It’s TIME for Some Serious Voluntourism

Voluntourism has been steadily spreading its tentacles into the travel industry for the last year or so, fuelled by environmental concerns, recession induced guilt about spending money on vacations, and growing awareness about responsible tourism. And now it has hit big-time. Or, to be specific, TIME Magazine.

In a piece titled ‘Room Service and a Shovel: The Rise of Voluntourism’, Time’s Matt Vilano explains how Voluntourism has expanded beyond non-profits and is now a budding specialty travel sector.

He cites the Mandarin Oriental in Miami which is offering a hotel package in which guests help with recycling programs in Everglades National Park, and the Ritz-Carlton’s Give Back Getaways, for which more than 2000 vacationers have signed up.

But the whole ‘voluntourism package deal’ concept is still a work in progress for the travel industry. In the same TIME article, Chris Elliott is quoted as saying that these packages are for wealthy guests “who want to soothe their guilty conscience by doing something that’s billed as ‘giving back.”

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The guilt factor argument is bolstered by the fact that hotels and vacation package providers are actually milking guests who opt for voluntourism by charging extra for making the arrangements.

HandsupHolidays provides a mix of luxury holidays and voluntourism. Their Galapagos Islands package in Ecuador costs $3,950 and tops off a week of sightseeing with 3 days of cleaning up garbage and helping local fishermen. Their New Zealand package, which includes volunteering in Pelorus Sound, costs a whopping $34,600. Australia – $6,500; India – $5,700; South Africa – $5000.

There are, of course, some travel companies who are rewarding guests for enagaging in volunteerism (as opposed to voluntourism) - Sage Hospitality’s Give a Day, Get a Night, Get a Night package offers you a 50% discount on hotel rooms at 53 Sage Hotels, if you can provide proof of 8 hours’ worth of community service.

Doesn’t matter whether you do it while on vacation – as with the Ritz-Carlton giveback getaways, or before a vacation - to take advantage of the Sage offer. The key issue is that the connections between travel and volunteer work are growing stronger.

Regardless of the motivations or financial transactions involved, David Clemmons (see TI100 profile), founder of Voluntourism.org, is much less cynical about luxury voluntourism, and says that “it is difficult for me to be critical of activities that encourage those with financial resources to come into contact with social concerns and issues across the planet.” 

He explains that “Tourism has always been an exercise in distribution. Now through voluntourism, regardless of the venue or type, it is becoming a distribution channel for beneficence.”

The sum of it is that the debate is quickly moving beyond whether its ok for a few rich fat-cats to wash off their guilt by getting their hands dirty, and voluntourism is soon going to be a pretty common vacation choice, regardless of your social standing and bank balance.

A few tips, from David Clemmons, for the intrepid voluntourist and voluntourism operators:- Residents do not want Voluntourism to take over their lives. Knowing ‘what is enough’ and not going overboard with your help is crucial. Voluntourists must learn to let go of the ‘mindset of accomplishment’ and focus on listening and interacting with residents.

Photo by NatalieMaynor