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Volunteer tourists. The trouble or the difference makers?

Volunteer tourists. The trouble or the difference makers?
Author: Joanna Zielinska
2 Commentries
Abstract: This paper discusses the benefits as well as adverse outcomes of volunteer tourism, while taking in consideration the changeable consumer behaviour, the needs of developing countries and the commercialisation of the market.

Key words: volunteer tourism, commercialisation, developing countries

Discussion paper:
"Volunteer tourism applies to those tourists who volunteer in an organized way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of society or environment" (Wearing, 2001, p.1). Such form of tourism is meant to benefit local communities as well as the natural environment and is based on very altruistic principles of helping developing countries. It is also aimed at improving the cross-cultural relationships and commit to sustainable development (Raymond and Hall, 2008). However, as contemporary tourists seek for opportunities to truly interact with local residents and really experience the culture the volunteer tourism market has rapidly expended and number of commercial volunteer tourism trips have been developed by tour operators (Mintel, 2008). Where it can be said that every little helps, reputable charities such as Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO), raise the issue of lack of effectiveness of commercial tours, as well as accuse operators of focusing on financial benefits rather than on helping those less fortunate in life (Mintel, 2008). Therefore, it is valuable to evaluate and compare impacts of volunteer tourism activities- the commercial one and the altruistic one.
VSO is a charity with a long and successful history of making a real difference to communities of developing countries aiming at delivering long lasting positive changes. Their projects strive to empower the residents and to lead to break the poverty line, rather than to simply make a short-term impact. What's more important, projects run by organization are always carefully research and ensure that local governments and institution have their input on planning and delivering them. Moreover, volunteer who participate in VSO volunteer programme are pre-selected to ensure their skills are utilise in best possible way- giving them chance to grow and develop their own skills, while at the same time performing as the specialists in their field amongst host communities. For instance, education projects led by VSO's volunteers provided training for over 134 000 teachers and school managers across the world, successfully improving their skills as well the as the quality and accessibility of education. This is predicted to result in countries' education systems becoming strong and independent so they will no longer require assistance from developed countries (VSO,2012).
In opposition to those altruistic volunteers and well-planned volunteer projects stand commercial operators, who have been heavily criticised by charitable organizations for their focus on financial benefits, not on helping developing and undeveloped societies. These commercial opportunities to become a volunteer tourist emerged from a very high demand for such form of holidays; this therefore resulted in shifting focus from making a difference to less fortunate populations to satisfying customer expectations. In addition, the concern of unskilled and unprepared individuals working on projects in such close relationship to communities was highlighted (Mintel, 2008). Tour operators such as Charity Challenge offer variety of expeditions, fun and unique experience combined with raising money for charity. Where fundraising is a positive aspect, all this money goes back to developed countries, rather to host communities. In addition, the interactions between participants and local communities are very limited and of short-term and do not provide volunteers with a real opportunity to experience the culture. Raymond and Hall (2008) warn that it can lead to reinforcement of stereotypes rather than to improved cross-cultural understanding and communication. They further argue that commercial volunteer tourists are likely to cause more harm than good, as in most cases they are not skilled nor train to work in poor communities.
To sum up, volunteer tourist can be the positive force in the world, there is a clear evidence of the extremely positive influence they have had on developing communities (VSO, 2012). However, there are many factors that determine this success, careful planning, selection of volunteers who have the skills and the knowledge to make a real change and most of all engagement of communities in which this charitable work takes places is the key. However, commercial volunteer tourism trips have a doubtful positive influence on local communities; instead create a risk of emphasizing cultural differences and gaps in development (Raymond and Hall, 2008). Nonetheless, as charitable organizations are not capable of meeting the demand, involvement of commercial sector is understandable. Though, those commercial trips should be planned much better to ensure real long-term benefits for the poorest. Possibly some collaboration between voluntary and private sector would lead to better ways of supplying the high demand without spoiling the principles of volunteer tourism activity.

