The Rise of Voluntourism The Good, The Bad, and The EthicalThe Rise of Voluntourism The Good, The Bad, and The Ethical

Let me share a story about my friend Ella, who recently came back from Sumatra with a deeper tan and a life-changing experience. She was among the 10 million people who each year decide to do something a bit different with their vacation time. 

Instead of just touring, they go abroad to lend a hand in communities that could use some help. This is what’s known as voluntourism, a mix of volunteering and tourism. It’s a big deal these days, growing into a $2 billion industry, according to Worldnomads.

A survey even found that over half of U.S. travelers had given back to places they visited for fun, either by volunteering or donating. This shows how popular and impactful voluntourism has become. 

But, choosing the right project is key. It’s important to find one that matches your skills and truly benefits the local community, just like Ella did with orangutans.

What Does Voluntourism Mean?

Voluntourism means you get to help out on different projects, like building schools or protecting wildlife, while you also get to see and experience new places. 

It’s pretty popular, especially for people wanting to make a difference during their travels, often abroad. People join these projects for lots of reasons, and sometimes they even pay quite a bit to participate.

The main goal of voluntourism is to do good and leave a lasting positive impact on the places visited. But, there’s a catch. Not all projects are as helpful as they seem. 

Some might not really benefit the local community in the long run, and others might be more about making money than making a difference. 

That’s why it’s super important to do some homework before you sign up. Talking to people who’ve already done it or reading up on the organization can help you pick a project that’s truly beneficial.

How Did It Start? 

Voluntourism has a long history, dating back over a century. Early voluntourism examples include the UK’s Voluntary Service Overseas, started in 1958 to send volunteers to teach in Borneo, and the US Peace Corps, founded in 1961 to link volunteers with projects in developing countries. Then, in 1968, the United Nations kicked off its own Volunteers program.

These early efforts focused on long-term volunteering, but nowadays, shorter stints are more common. With tons of NGOs and other organizations around, there’s no shortage of places to volunteer. This accessibility has led to a boom in voluntourism, with 1.6 million people volunteering abroad each year.

But, as voluntourism’s popularity has surged, so has its critique. Some worry that it turns poverty into a spectacle for tourists rather than a problem to solve. There’s concern that volunteers might do more harm than good, like taking away local jobs or unintentionally hurting the community they aim to help.

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Difference Between Volunteerism and Voluntourism

Volunteerism and voluntourism might sound similar, but they’re actually quite different.

Volunteerism is all about helping out for free. It means offering your time and skills to make things better for other people, groups, or organizations. This can happen right in your own neighborhood or somewhere else in the world. The main point is, you’re not expecting to get paid; you’re doing it because you want to help.

Voluntourism mixes volunteering with going on vacation. It’s when you travel somewhere, usually for a short time, to do volunteer work. These trips often include fun activities and sightseeing along with the work you’re there to do. Voluntourism focuses a lot on the experience of the traveler, sometimes more than the lasting effect on the place they visit.

DefinitionOffering time and skills for free to help others, without financial gain.Traveling to a destination to volunteer, combining helping others with exploring new places.
LocationCan be local or international, but not necessarily linked to travel.Involves traveling to a location, often abroad.
DurationCan vary greatly, from short-term projects to long-term commitments.Usually short-term, ranging from a few days to a few weeks.
Main FocusPrimarily focused on the benefit to the recipient of the volunteer work.Focuses on both the volunteering experience and the travel or cultural experience.
Financial AspectNo financial cost to volunteer, though some long-term programs may provide stipends.Often involves paying for the experience, covering travel, accommodation, and program fees.
Impact on CommunityAimed at providing substantial support and benefits to the community or cause.Impact can vary; the focus is often more on the volunteer’s experience than the long-term benefit to the community.
Typical ActivitiesCan include a wide range of services based on the volunteer’s skills and the community’s needs.Often combines volunteer work with tourism activities, like sightseeing or cultural immersion.

The big difference between the two is travel. Voluntourism involves going to a new place to volunteer, while volunteerism can happen anywhere, even at home. There’s been some debate about both, especially voluntourism, if the help provided doesn’t really meet the needs of the community.

The Benefits of Voluntourism

As I sat across from my friend Ella, nursing my coffee, curiosity finally got the better of me. Ella had recently returned from Sumatra, where she’d been involved in orangutan conservation, and her stories were both fascinating and inspiring. 

Between sips, I couldn’t help but wonder what drove her on to such an adventure. So, I asked her, “Why did you decide to do it?” As she began to explain, I leaned in, eager to understand the motivations behind voluntourism and why she, like many others, was drawn to it.

1. Making a Difference

Ella told me that by volunteering, she felt she was really helping people and communities in need. It’s about giving back, sharing skills, and even helping out with funds or showing a bit of our world to others.

2. Personal Growth and Learning

She also found that voluntourism was a great way to learn more about herself and the world. It opened her eyes to different cultures and big global issues that she hadn’t thought about much before.

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3. Travel and Adventure

For Ella, voluntourism was the perfect way to mix her love of travel with her desire to contribute positively. It’s a chance to see new places in a way that goes deeper than just being a tourist.

4. Skills Development

Volunteering abroad gave Ella the chance to pick up new skills and get some hands-on experience that could help her in her career later on. It’s like learning by doing, but in a totally different environment.

