How do you recognise a sustainable volunteer tourism experience?
Voluntourism is a booming business. We all know someone who combined his or her trip to Asia or Africa with volunteer work. If done well it can be a wonderful and mutually beneficial experience for travellers and host organisations. Unfortunately however, this trend has resulted in a myriad of organisations that offer various facilities, projects, and price tags. It doesn’t come as a surprise that these not only vary in quality but also in impact. Potential volunteer tourists are often simply seduced with heroic promises.
The act of questioning volunteers’ actual capacities and project objectives is unjustly shifting to the background. There is no effective control system. Good intentions and ethical collaborations are often lost in the tangle of rogue or commercial practices. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with volunteer tourism in itself or with the volunteers that want to contribute to a good cause. The challenges with volunteer tourism are the lack of transparent communication, framing and unrealistic expectations.
As a potential volunteer tourist, it’s therefore important to know which criteria you should look out for when choosing a project to volunteer with. It’s also a matter of being honest with yourself and being realistic about what your contribution as a volunteer can be. Fortunately,
there are a lot of examples of good practice: projects that are honest about the tasks volunteers can successfully fulfil, in a way that they really are an added value for the project.
Idealistic expectations versus realistic capacities
Organizations take liberties in their marketing. They like to respond to wishes and expectations, not least in the name of their sales figures. A language of “making a difference”, “doing something meaningful” and “contributing to the future of others” is sadly the basis of an ill-considered policy that sets the tone of unrealistic expectations. As a result, organizations consciously or unconsciously often fall into the trap of portraying the stereotypical image of the rich or even superior Westerner who contributes, regardless of their skills.
A second tricky point is the divergent price tags between commercial and non-profit organizations. Depending on the organization, you can pay a substantial amount. Moreover, “popular” projects such as orphanages, schools and the care of animals with a high cuddle factor receive disproportionately more marketing attention resulting in a higher cost price. The unique experience is then used to justify this price tag rather than the money going towards the project itself.
Work or Play?
However, the price tag does not guarantee quality. Quality here means ethical local cooperation and proper guidance for the volunteer tourists. Rather, the cost points to the fact that this is a very profitable industry. In many cases, marketing is also not in line with reality. The term “volunteer tourism” has a non-binding ring to it. Depending on the organization, the tourism aspect will outweigh the work aspect even if you thought you were signing up to something truly hands-on.
Transparency about project objectives is a must. Is the emphasis on the tourist experience or the workload? How luxurious is the stay? Even really impactful projects come in a range of forms from basic to luxury. Correct information is a precondition for the right person to end up on the right project. Unfortunately, promotional talks often weigh more heavily in practice, resulting in frustrated volunteer tourists and unmet expectations. On the other side of the spectrum is a passive receiving community that, in the most extreme case, acts as a puppet in a staged reality.
Volunteer tourists often have a misguided picture of their abilities. This is due to incorrect prior imaging or a lack of preparation. For example, they do not realize that it might sometimes be difficult to have a close interaction with traumatised animals. These animals need a caretaker they know because they need to restore their trust in people.
How to recognise a good project
The best way to create a positive impact on both the local project as well as the volunteer tourist is by only assigning them support tasks. These don’t require specific knowledge or skills so volunteers can perfectly perform them right away. And an added advantage is that they will get satisfaction from their work. A prerequisite is that organisations also communicate openly about their vision and what volunteers can expect to realistically contribute to.
Volunteer tourists, on the other hand, need to be honest with themselves too. Fulfilling tasks that require knowledge and responsibility simply don’t fit in a two-week itinerary. That doesn’t mean they can’t do meaningful work, as these many hands together make the work lighter. At the same time, the incoming money they pay can be used, for example, to employ a fulltime animal caretaker.
Another option is to approach the concept of volunteer tourism differently and organise it as an educational opportunity. It has the capacity to engage people. You learn to view the world from a different perspective by immersing yourself in different cultures and work settings. As a result, it can act as a bridge builder between cultures and contribute to travellers’ personal growth.
Examples of Good practices
We’ve had some theory, so let’s now look at some practical examples that demonstrate in reality what type of sustainable volunteer tourism is worth considering.
Volunteers contribute to the conservation of these uniquely beautiful big cats with supportive tasks that help project staff to achieve their aims. Tasks range from helping to manage the lions’ habitats, track and monitor the lions, and study their prey to ensure that the pride has the best chance at a stable future in the region.
As a volunteer, you will gain knowledge and insight into the world of turtle conservation by protecting turtle nests from the threat of poachers that sadly exists. You will also be asked to collect data. This will involve snorkelling in order to take non-intrusive photos of the turtles at sea; these photos will then be used to identify individual turtles and track their movement around the islands.
This project is a good example of an educational opportunity. Expect to engage with nature at its most exciting, as you learn from professionals about conservation efforts and community development in the Amazon. You’ll not only learn about various sustainable initiatives, you’ll also get your hands dirty, as you’ll support these sustainable activities ‘in the field’ with necessary practical work such as data collection, surveying and monitoring wildlife.
Are you curious to explore more projects? Then have a look at these 17 best sustainable volunteer project to make 2019 one to remember!
And in case it’s your first volunteer experience, these 11 top tips for first-time volunteers at conservation projects will be of great use!