Mintel (2008) Volunteer Tourism- International Mintel: London

Raymond E. M., Hall, M. (2008) The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis-understanding) Through Volunteer Tourism Journal of Sustainable Tourism

VSO (2012) Impact [online].[Accessed 23 April 2012]. Available at >http://www.vso.org.uk/about/impact/>

Wearing S. (2001) Volunteer Tourism. Experience That Make a Difference CABI: Oxon
Commentary on Volunteer Tourists.The trouble or the difference makers?
Author: Thi Lan Ho
It was interesting to read Zielinska's point of views about Volunteer Tourists as I also did some research about this area. I agree with her that Volunteer Tourism has become too commercial and the rising aim is satisfying the needs of the tourists that the benefits of the volunteer destinations are not the focus point anymore, which is an unfortunate shift to increase the doubts of the values and effectiveness of the volunteer tourism projects.

An example has been raised was a hospital in Argentina received an intern without any Spanish skills, which the volunteer encountered difficulties to be helpful. The doctors felt more burdened rather than have benefits from the unskilled intern (Guttentag, D.A. 2009), which support Zielinska's argument: "volunteer tourists are likely to cause more harm than good, as in most cases they are not skilled nor train to work in poor communities". Furthermore, the problem is the positive perspectives are being praised while the potential negative impacts are being ignored can create tensions to host communities rather than spreading love and peace as it is believed to.

The projects surely need to be long-term to ensure the benefits but I cannot agree with the poorest to be in the front line as I believe there are also good results in aiding the communities that only need a push to stand own their own after the project is done. This would leave a benchmark for Volunteer Tourism to be a voice of love and peace. For example, according to anonymous personal communication in May 2005 (Sin, H.L. 2010), in spite of his efforts of showing a particular school to volunteer tourist's group leaders, no one was interested in taking the project because ''the volunteers always decided that another project had a greater need." It was difficult for him to explain to the villagers that they are not poor enough when they have so little.

Therefore, in my opinion to borrow Zielinska's words: "to supply the high demand without spoiling the principles of volunteer tourism activity, careful planning, selection of volunteers who have the skills and the knowledge to make a real change and most of all engagement of communities in which this charitable work takes places is the key." Of course, we cannot forget the limited resources. However, that cannot be the case to lose the spirit and principles of volunteer tourism, which Zielinska has done a great job with her statements about volunteer tourists.


Guttentag, D.A. (2009) The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism, International Journal of Tourism Research, 11, 537-551

Sin, H.L (2010) Who are we responsible to? Locals' tales of volunteer tourism, Geoforum, Volume 41, Issue 6, Pages 983-992
Comment on paper: Volunteer tourists. The trouble or the difference makers?
Author: Hanna Ryynanen
I did research on volunteer tourism for my paper as well and it was easy to find some similar questions about volunteerism in this paper that I had considered too. The author raises some questions about the difference between commercial volunteer tourism activities and altruistic ones. The author provides a good example of an organization that makes a real difference, VTO, Volunteer Services Overseas.

I liked the example of VSO's education program where volunteers provide training for teachers and school managers across the world with the outcome of helping to make countries' education system so independent that they won't need help from developed countries. It is great that the author pointed this out, because this is the key for volunteer work in developing countries. It's all about making their systems so strong that they have an opportunity to survive by themselves in developing countries.

It is stated, that one problem with volunteer tourism sector is the fact that it has expanded so rapidly within years that regarding the skills quite many volunteer tourism projects have minimal or maybe even non-existent requirements regarding the skills the volunteer workers needs to participate. Sometimes the only skill required is the desire to help others. It has been argued that there is no benefit that can be provided by volunteer tourists who don't hold any useful skills for helping the destination. It is not beneficial for the local environment either, if the volunteers are not familiar with the local culture, and only stay for a short period of time. (Guttentag, 2009)

This is why I find it so important to have this kind of organisations as VSO. I was glad that the author had provided a good example of this organisation and the reflecting it to the commercial ones. The author states in this paper with good arguments that the commercial tourism can do more harm than good for the destination. That is something that has to be considered when planning the volunteer operations. Also as much the tourists have to consider this view point when participating in volunteer tourism and ask that am I making more harm than good for the destination.

I could not agree more with the author's conclusion that "careful planning, selection of volunteers who have the skills and the knowledge to make a real change and most of all engagement of communities in which this charitable work takes places is the key." That is what I found as well when gathering the information for my paper.

Guttentag D.A. (2009) The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism, Interna-tional Journal of Tourism Research 11 (6)