, many commercial organizations are capitalizing on the business opportunity to send students abroad. This “can also be assumed, but not proved in other countries such as the US”. There is cause for concern here as in some instances, countries are packaged and portrayed as “homogeneous peoples without history or politics”, offering a highly simplistic understanding of development where good intentions and enthusiasm are allowed to prevail. This leads to one important point. Traveling to help people in poor communities is a noble activity and one which should be encouraged, but we must not forget that when we travel we also bring with us our customs, habits and way of life. Ensuring we behave in a respectful, considerate and responsible manner in the host communities we visit is equally important for us as it is for the hosts. The lack of proper rules and guidelines from the originating market as observed in Gap year programs, should question the real impacts of volunteers.

Conclusion (What actionable items would be good to see take place?)

As a fast growing tourism industry segment, VolunTourism is quickly becoming a commercialized experience. The little research that exists focuses on the outbound market, mostly from the US and Europe which flows mainly to poor and developing countries. With seasonal travel patterns, limited training on local customs and rules, the VolunTourism experience has little chance of reaching its full potential. Most important of all, given that we are journeying to other destinations the impacts that we have on those communities should be documented for a better understanding of how those communities benefit, otherwise, aren’t we just following a colonial pattern again, despite all the good will efforts behind it?

If any of the readers have articles written in English or Spanish on the impacts Voluntourists have on host communities they visit, please forward them to attila@gwu.edu

Note: During 2006 and 2007 Attila Woodward participated in two VolunTourism journeys in Ho Chi Minh City and Honduras and is currently helping develop new VolunTourism routes in western Vietnam. Attila Woodward is a Master’s of Tourism Administration candidate at the George Washington University.

Articles researched included:

  • Doing Development: The Gap Year, Volunteer-Tourists and Popular Practice of Development. By Kate Simpson. Published in the Journal of International Development, United Kingdom. Written in 2004
  • Volunteer Tourism: Postmodern Pilgrimage? By Pekka Mustonen. Finland. Written in 2004
  • Development Tourists vs. Development Tourism: A Case Study. By Noel B Salazar. USA. Writen in 2004
  • Traveling with a Purpose: Understanding the Motives and benefits of Volunteer Vacationers. By Sally Brown and Xinran Lehto. USA. Written in 2005.
  • Alternative Tourism As Impetus for Consciousness-Raising. By Nancy Gard McGehee and William C. Norman. USA. Written in 2002

In this second segment of "The VolunTourism Chronicles," Shawn Stratton, of LiveMore Adventures, recounts his recent visit to Ecuador:

Anatomy of a FAM Trip - - Shawn Stratton, President, and Founder - LiveMore Adventures

I have recently returned from an incredible three and a half week familiarization (FAM) trip to Ecuador sponsored by Tourism Ecuador. In this article, I will share with you how the trip came about, my reasons for taking the trip, and what I have to do next to build an outstanding itinerary.

A familiarization (FAM) trip, where local Tourism Boards or operators bring potential clients or journalists on an all-expenses-paid (depending) trip to experience their location or product are a common occurrence in the industry.

For the last two years, I have attended the Adventure Travel World Summit, a collection of 500 adventure travel industry leaders from around the world. While attending the summit two years ago in Seattle, I was introduced to Marcelo Meneses, of Ecuador Adventure, an inbound adventure travel company based in Quito. Talking with Marcelo, I explained the idea of the company I was starting and we both agreed that Ecuador would be an excellent location for LiveMore Adventures to run adventure travel trips based around education and voluntourism. I told him I would keep in touch as my company was getting off the ground and with the hope of some day visiting Ecuador for a scouting trip. We kept in touch over the last couple of years, reconnecting at last year’s Summit. In November, when Tourism Ecuador asked Marcelo if he knew of any potential clients in the North America market that should attend an upcoming FAM trip, he passed along my name.

At the time, Marcelo mentioned to me that he had given my name along to Tourism Ecuador, but I didn't think much of it until a month later, in December, when they unexpectedly called me. A public relations firm in New York representing Tourism Ecuador called inviting me on an all expenses paid FAM trip to Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands)! I garishly accepted and began planning my trip. Over two weeks the FAM would include visiting the Andes, the Coast, and the Galapagos Islands. I knew the FAM would be a fairly rushed and generic trip to accommodate all the interests of our diverse group so I asked if I could extend my trip to see the Amazon and make connections with some volunteer projects. They were happy to accommodate my request and I worked with Ecuador Adventure to arrange the details of my post FAM trip. My overall goal for the trip was to gain a sense of the country and return with enough info that I feel comfortable planning several outstanding voluntourism itineraries to offer my clients.

As I expected the trip was made up of tour operators and journalists from the US and Canada. Most of the FAM consisted of fast paced travel throughout the country doing hotel and haciendas sites inspections and half-day activities such as city tours, mountain biking, train rides, and shopping at indigenous markets. Our four-day cruise of the Galapagos took place at the end of the trip. Throughout the FAM, we were very well-received and attended many formal functions with local tourism dignitaries. Although the organized FAM was very nice, I was longing for more connection with locals, physical activity, and adventure!

Following our Galapagos cruise, our group disbanded and I began my customized 9-day post FAM trip. My mission for this section of the trip was to learn more about Ecuador Adventure, see some of their products, get a taste of the Amazon, and make connections with several indigenous volunteer programs. The level of adventure greatly increased during the post FAM and it felt like it really accomplished my entire mission. Now that I have returned home, I am working on developing several different itineraries that will include time volunteering with indigenous peoples living high in the Andes. Within the next few weeks, I should have the detailed itineraries on the LiveMore Adventures web site.

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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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