Volunteer Tourism: Still Some Way to Go

9 minutes to read
Sarah-Maria Geradin

Volunteer tourism is a hype nowadays. Discussing the negative consequences of volunteer tourism on society and culture is important, because a too little people are aware of the consequences. 

Volunteer Tourism in Context

The United Nations (UN) has declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, a unique opportunity to explore and highlight tourism’s potential to help transform our world into a place of prosperity and wellbeing for all” (UNWTO, 2017). The UNWTO is the World Tourism Organization for the United Nations. They are responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.

Wanting to make tourism a sustainable activity, the UNWTO promotes volunteer tourism as a kind of tourism that benefits travelers and host communities in many ways. They encourage volunteer tourism on their website as well, by explaining all the positive outcomes it has on travelers, host communities, and society. The striking point is that they do not discuss the darker side of volunteer tourism, even though this has been researched and discussed by many scholars. 

First step in this discussion is understanding what volunteer tourism is. Wearing (2001) defines volunteer tourism as the type of tourism in which the tourists engage in “aiding” in different ways while being on holiday. There are different kinds of aid they can provide: alleviating the needs of a poor group in society, restoring infrastructures or improving the environment.

The most important reason why travellers decide to go on volunteering holidays is that they are looking for an experience that is not just beneficial to themselves.

There are various reasons why travellers decide to go on volunteering holidays, but one of the most important ones is that they are looking for an experience that is not just beneficial to themselves, but also to society, nature or the economy (Wearing, 2001). Benson (2011) says that in contemporary tourism, volunteer tourism is one of the areas which has grown the most and the phenomenon is still developing. The market is mostly dominated by social entrepreneurship organizations and for-profit organizations. They set up programs which are adaptable to families, students, and other types of groups, but also to individuals (Benson, 2011). 

During the summer of 2015, in collaboration with my father’s association, my father and I collected money in order to set up a tree plantation next to dormitories for young girls that the organization had built a few years earlier in Benin. Together with the organization, we first asked the local community what they were in need of. The community asked for a tree plantation, because they were in need for strong construction wood and fruit. Therefore, a local arboriculturist was hired to make a plan, a piece of land was purchased from the government, the trees were bought, and the local arborists started planting and taking care of the trees, together with the girls from the dormitories and some locals who had a stake in the project.

It was their project. We stayed for three weeks and these were very intense weeks indeed; I experienced another way of living, another culture, different places than those that I am used to, etc., but we also spent a lot of time traveling and exploring the area.

Constructing Personality

Volunteer tourists often cite personal development as their motivation.They want to broaden their perspectives, become more multicultural, and want to help those in need. These motivations are quite egocentric and this reduces the effect cultural exchange could have to a certain extent. It is the opposite of what volunteer tourism promotes. Wearing (2001) explains that the most important effect for volunteer tourism is often the development of one’s self, becoming aware of oneself, and becoming a person who has seen and experienced a lot.

However, whatever the tourist learns, has to be learned in a short time (Wearing, 2001). Therefore, interactions are often quite superficial. The fact that tourists are also on “holiday” means that they will spend some time traveling to see nature, and attractions. This limits deep and meaningful cultural exchange. The positive effect of identity development is mainly available to tourists and not so much for the community.

Tourism isn't just about traveling, seeing new places and coming into contact with new cultures. Tourism can also destruct places, monuments, nature, and cultures.

Evidence for the superficiality of volunteer tourism is, as explained by Ver Beek (2006), found in the fact that tourists usually do not engage much with sustainability and humanitarian behavior after they come back home (Ver Beek, 2006). When an experience is so deeply revealing, a change in behavior and patterns might be expected, but this is often not the case with volunteer tourists. 

The reason I personally went on my trip to Benin in 2015 was because I was faced with the less romanticized reality of tourism during by bachelor's in tourism. Tourism isn't just about traveling, seeing new places and coming into contact with new cultures. Tourism can also destruct places, monuments, nature, and cultures. Guilt was the main reason why I wanted to set up the project.

At the same time, since my father has built schools in small villages in Africa and South America, I was also aware of the image others would have of me. I wanted to differentiate myself from others. In addition, I wanted to visit new places, meet new cultures and understand tourism outside of Europe. In other words, I went there to construct an identity that would be appreciated by others as well as myself. 

Developed and Undeveloped, Teacher and Learner 

The activities, of course, come from good intentions. When deciding to go on a volunteering trip, tourists do not necessarily think they are imposing “the western way of doing” on the host community. However, to a certain extent, this is exactly what happens. Westerners decide what the project will be, how it will be developed and who will take care of it. It is the imposition of western culture, values, and norms on a completely different culture.

