Voluntourism: Does It Do Good or Just Make Travelers Feel Good?
Shirley McMarlin | Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa. | February 23, 2018 2:19pm
Feb. 23--"Voluntourism" is another trendy portmanteau word, like affluenza, frenemy or infotainment.
In this case, the concepts coming together are tourism and volunteering, with the word being used to describe trips during which people spend part of their travel time doing charitable work.
Some observers trace American interest in voluntourism to the creation of the U.S. Peace Corps in 1961, giving people a way to travel to remote corners of the globe under the auspices of doing good. The word itself was coined in 1998 by the Nevada Board of Tourism, in an effort to attract Nevadans to volunteer to help develop tourism in remote areas of the state.
It's been growing in popularity since the turn of the 21st century, as technology and other factors have made international travel easier and more affordable, which in turn has led travelers to seek out more unusual experiences abroad.
And, as Planet Earth becomes more and more of a global village, travelers also have seen first-hand the plights of less fortunate citizens of the world, leading to a desire to help.
A quick Internet search reveals intense opinions both pro- and anti-voluntourism.
Supporters say that helping with a well-organized project supports long-term development and contributes to a local economy. For the voluntourist going abroad, it also means building a personal stake in a local culture by working with its people first-hand.
But because it's a pastime for people of relative wealth and privilege coming from afar, critics say, it can be abused. Voluntourists might come in with agendas unrelated to a community's wants or needs. They might not be qualified to do the work, as in the case of construction projects. Or they may simply be feeding their egos while adding to their passport stamps.
And sometimes, people who supposedly are being helped can actually be scamming the voluntourists, for example, by misrepresenting needs or even diverting donated money.
Meeting specific needs
"(Volunteer) groups that have the most success are meeting needs that can't be met locally, providing expert knowledge or resources or a mass of labor that isn't available locally, like medical teams," says Sarah Boal, director of talent and initiative for Pittsburgh-based Brother's Brother Foundation , which connects donated medical, educational and other humanitarian supplies to groups helping communities around the world. "The two most important things to do before you go are to do your research and to know who you're working with.
"(In one country) groups were visiting an orphanage that was getting painted a different color every six months," she says. "Or you have groups coming in to do Bible schools every six weeks, when what could have been useful is tutoring the kids instead.
"In some places a nurse's salary might be $2,000 year, and your week-long trip can cost about that much," she says. "Would your money be better spent paying that salary for a year?
"Things to consider before going are your goals and outcomes," Boal says. "A project with lasting value is entirely different than sending a group of incredibly well-intentioned young people to play with some kids for a week. In that case, if you're just looking to provide some cross-cultural exposure, then you've accomplished your goal."
Making a difference
Voluntourism is nothing new for clients of Greensburg travel agency Vacation Station , says owner Michael Philopena.
"There's always been an interest in traveling for the reason of helping out," he says. "Our people go to Europe and the Middle East. We have a client traveling right now in Bethlehem (Israel); he was working with Palestinian aid groups."
Vacation Station also works with members of the Knights of Malta, a Roman Catholic lay religious order that gives aid to the poor and sick.
"They travel with the sick to Lourdes (France) and Italy," Philopena says.
"With the current unrest in the Middle East, travel there has always been viewed as a risky situation, but it really does matter that people go," he says. "You're making a difference in people's lives and letting them know that Americans care."
The call to serve
Pittsburgh-area resident Adam Kunes, who runs a travel service called Have Fun Do Good , says he heard "the call to serve" during a volunteer trip to New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina.
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a communications degree, he says, "I had no idea what I wanted to do. I'd always done volunteering and I loved to travel, and that just sparked something in me."
The volunteer travel idea grew while he operated a business in Squirrel Hill that digitized photos, videotapes and cassettes ("I learned to run a business and manage employees"), and on a 30-day New York-to-San Diego road trip during which he and a friend set up volunteering stops along the way.
That led to "weekend warrior" trips with friends to New York and Washington, D.C., when they would volunteer by day and explore the city by night, and provided the model for Have Fun Do Good.
Have Fun Do Good organizes volunteer trips to national parks in the western United States, where they help with cleanup and maintenance, and to Costa Rica, where they work with a local school and with a leatherback sea turtle conservation group. They also sponsor Drink Beer Do Good in Pittsburgh and other cities, in which participants spend an hour or two on an activity that benefits a group or charity, followed by sampling of some local brews.
Creating relationships and experiences is as much a part of the Have Fun Do Good mission as the service work, Kunes says.
"We're not labeling our trips as heavy duty volunteering," Kunes says. "It's 50 percent fun and 50 percent good works, and we're very transparent about that."
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shirley_trib.