Travel can be an opportunity to have fun and to broaden your worldview, and many people now also see it as a chance to have a positive impact on a different part of the world. Voluntourism, the idea of traveling somewhere with the purpose of contributing to the greater good by volunteering there, is undoubtedly popular. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year, according to NPR.
Recently, though, voluntourism has faced harsh criticism, with detractors questioning whether it’s the best way to contribute and give back to a community. Critics say voluntourism is not as beneficial as many believe it to be and can in some cases do more harm than good to the communities and people those visiting aim to help.
A satirical Instagram account launched last month for Barbie Savior mocks white twenty-something voluntourists who travel to Africa, continuing what Quartz calls “the grand tradition of making fun of Western volunteers on short-term, often ineffectual assignments in Africa.”
The Problem With Voluntourism
While the intentions of voluntourists are undeniably often very good, and the time and money they spend is significant, their collective efforts rarely result in large-scale, meaningful impact.
Many have come to view such travel as important when applying to college. Admissions committees, however, have made it clear that they may not view those trips as determinative. In January, a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education endorsed by more than 80 colleges and universities called on shifts in the college admissions process and specifically noted that students “taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership” are not necessarily acts of service, and noted that service should be sustained, which can be difficult to achieve with voluntourism trips.
The New York Times recently published “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma” by Jacob Kushner, a journalist who reports on foreign aid and migration in Africa and the Caribbean, which raised concerns about voluntourism. Among them were that American travel to developing countries to construct buildings takes away jobs from capable locals and that long-term planning for volunteer projects is often lacking. For example, building a school is not terribly helpful without long-term plans to staff, supply and maintain it. Kushner also cites harm to children who have attachment issues due to the departure of caregivers.
His piece elicited a strong reaction from many people. “Most people seem to agree with my point that solving things like poverty and systemic marginalization is complex and generally ought to be left to the experts,” he says. “But I’ve also gotten comments and emails from people reminding me that a go-abroad experience can have positive effects on the travelers themselves. People wrote with stories about how going abroad changed them — that it led them to engage more with the world, perhaps even led them to pursue careers abroad.”
He says that while all of those people shared positive stories, those constructive experiences “can also be accomplished by simply visiting a place to learn instead of to teach. I hoped that this article would persuade people to put more thought into their mission-minded vacations.”
Other experts agree that what people hope to achieve by volunteering while traveling and what is feasible are often quite different. “People want to have a great impact and build a school in a day or change the life of an abandoned child in a few hours of mentorship, but those are totally unrealistic, and when there is that expectation, everyone gets let down,” says Heidi Clarke, Director of Programs for the Sandals Foundation, the nonprofit, philanthropic arm of Sandals Resorts International, focused on making a difference in the Caribbean.
“It is very true that unskilled volunteers provided with the wrong opportunities can just end up wasting funding, their time, and the time of the community people,” Clarke says.
So does this mean you should abandon the idea of giving back to the community you visit on your next vacation? Not necessarily.
Better Ways to Give Back When Traveling
Working with an established charity with local roots on a short-term project can be a way to do good without causing harm, and some resorts are offering such opportunities to their guests.
The Sandals Foundation offers guests at Sandals and Beaches Resorts throughout the Caribbean opportunities to make a difference in the local community with programs like the Reading Road Trip. Developed in response to travelers wanting to meet children in the community they visited, the program allows visitors to spend a few hours at a local school bringing books to and reading with elementary school students.
The Sandals Foundation also partners with Pack for a Purpose, which asks guests to pack backpacks with no more than five pounds (to avoid duties when entering the islands) of school supplies from a list of needed items. Since 2009, guests have donated more than 18,000 pounds of supplies and more than 16,000 people have volunteered.
“It’s one thing to read or hear a news story about conditions that are difficult. That makes you appreciate what you have a little, but actually going to the school and seeing it and being there is completely different,” says Megan McFadden, a 13-year-old from Naperville who traveled to a school in Turks and Caicos when staying at Beaches. “I was surprised by how different their school was from mine. It makes me want to give what I have to those kids.”
Sarah Stopek Hirsch of Highland Park, writer of the blog Well Traveled Kids, participated in Pack for a Purpose with her five-year-old, Henry.
“We had never done that on vacation before and I thought it was amazing that Beaches created this opportunity where families can give back and still enjoy a luxurious beach vacation,” says Stopek Hirsh. “You’re not turning your vacation into a huge philanthropy vacation, but you’re going to have part of the day that will be meaningful and will be remembered. It’s an easy way to teach really valuable lessons.”
While Kushner argues that giving items can undercut the local economy, Clarke points out that, in addition to getting the school children excited about reading, the programs have helped to provide schools with supplies and books they wouldn’t otherwise have and that may not be readily available locally. “For us, it is about being the eyes and ears of the community, knowing where there is need and filling that need, rather than creating a need,” says Clarke.
She also notes that the connections formed have led to additional donations by guests, including starting major book drives and providing students with scholarships, and fulfilling other needs in the Caribbean.
Both Clarke and Kushner agree that the connections between people are most valuable. “Simply meet and spend time with locals,” Kushner advises travelers.
“We don’t want people to just come and sit on the beach or by the pool, we want them to experience the destination. The people and the environment in the Caribbean are what make people return time and time again, benefitting the overall economy,” explains Clarke.
The New Approach is Catching On
The idea of finding a way to enjoy a relaxing vacation and give back is becoming more popular. Clarke notes that she has seen increased interest from other resorts and the cruise industry in providing programs to guests similar to those Sandals and Beaches offer.
The Ritz Carlton is launching a program this month called ‘Impact Experiences’ that will give group guests a chance to contribute to the communities they are visiting. In the cruise industry, nonprofit organization Hope Floats offers service opportunities at ports of call for cruise guests while also leaving time for exploration of the island, and Crystal Cruises offers “You Care. We Care.” excursions that facilitate hands-on volunteering.
It’s OK to Just be a Tourist
It is not only OK to simply travel, but in many cases advisable. How visitors approach their trip and destination can make a big difference in their experience.
“My advice would be to go as you are — as a tourist. But one whose mission is not just to enjoy, but to learn,” says Kushner. He suggests travelers start before leaving home and read the news about their destination, watch a documentary about the area and search the web for events being put on by local organizations during their trip.
“Guests of Sandals and Beaches should know that just by being a guest at our resorts they help to make a difference here,” says Clarke.
Tourists looking to do more, though, can take advantage of additional opportunities to give back, but should make sure the opportunities to do so are truly beneficial to them as well as the community they are visiting. “As travelers become more conscious and they are provided with the right type of opportunities, tourism has huge potential to impact local communities,” Clarke says.