5. Connection and Friendship

One of the best parts, according to Ella, was making new friends from all over the world. Voluntourism brings people together, creating lasting bonds and mutual understanding between different cultures.

6. Activism

Ella noticed that many people get into voluntourism because they want to be more active in making a difference. They’re curious about other jobs and life in other places, and they want to combine that curiosity with their vacation time.

However, she said that it’s really important to pick the right program. Not all voluntourism opportunities are created equal, and some might not help as much as they promise. 

So, she stressed that I might have to spend some time finding projects that are ethical and really make a positive impact on the communities they’re designed to help.

Voluntourism Problems and Ethical Issue

As you can see, voluntourism isn’t always as helpful as it seems. In 2018, a study in rural Maharashtra found some big problems with a project where people came to build sustainable houses. Volunteers arrived eager to help, but they quickly ran into issues. There was confusion about money, the local community wasn’t really involved, and the goals they hoped to achieve felt far away.

Yet, previously in 2016, similar issues happened. A group went to Fiji, working with a famous voluntourism agency, aiming to make a difference. However, what they found was more complicated than they expected. 

Their efforts ended up highlighting an uncomfortable truth: sometimes, these projects can make poverty into something tourists just come to look at, without really getting involved or making the kind of difference they hoped for.

These stories underscore the complicated nature of voluntourism. While the intention to help is commendable, voluntourism can sometimes lead to more problems than solutions:

  • Lack of Skills – Volunteers often don’t have the right skills for the projects they join, which can mean their help isn’t as effective as it could be, or it might even cause issues for the local community.
  • Medical Concerns – In medical projects, volunteers might work beyond their qualifications, disrupt local healthcare systems, or affect the ongoing care of patients.
  • Cultural Insensitivity – Sometimes volunteers, without meaning to, can act in ways that are patronizing or insensitive to the local culture.
  • Creating Dependency – If communities start to rely too much on volunteers, it might hold back local initiatives and growth.
  • Turning Poverty into a Spectacle – There’s a risk that voluntourism turns the real struggles of people into an experience for tourists, without truly engaging with or solving the underlying issues.
  • Who Benefits More – Often, it’s the volunteers who get the most out of the experience, rather than the communities they’re meant to be helping.
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How to Make Sure Your Voluntourism is Impactful? 

Want to make sure your volunteer trip really helps out? Here’s what you can do to make your voluntourism as positive and helpful as possible.

  1. Learn About Where You’re Going. It’s important to know what the community you’re visiting really needs. This way, you can help in ways that are truly useful.
  2. Pick the Right Project. Choose a project that really benefits the local community. The best projects are those that work with the locals, not just for them.
  3. Check Out the Organization. Look for groups that have plans to keep helping over the long term. They should aim to make a real difference and have a good history of working well with local people.
  4. Be Culturally Respectful. Try to learn some of the local language and join in on cultural activities. Being open and respectful to local ways of life is key.
  5. Use Your Skills. If you’re good at something special, look for a place where your skills can be put to good use.
  6. Keep Helping. Just because your trip ends doesn’t mean your support has to. Look for ways to keep backing the cause or community from home.
  7. Spread the Word. When you get back, tell people about your experience and what you learned. This can help others understand more about the place you visited and the importance of helping out thoughtfully.

Remember, the main goal of voluntourism is to have a lasting, positive effect on the places you visit. Going in with respect, a real willingness to learn, and a true desire to assist is the best voluntourism tips.

The Better End

In wrapping up our exploration of voluntourism, it’s clear that while the concept is rooted in good intentions, its impact is nuanced and requires careful consideration and ethical engagement. 

The essence of making a meaningful difference lies in choosing the right projects, being culturally sensitive, and ensuring that our efforts align with the needs and wishes of local communities.

As my coffee with Ella drew to a close, she left me with a thought that resonated deeply: “Voluntourism isn’t just about the work we do; it’s about the connections we make and the understanding we gain. It’s a two-way street where everyone learns and grows.” 

Her words lingered with me, a powerful reminder of the potential for voluntourism to be a force for good, provided it’s approached with respect and humility.

Inspired by Ella’s journey and her impactful experience in Sumatra, I find myself contemplating on following her footsteps. The idea of contributing to orangutan conservation while immersing myself in a new culture is incredibly appealing. 

Ella’s adventure has opened my eyes to the complexities of voluntourism and sparked a desire to engage in this meaningful travel trend myself. Who knows? Maybe my next vacation will be one where I not only explore a beautiful destination but also contribute to a cause greater than myself.


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By Tika Widya

Tika Widya C.DMP adalah seorang penulis yang sudah menekuni industri kreatif secara profesional sejak tahun 2018. Ia telah menjadi content writer, copywriter dan creative writer pada lebih dari 914+ proyek penulisan skala nasional dan internasional. Pada tahun 2024, ia berhasil menjadi satu-satunya penulis Indonesia yang masuk daftar Emerging Writer Australia-Asia. Kini, Tika Widya mengajar menulis lewat, Tempo Institute dan Kelas Bersama. Ia juga membentuk Komunitas Belajar Nulis yang aktif mengawal 1800+ penulis dari seluruh Indonesia untuk terus berkarya dan menyemarakkan industri literasi nusantara.

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