Throughout the United States and Europe, voluntourism, as a combination of tourism and volunteering, has been on the rise. Students are dedicating their free summers and vacations to go abroad to help communities and organizations in bettering their infrastructure and spreading awareness of their individual causes. As in any other form of tourism, voluntourism has undoubtedly its downsides, yet it is important to shed light on its benefits. Voluntourism, if done properly, can benefit communities and organizations, and for the volunteer, it creates a cultural awareness that would not be achieved otherwise. The key to voluntarism is sustainability, and if done in a sustainable way, the benefits of voluntourism are many.

Fixable cons of voluntourism

One of the greatest issues facing the voluntourism sector is the level of qualifications that the volunteers have. Many negative representations of voluntourism depict underqualified students working in health clinics or orphanages, fields that require years of specific qualifications. This can certainly be cause for concern. However, it is important to note the benefits as well. Internships abroad are often seen as opportunities for voluntourism. Internships require a certain level of qualifications which ensures that the student or person who volunteers has a certain degree of skill in the required field. This allows the intern to further their understanding of the field in a new culture, while simultaneously having a positive impact on the industry. For example, South Africa has an uneven distribution of doctors as for every 1000 person there is less than one doctor available. Many of these doctors work in the private sector. This has created a need for international medical interns.

Furthermore, the misrepresentation of society and poverty in some countries is also an issue. There is a widespread image of poverty-stricken communities and countries, perpetuated by misleading images and news stories, creating the misconception that the world can be saved by western intervention. By educating and preparing volunteers beforehand, and listening to the needs of communities, this can be avoided. If given the necessary time these myths and misconceptions can be eradicated, allowing volunteers to dedicate their skills in the right direction.

The definite pros of voluntourism

One of the benefits of voluntourism is the opportunity for millions of people, young or old, to broaden their cultural understandings. In today’s political climate, where cultures are being attacked for their differences, it is of paramount importance to open our minds to new cultures and to a more inclusive way of thinking. Many of the sources that critique voluntourism highlight this benefit. The best way to understand and appreciate something, it to see and experience it, and voluntourism allows this in a way that not many other forms of tourism do.

Another benefit of voluntourism is its role in alleviating poverty. If done in a sustainable manner, voluntourism can help sustain a local economy. While some organizations offering this type of tourism are not sustainable, many are. This makes research into these opportunities extremely important. Internships abroad are a sustainable way of boosting the local economy while ensuring that jobs are not being taken from locals. To put one’s services where they are especially needed and valued ensures that local communities and organizations receive the maximum benefit of the work being done. This also allows the volunteer to put their skills and services for a cause that really matters.

The future of sustainable voluntourism

If done in a sustainable manner, voluntourism has endless beneficial opportunities for each participant. For students looking for opportunities to volunteer abroad, it is important to research the organization facilitating such trips to ensure that the local communities are on board and receive maximum benefit. The priority should always be the well-being and development of communities and organizations receiving the volunteers, without creating a need for dependency.  If done sustainably, the outcome would be mutually beneficial to both parties.

– Trelawny Robinson
Photo: Flickr