In many less developed countries, tourism is perceived as a profitable enterprise that can boost their economy and enhance their global visibility. Unaware as you may be, tourism can also lead to over-development and the destruction of a country’s natural resources. Given this, a mounting number people these days opt for traveling “responsibly”. One aspect of responsible tourism is Voluntourism, which gives people the opportunity to see the world while helping those who are less fortunate. This trend has steadily gained popularity thanks to its well-received reputation that many people return home with more than just souvenirs.
Mary Wong, a secondary school teacher, decided to go to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador to teach English. “Many children in Ecuador are deprived of educational opportunities because they are living far from the mainland. I had a chance to improve their lives while simultaneously learning about their culture.”
There are many international volunteer-abroad programs that people can choose from based on their interests and expectations. Before making a choice, it is essential to take into consideration what kind of work you want to do. Melissa Bertoncini, a field coordinator at Crossroads, interviews hundreds of applicants for volunteer opportunities. Not all applications are accepted, for sound reasons. “There are people coming into my office with lofty expectations of saving the world but then tell me they are not very comfortable living in a shared dorm. This is when I know the program is not for them.”
One distinct advantage of voluntourism is that it is not all work when you sign up for these trips. In between work days, people can go on excursions to visit historical or recreational sites. Angela Cho, a graphic designer, signed up to visit Africa. “I spent a week in Cape Town with children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. We planned and implemented a program using educational games, song and dance and arts and crafts to allow them to have fun while learning and developing skills. That part of the trip was a very humbling experience. As an added bonus, we went on a safari and got a glimpse of the stunning wilderness that Cape Town has to offer. We also visited the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, was held for 18 years. I took away so much for this trip.”
Another draw for volunteers is the chance to share experiences with like-minded people. The volunteers come from all walks of life, with the common interest of making a positive difference in the world. “I encountered people from all over the world, and we try to keep in touch at least once a week via email. We have a bond that cannot be broken,” says Josh Minkel, an advertising executive.
Voluntourism trips also present an opportunity for families to bond. As an alternative to the typical beach holiday, some families want to share a more meaningful experience together. Frances Kent, a mother of five, signed her family up to volunteer in Honduras. “We spent a week in a village shoveling mud and making adobe bricks. It required a lot of elbow grease, but when you are done, you feel such a sense of accomplishment. Plus, it feels extra special because you are doing it with your family,” says Kent.
While many people think they are doing good deeds, there are numerous critics of voluntourism. “A volunteer trip benefits volunteers more than the project they are working for. It makes the volunteers feel good about themselves. But if you think about it, the money they spend to go on these trips could be used to pay for school supplies and health care in these impoverished countries,” says Dr. Sharra Dade. “Plus, how much can they achieve in one week? Most people who volunteer are unskilled and are not experts or certified doctors,” adds Dade.
Linda May, a social worker, came back from Peru and questioned the contribution she made. “Sure, I helped build and install wind turbines, but could a local laborer have done it better? Did my pressure prevent someone from being employed? Did I really deserve a pat on the back for my efforts?” asks May. “It is terrible to think that I set out with the intention of helping people, but I might have made things worse. I wonder if these schemes are really what is best for these communities, or are we just patronizing them in order to feel better about ourselves?”
These concerns are not to be taken lightly. However, voluntourism should not be discouraged. People interested in volunteering should ensure that what they sign up for is of value to them. If projects are well planned, and there is evidence of benefits for all parties involved, then voluntourism can promote cross-cultural learning that helps create global awareness and understanding between cultures.
Editor: Vincent Choi
Copy Editor: Pao Roann
Writer: William Ho
Online Team: Joy Chung