Volunteer tourism: A tale of two communities
By Sookhan Ho, Pamplin College of Business
Google “volunteer tourism” and you may see why helping the needy far from home seems to be the ultimate vacation for a growing number of Americans — whether they’re business professionals sharing their skills with rural entrepreneurs in Brazil, retirees assisting healthcare providers in Thailand, families clearing trails in Kenya, or students on spring break building homes in New Orleans.
Not only is volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism,” thriving as a travel and service experience and an industry, it is also flourishing as a field of academic inquiry, says Nancy McGehee, who was among the first scholars to study the phenomenon in the mid-1990s when she made it the topic of her dissertation in sociology as a Virginia Tech student.
Now an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management in the Pamplin College of Business, McGehee found in a recent study that although volunteer tourists can potentially make many positive contributions to their host communities, the relationship is about more than just the benefits that one group conveys to the other. “The overall impact of the voluntourism experience is far more complex than it appears,” she says. Many of the volunteer tourism organizations that she worked with were community-run and resident-driven. “In other words, those who run the organizations are often also those who are the voluntoured.”
In her research, McGehee first notes a difference in terms. “The industry often uses the term ‘voluntourism,’ and sees it, to quote David Clemmons, of Los Niños and voluntourism.org, as ‘a seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination, along with the best traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, and history — in that destination,’” she says. “Academics most commonly use Stephen Wearing’s definition of volunteer tourists as those who ‘volunteer in an organized way to undertake holidays that may involve the aiding or alleviating of the material poverty of some groups of society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment.’”
McGehee says that academics are still feeling their way in defining the term and the phenomenon. “It is unfolding before us in a very complex manner, which is at once exciting and challenging. In some ways, we are trying to learn from the successes and mistakes of eco-tourism, which started out as a term for nature-based tourism that was both sustainable and respectful of the environment, but which has since been co-opted as a marketing term that any tourism entity can use, regardless of its level of sustainability.”
Most of the research in this field, she says, has concentrated on volunteer tourists or volunteer tourism organizations. Her own studies have included an examination of the relationship between volunteer tourism and social activism. In contrast, she says, little work has been done on the people being aided.
So, McGehee and fellow researcher Kathleen Andereck, of Arizona State University, set out to learn more about the relationship between the voluntourists and the voluntoured in two disparate communities: McDowell County, W.Va. — “a declining, rural community located in the Appalachian mountains” — and Tijuana, Mexico — “a rapidly expanding urban area in Baja, California.”
As dissimilar as the two locations are, both struggle with providing affordable health care, good quality public education, healthy food, and safe drinking water. Their residents, McGehee says, include “men and women of great strength and abilities, who overcome their daily trials with grace and dignity.” Both communities are experiencing the benefits — and the challenges — of receiving large numbers of volunteer tourists each year.
McGehee and Andereck conducted in-depth interviews with administrators and volunteers in volunteer tourism organizations, and informal interviews with local residents. They analyzed the content of websites run by volunteer tourism organizations targeting McDowell County and Tijuana and observed volunteers and residents intermittently over a two-year period. Their research led them to discern two rarely studied emerging themes surrounding the relationship between the voluntourists and the voluntoured: the potential for dependency and the role of organized religion.
To illustrate the issue of dependency, McGehee recalls a story related during her interviews with the director of one volunteer tourism organization, the McDowell County Mission. Norma McKinney, its director of development and a lifelong resident of McDowell County, had received a phone call from an organization interested in bringing a truckload of used clothing to the mission to distribute directly to local families. McKinney thanked them, explained that the mission did not support free handouts, and offered to accept the clothing for sale at a low price at the local thrift store.
“The response from the organizer on the other end was equally adamant: they wanted to set up a table with the truck and ‘personally hand the clothing to the needy folks,’” says McGehee, quoting McKinney. “At that point, Norma explained to me, she knew the phone call was yet another from people who wanted, in the local vernacular, to ‘pet the critters.’ It’s a classic example of a situation where cultural and geographic distance and difference create an atmosphere ripe for the ‘othering’ of the voluntoured by the volunteer tourists.”
McGehee wants to help “raise the consciousness” of well-meaning organizations, such as the one described above, that, she says, may understand little about the possible effect of their actions on the independence and dignity of local residents. “There are many organizations that do it right, so it’s important to showcase them and their best practices.”
As to what those best practices may be, McGehee explains, “There are about as many opinions about how to go about it as there are volunteer tourism organizations.”
As an example, she encountered one volunteer tourism organization in South Carolina that sought to avoid the potential for “othering” and dependency by discouraging contact between the volunteers and the aid recipients. The construction program director of the organization, which focuses on new home building in Charleston, S.C., told her that when volunteers request to meet the homeowners, “I first ask them why they are eager to meet them. Is it so they will thank you? If so, do you realize the position you are putting the residents in?”
The expectation, she says, was that volunteers should be motivated internally and spiritually.
