With a rise in demand for sustainable travel and experience-driven holidays, different niches have grown in popularity in the tourism industry. One such niche is voluntourism, which on the surface seems to be the perfect way for travelers to give back to the communities of the destinations they visit. However, there are a range of issues associated with this type of tourism, ranging from benign problems that can occur with any type of tourism, to issues that become problematic and potentially dangerous for the communities receiving help through voluntourism initiatives.

Demand for ethical products and travel is high

The industry of “voluntourism,” or volunteer tourism, offers travel opportunities associated with social impact volunteering, such as teaching English or building houses in an earthquake-affected region. GlobalData ‘s Q3 consumer survey saw that, on average, 22% of respondents stated that they “completely agree” with the statement, “I will buy more products from a brand if it aligns with my personal beliefs/values” and a further 32% responding that they “somewhat agree.” Further to this, the younger generations agree with this sentiment most, with 60% and 54% of millennials and gen z respectively responding with “somewhat agree” and “completely agree.” All of this shows that travelers and consumers are gearing their spending habits more towards ethical products and holidays, a category that voluntourism seems to fit into on the surface.

Voluntourism could be causing more harm than good

Voluntourism has a few key features, such as a limited time frame, as these “holidays” don’t last more than a few weeks, ranging to a couple of months at the most. Also, there is an extremely high turnover rate, where volunteers flow in and out in a continuous stream due to the short time frame, and do not participate in any type of formal transition between them. Finally, there is a relatively low standard for entry, for example, it is not necessary to be a professional or have any kind of engineering background to participate in house-building or well-building projects. All combined, these characteristics can actually generate more harm than good and result in a negative impact on an already struggling destination.

There are two broad problems with the voluntourism model: the sustainability issues and the amateur problem. Firstly, the short time frame and resulting high turnover rate is detrimental to long-term sustainability. Secondly, the problem of amateurs, is that the only criteria volunteers really need to meet to go on a voluntourism trip are to have good intentions and be able to afford an airline ticket to the destination. This means that development projects often lack much-needed expertise with regards to constructing homes without an engineering background, or even teaching without any training, all of which can render poor quality services with very little accountability.

Better practices are needed

It is important to note, however, that volunteering is not inherently problematic. There are several criteria a volunteering organization can meet in order to promote good, sustainable practices. By accepting trained professionals to work in a placement for at least a couple months, organizations can combat both the sustainability and amateur problems. While the intentions of voluntourism are not meant to be detrimental to a destination, only by improving standards of practice can volunteering travel companies hope to support their good intentions with actionable support.