In her thesis, Garrison (2015) explains how volunteers are often not trained, prepared and experienced enough to be able to sustainably (in the environmental, economic or cultural sense) achieve what they are coming to do. “Experts” and those leading the tourists might also lack some knowledge, as they might be very competent from the western point of view, but lack knowledge about the culture they are going to.

The author adds that these types of experiences often impose western values on the communities. The western mindset is then not only reflected in the understanding of the culture and the people, but also in the acts. This leads to disempowerment of the community and to a certain extent, the loss of identity through the imposition of another (Garrison, 2015).

During our stay, we also saw projects that had been undertaken by big organizations that sell volunteer tourism and which had been completely abandoned. There was a vegetable garden which had been set up a few years ago which had now gone to ruins. The school teacher of the village explained that the organization brought students with them, asked where they could start a garden and started to build it with the help of some locals. They brought their own western specialists with them, who ironically explained to the locals how to operate, and they also decided to plant vegetables which had a good reputation in Europe.

When the tourists went back home, the vegetables did not grow well and the locals did not take care of the garden. The teacher explained this was because locals already had gardens with vegetables that they were actually able to use. 

Rich and Poor, Powerful and Powerless 

These types of trips, in which two or more different cultures interact with each other, help the reinforcement of already existing gaps between people and cultures. The most important gaps that can be seen are those between rich and poor, between intellectual and worker, and between powerful and powerless. As Vellas and Becherel (1995) explain, during the contact that occurs when the host community encounters its guests, the differences between their lifestyles and in cultures clash. As the aim of volunteer tourists is to interact with the local community, as this is part of the experience, the gaps cannot be managed as easily as when there is a large distance between stakeholders (Vellas and Becheral, 1995).

Discourse is very important in how it shapes the relationship between the host country and the guests. Volunteer tourists are acknowledged as people who go to help the ones in need, as people who can afford this compared to those who can’t, as people who know how it should be done compared to those who don’t (McKenna, 2016).

During my trip to Benin, the difference between rich and poor was very important in the interactions I had. As the host community already saw me as someone rich, they kept referring to this idea by saying: “Yes, but you are rich, you live in Europe.” I am not necessarily a poor person, but I am not rich either. The remark was therefore offending in a sense, but understandable. I found myself also thinking about how the “king” of the village was a poor old man, living in a small house with his whole family, even though he had such an important title. These people considered eveyone who came from Europe a rich person, because they all "own" a house, a car, advanced technology, etc., whereas I thought they were poor, as they did not have their own bedrooms, a car or a computer. To understand each other, we all needed to be open minded. 

Volunteer tourism

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that volunteer tourism has quite a few positive effects on society, the environment, and culture. No tourists participate in these trips with the intention to hurt the place and community they are going to in any way. It is because of the form tourism takes in a consumerist society, that consequences such as cultural imposition, a lack of knowledge about the place to be visited, the reinforcement of already existing gaps, and cultural exchange that is less pronounced than expected by locals and tourists still take place.

After numerous studies have been conducted on the topic, some adaptations have already been made to volunteering programs. It would therefore be interesting to be able to develop them further in a more sustainable way. At the moment, solutions are still quite vague. Examples include offering a full volunteering year in order to really grasp the cultural exchange idea, but also community-based projects which allow the local community to set up projects and manage them. There is still some research to be done.

Although we intend to do volunteer tourism “the right way” as tourists, we can easily be unaware of some of the effects we have on others and their communities. It is therefore important for all tourists to be aware of this and to think carefully before booking a volunteering trip. 


Benson, A. M. (2011). Volunteer Tourism: Theory Framework to Practical Applications. London [etc.]: Routledge, 2011. 

Garrison, Haley A. (2015), "A Critical Analysis of Volunteer Tourism and the Implications for Developing Communities". Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects. Paper 558.

McKenna, E. F. (n.d). The Discourse of Deference and Its Impact on Tourist-Host Power Relations. Journal of Travel Research, 55(5), 555-565.

Second UNWTO/UNESCO World Conference on Tourism and Culture: Fostering Sustainable Development. (2017). 

Vellas, F., & Becherel, L. (1995). International Tourism: An Economic Perspective. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Ver Beek, K. (2006). The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. Missiology: An International Review, 34(4), 477-495. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/009182960603400406

Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that make a Difference. Wallingford [etc.]: CABI Publishing, 2001.