A man stands with his arms crossed wearing a white volunteer shirt.

What Is Voluntourism? And Why Is It So Harmful?

A vacation while volunteering sounds like a match made in heaven. You can visit far-off lands and experience new things while doing a world of good.

Imagine trekking through a jungle knowing you’ll be aiding veterinarians in caring for exotic animals. Or imagine taking your architectural skills to a small village in Kenya to construct a bridge over a raging river. Sounds thrilling, right? 

A man stands with his arms crossed wearing a white volunteer shirt.

What Is Voluntourism?

At its core, that’s what voluntourism is — a trip where you get to explore new places while volunteering, and it has become increasingly popular in recent years.

The appeal is obvious. You get to travel to a new and exotic place while doing something meaningful to help others. However, the reality is that voluntourism can do more harm than good.

When voluntourism does more harm than good.

On the other hand, while voluntourism is often billed as negative, it can also positively impact the community and the volunteer. According to Shannon O’Donnell, author of “The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook,” in a recent article published in National Geographic, “International Volunteering is part of a complex ecosystem that can, when done well, help a community grow in a direction they support.

What Is an Example of Voluntourism?

You now know that voluntourism combines traveling and volunteering, but what does that entail? We have a few examples here to help you wrap your head around voluntourism.

One example of voluntourism could be heading off to Brazil with an international aid group to hand out meals and clothing to orphans on the street. Another could be you researching and helping out with sea turtles in Costa Rica. Yet another example could be handing out water filters in Cambodia or working on archaeological expeditions in England. 

A white woman teaches english to a classroom of black children.

Voluntourism doesn’t have to take place abroad. It can be right in your own backyard. Well-known programs such as the American Hiking Society or the Human Society offer many projects that encompass the definition of voluntourism.

Along those same lines, projects can be as big as building an entire village. They can also be something as mundane as performing bookkeeping skills in a local office. 

It all boils down to giving your time and energy to a project free of charge while experiencing the place you are visiting.

Why Does Voluntourism Exist?

There’s no doubt that voluntourism has become increasingly popular in recent years. But why does it exist? 

Some may say that it’s all about profit margins. Many tour operators, charities, and other organizations profit handsomely from voluntourism. That’s all while doing very little to actually improve the lives of those they claim to be helping. 

The dark side of voluntourism revealed by an inside informer.

However, many other programs and not-for-profit organizations make voluntourism a force for good. It can help raise awareness about important issues and provide much-needed assistance to communities in need. Volunteers can be extremely helpful if someone doesn’t have the skills needed in an area to get specific projects done. 

Tourism exists because many people want to nestle themselves into a culture different from theirs. Volunteering exists because we all need a helping hand every once in a while, and not everything should depend on a paycheck. 

What Are the Negative Effects of Voluntourism? 

However, just because something exists doesn’t mean its impact is automatically positive. So what are some of the negative effects of voluntourism?

One of the biggest concerns is that many voluntourists don’t have the proper training to do the work they’re attempting to do or don’t have the cultural knowledge to understand the dynamics of the work. This can actually do more harm than good, as inexperienced volunteers may unintentionally cause more damage than they realize.

Another negative impact is that the work is often not sustainable and done without local context. For example, building a school in a remote village might sound like a great way to help children get an education. But if no one in the village knows how to maintain the school once built, it quickly becomes neglected and falls into disrepair. 

Another issue with voluntourism is that it often takes away jobs from locals who could be doing the same work as the volunteers. For example, a group of volunteers might go to Guatemala to build houses for needy families. But instead of hiring local builders to do the work, the volunteering organization brings in its own workers from other countries. This not only takes away jobs from locals but also doesn’t help them develop the skills they need to build their own houses in the future. 

Additionally, some argue that voluntourism perpetuates a power dynamic in which privileged Westerners travel to developing nations to “save” them rather than working alongside locals as equals. 

And lastly, because voluntourism is often expensive, it may exclude people who can’t afford it. This can further widen the gap between rich and poor and possibly exacerbate existing inequalities. 

Is Voluntourism More Harmful Than Helpful? 

Traveling to offer your time and services for free might sound like a great way to see the world while making a difference. But as you read above, it might make you wonder if voluntourism can really be altruistic.

In recent years, this type of travel has come under fire for being more harmful than helpful to communities. So, what’s the truth? Is voluntourism more harmful than helpful or the other way around? 

Documentary ‘The Voluntourist’: Is voluntourism doing more harm than good?

It all depends on how the opportunity is handled. If a company is solely in it for the money, and there is no lasting impact on the community you are volunteering with, then voluntourism is more harmful than helpful.

However, suppose the project is helping out in an emergency without adding to the emergency or is having a lasting positive impact on the community. In that case, voluntourism is more helpful than harmful.

At the end of the day, whether or not voluntourism is more harmful than helpful depends on each case. There are instances where voluntourists have made positive contributions to communities.

But there are also times when their efforts have unintentionally caused harm. So if you’re considering volunteer traveling, be sure to do your research and choose an organization you trust to place you in a safe and responsible position.

What Are the Positive Effects of Voluntourism? 

There are several reasons why voluntourism can be a good thing. For one, it can provide much-needed help to communities that lack the resources to improve their infrastructure or provide basic necessities like clean water and healthcare. 

Additionally, voluntourists often form strong bonds with the people they meet and learn about new cultures. That can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of diversity. And last but not least, voluntourism provides personal growth and development opportunities.

There are pros and cons to everything, and voluntourism is no different.

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Can Voluntourism Be Prevented? 

Maybe the better question is: Can voluntourism be done in a way that’s helpful but not harmful? The answer is yes. While voluntourism can be quite negative if not done properly, it can be flipped on its head and be highly regarded. It can also have a lasting and positive impact on the community.  

If you desire to embark upon a voluntourism project, do so with wisdom. Research the project, the company hosting it, and most importantly, get to know the community you will visit.

I was a humanitarian… and I regret it.

Being naive may be a reasonable excuse for making a mistake on a typical vacation. However, a simple mistake as a voluntourist could have catastrophic results.  

Be a responsible voluntourist, and voluntourism could change our world for the better.

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