McGehee notes that not everyone agrees with this perspective. There are many volunteer tourism organizations that consider interactions between the two parties as perhaps the most vital component of the volunteer tourism experience. In Tijuana, McGehee says, organizations support and encourage interaction between volunteers and local residents but have developed and stressed various policies for volunteers, including a “no handouts” rule. “Those who come to help make concrete blocks and build homes or work on school improvement projects in many organizations in Tijuana are explicitly told not to bring used clothing.”
However, working side-by-side for many days in less-than- ideal conditions can bond people, she says, and — as another example of the complexity of the relationship between the voluntourist and the voluntoured — the rule is often circumvented. Volunteers send clothing in the mail after they return home or with friends who are traveling, with instructions to convey the goods discreetly.
Witnessing one such subversive delivery, McGehee says, “It was a joyous and equitable experience, not unlike our personal experiences exchanging clothing with female friends and relatives or handing down our children’s gently used clothes to friends who have younger children.” Because of the personal relationships established between the giver and the recipient, the sense of “othering” did not exist. Residents later told her that receiving the clothing brought back memories of the friendships forged while working beside volunteers.
As for the second issue, the role of organized religion, McGehee says it was often the “elephant in the living room” that no one wished to discuss. Like dependency, the role of organized religion in volunteer tourism defied easy summing-up.
In McDowell County, census statistics report low church attendance or association with organized religion, but McGehee’s interviews with residents reveal support for the volunteers who work through local religious-based organizations, like the McDowell County Mission. “This may be partly due to the area’s experience with outside groups that have come in with promises to help, only to deplete the natural and human resources of the region and eventually leave,” she says.
In contrast, Tijuana residents report higher rates of church attendance. Survey respondents there who were asked about their volunteer preferences (groups they would like to have as volunteers) ranked “faith-based organizations” last — after college students, corporate teams, fellow Mexicans, and senior citizens, although all categories were ranked favorably.
During interviews with Tijuanans, McGehee says many referred to “getting the God talk.” For example, they ask the volunteer organizations, “When are we going to get the God talk?” — as if this was the expected price for the volunteer work. “When we pursued the issue, we found that their lack of enthusiasm for volunteer tourists associated with organized religion, however, does not spill over to the organizations that are well-established in the communities and do not proselytize.”
For example, although the Los Niños and Esperanza organizations in Tijuana both have roots in organized religion, the residents with whom they work express “high degrees of support and appreciation toward them,” she says. The common factor governing residents’ attitudes toward church-based groups in both Tijuana and McDowell County may be the fact that the organizations have permanent offices and full-time employees in the community. “They are a part of the community, as opposed to an outside tour operator bringing a busload of volunteers to a community in which they have no permanent presence.”
Overall, McGehee says, perhaps the most telling testimonial to the complexity of the relationship between the voluntourist and the voluntoured is the ambiguity both sides express about the value of volunteer tourism. “So many times, at the end of a long day of interviewing, we would sit down and share a meal or a drink, and eventually the discussion would turn to the basic — and very un-academic — question: Is volunteer tourism a good thing? The answer was never simple.”
Jay Wilson, executive director of the McDowell County Mission, exemplified the thoughts of many, she says. Volunteers have been active in the county for 30 years, he told her, “and while I am sure that the volunteers reap benefits from the experience, I honestly don’t see a change in the community,” he said.
Still, most volunteer tourism organizers are not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater, she says. Some, such as Randy Wallace of Mustard Seeds and Mountains, want to improve volunteer tourism through a “less-is-more” approach — reducing the number of volunteer tourists while improving the quality of the assistance offered and the “fit” between volunteer tourists and the needs of the community. His hopes illustrate a recurring theme in her interviews with volunteer tourism administrators. They are interested, McGehee says, in regulating volunteer tourism to allow them to track patterns of such activity in the community, gain better control over the number of volunteers who arrive and the type of services they perform, and better match the skills and interests of volunteers with the needs of the community and its various neighborhoods.
McGehee notes that David Clemmons estimates that more than a million volunteer tourists visit Tijuana annually. They are not tracked, nor are their organizations controlled. “Any organization can enter a community and proceed to conduct any type of volunteer tourism it wishes,” she says. “This allows for flexibility in cases of disaster, but it can leave already vulnerable populations exposed to well-meaning but potentially destructive volunteer tourism activities.”
As for matching needs with skills, McGehee provides two examples: “It is currently hard to be sure whether an organization that specializes in providing health care is reaching the neediest communities, such as those exposed to hazardous waste or industrial pollution. Another community may be inundated with school repair groups but would better benefit from assistance to its senior citizens.”
Given recent advances in geo-spatial technology, she says, it may be possible to develop a tracking system that matches community needs with the skills, abilities, and interests of volunteers, an area she is interested in exploring further.
As with sustainable tourism, the big question in volunteer tourism, McGehee says, is how to maximize the positive effects while minimizing the negative impact. It’s an issue that will be debated more, she says, as more people are drawn to the volunteer tourism experience.