Voluntourism in Sustainable Tourism

In the recent past the tourism sector has a seen an increasing number of tourists taking preference in voluntourism as opposed to other forms of tourism. This can attributed back to the need for purposeful visits as well as experiencing cultures. Voluntourism traces back to 1998 when the Nevada Tourism Board (NTB) was making efforts to encourage residents to support rural tourism. This article summarizes the #sttachangemakers tweet chat on voluntourism seeking to define the place of voluntourism in a modern sustainable world while defining structures and issues facing it, as well as looking to the future.

Is voluntourism a form or a form of tourism?

Types of tourism are categorized in the basis of movement of people, that is, International or domestic tourists, while forms of tourism are categorized based on the purpose of travel. When a practice performs an act that is when it’s called a form therefore making voluntourism a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity. The lack of a defined attraction in voluntourism disqualifies it from being a type of tourism. It is also key to note that there is a difference between voluntourism and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Voluntourism involves activities that are motivated by an individual’s desire to participate in development while the latter is an institutional strategy. However, in recent times companies are offering their employees opportunities to volunteer as part of CSR.

What is driving the growth of voluntourism?

Volunteer tourism is ever growing. These factors support growth in voluntourism;

? Modern communication mediums, affordable flights as well the desire for purposeful visits.

? Personal Gratification: The desire to do good has been overshadowed by the desire to feel good as more people engage in bragging rights.

? Philanthropy: Voluntourism, as a form of philanthropy that enables voluntary transfer of skills and wealth.

? Voluntourism brings with it an opportunity for volunteers to develop career enhancing skills as well as creating a platform for them to connect with potential employers. It also boosts international experiences for gap year students.

? The desire to serve genuine vulnerable communities for a transformative sustainable development. Nonetheless, a warm welcome from a host community, which does not always signify acceptance. Sometimes communities do not have a choice but to welcome volunteers for the perceived benefits.

What are the issues of concern around voluntourism?

While this form of tourism has seen tremendous growth and increasing recognition and preference, it has its own fair share of downs as shown below:

?It has been associated with unskilled volunteers offering specialized services by virtue of their places of origin. In other instances, volunteers show up for work that local people can do.

?Further, disorganization of tourists and short-term presence in volunteer engagement has often times done more stagnation or harm than progress especially on the nature of development projects. Rise of beg packers in Asia by volunteers from Europe their approach being to get free accommodation and food in exchange for work in poor communities, points to disorganization.

? Destinations have lacked rules of conduct for managing voluntourism, thereby creating more imbalances leaving the communities more vulnerable.  For example, lack of background and criminal records checks by tourism companies profiteering from voluntourism exposes vulnerable communities to too much harm than good. In worst case scenarios, lack of strict guidelines, or a failure to enforce regulations, allows voluntourism to be an avenue for human rights abuse.

? Voluntourism fosters dependency on foreign aid leaving local community vulnerable in creating self-sustained growth and development. It turns communities into perpetual labs subjected to one experiment after another by different “well meaning” groups ensuring communities remain impoverished to attract more volunteers. The white savior complex, where western people travel to the global south less to listen to what is needed and then show up for the glory of being seen philanthropic.

? Funds transparency and accountability in voluntourism remains a thorny issue with little or no information on impacts attributable to investments in volunteer programs.

Can voluntourism be truly sustainable?

There is evidence for successes of what volunteer tourism actually does for development in destinations. However, there are also reasons to discredit voluntourism on a morality front. Because it is often an unequal partnership and without any forms of accountability, voluntourism will always struggle to become sustainable. On the other hand, it can be responsible through codes of conduct and regulations set therefore making it responsible but not truly sustainable. Sustainable voluntourism should be responsible for the growth and change of others with communities being the drivers. It is important that destination communities to take the driver’s seat in voluntourism. Only then, it could become sustainable.


When not properly managed, voluntourism widens the gap of inequalities making the needy communities a much lesser partner while they continuously create opportunities for volunteering. To create a more resilient and sustainable voluntourism, tourism organizations should avoid poverty related marketing, increase accountability and transparency in their financial reporting. All places for volunteer tourism should have a set of codes to guide the conduct and work of volunteer tourists. A sustainable voluntourism also means minimized harm on the vulnerable, optimizing and monitoring outcomes as well as championing for a socially just system.

Guest writer

Dominic Wanjiru

Tourism student