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Exploring Voluntourism

Around the Cooler

Voluntourism, the moniker for travel with a humanitarian twist, is an attractive option for those who want to immerse themselves in new cultures while (fingers crossed) making a difference. It’s a lucrative industry—estimated at $2–3 billion—but not all experiences are beneficial across the board.

In the decades since this style of travel has skyrocketed in popularity, many are asking if the people served find themselves better off or if it’s only the travelers who are positively affected. Here are five considerations to help you determine if a humanitarian trip is the best way to make an impact.

Image of building materials and orphanage children

1. Deconstructing Voluntourism

In 2014, Pippa Biddle’s blog post about one of her voluntourism trips went viral. Her travel group was tasked with constructing a library in Tanzania. Unbeknownst to the group, locals were tearing down and rebuilding the structure at night because the volunteers’ workmanship was so poor, and the Tanzanians didn’t want to hurt the visitors’ feelings. Biddle’s post sparked dialogue on voluntourism’s effectiveness that continues today.

2. Orphanage Trafficking

It’s a heartbreaking stat: about 8 million children reside in orphanages. Yet many children in orphanages have one living parent who has sent them to the facilities, which is known as orphanage trafficking. Not only does orphanage voluntourism contribute to the profitability of orphanage trafficking, but it can also cause attachment disorder. These concerns, among others, are why Australia’s government considers orphanage trafficking a form of modern slavery.

Three images showing writing a journal, shells for sale, and elephants

3. Camera Shy

If you signed up for a humanitarian trip and couldn’t take any photos during the experience, let alone post them on social media, would you still go? Sometimes the quest for Insta-worthy shots gives voluntourists a bad image while promoting harmful stereotypes. If you find yourself on a humanitarian adventure, focus on connecting with the people and journaling about the experience daily while limiting smartphone snaps. (And when you do take a picture, remember to ask subjects for permission.)

4. Dependency Tendency

Voluntourism can cause locals to become increasingly dependent on visitors, perpetuate “savior complexes,” and hurt local economies. Mahmood Qasim, International Development and Relief Foundation CEO, noted that voluntourism is “not a sustainable or effective way to promote development and alleviate poverty.” If volunteering abroad interests you, look for organizations with local leaders or find expeditions that focus on long-term results.

5. Alternate Route

Consider sustainable tourism, experiences that take accountability for their environmental, social, and economic impacts. Perhaps you’d like volunteering at an animal sanctuary (check out Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, or Samui Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand), visiting ecolodges, or giving agritourism a shot. Remember, you don’t have to travel far—or even leave your neighborhood—to make a positive change in the world.

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Written by Emily Edmonds

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