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Published on Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Is 2012 the year of the volunteer tourist?

Voluntourism market 1.6 million plus passengers and over UK£1.3 billion receipts

Opportunities to volunteer overseas have never been so plentiful. Once the realm of the gap year market or the international development sector, there are now many organisations offering short volunteering projects that can be incorporated into a two week holiday. Writes Natasha Stein

The increased desire for an ethical holiday, to give something back as well as to experience the real culture of the countries we visit has led to a burgeoning market for volunteer tourism.  A 2008 study by Tourism and Research Marketing, which surveyed 300 organisations, estimated the market size to be 1.6 million volunteer tourists per year and put the value of the market at around £1.3 billion.

Often called "voluntourism", this amalgamation of volunteering and travel has created a significant amount of debate but continues to grow unabated. The main issues arising from this sector include whether there is a need for the volunteer and the legitimacy of the projects they do; whether the volunteer brings the necessary skills to the project; whether they are displacing paid workers; are they a drain on local resources; the cost of the project and where the money goes; whether volunteers working with children and vulnerable adults should have background checks; how well prepared and briefed are volunteers for this kind of experience and the cultural sensitivities of volunteering in developing countries.

There are many stories of volunteers arriving at projects only to find there is little for them to do, no logistical support on the ground or they are unprepared or unskilled for the experience.  The growth of the market and positioning within the mainstream travel sector will continue to raise and address these kind of issues. This could ultimately lead to a better experience for volunteers and increased benefit to the local communities they visit, with movement towards regulation of the industry.

The sheer choice of volunteering projects now available can also make it difficult to identify the right volunteer experience. A search on the responsibletravel.com website for "volunteer travel" brings up 377 results, including conservation projects, teaching and working with children and community based projects in developing countries.

There is some good advice available, for example the ethical volunteering guide  by Dr Kate Simpson, which advises volunteers on choosing the right organisation, considering their own motivations for volunteering and what questions to ask. The Irish development organisation Comhlmh has developed a Volunteer Charter  setting out seven principles for responsible volunteering and a website, Volunteering Options, to advise prospective volunteers on choosing a placement.

The best way to identify worthwhile projects is to do some research into the organisation. The first question to ask is for a breakdown of the cost of the project and how much goes to the host community. An organisation should be able to easily provide this information. The next thing to check is how the project was developed and understand why there is a need for a volunteer, the skills required and what volunteers will be doing. Another key thing to check is what level of preparation and support are offered by the organisation, both before and during the project.  Speaking to a previous volunteer or searching for reviews online can help to separate the good from the bad.

There are at least 100 UK-based organisations operating volunteering projects overseas, some of which are not-for-profits or NGOs and others commercial profit-making companies. These include companies like i-to-i, Inspired Breaks (formerly Gap Year for Grown Ups) and Real Gap Experience, all part of the TUI group. They offer a mixture of volunteering projects, work abroad and adventure tours, primarily aimed at the gap year and career break market, however they also have two week holiday options. Their volunteer projects include conservation work, teaching, caring for children and volunteering in orphanages, sports coaching, building projects and medical volunteering. Inspired Breaks also offer family volunteering holidays, for example a trip to Swaziland to help care for vulnerable and orphaned children. The Adventure Company are also offering family "Hands On Adventures" which include wildlife conservation and community projects.

The acquisition of these companies by TUI demonstrates the multi-million pound value of the volunteering and gap year market. One of the main criticisms of volunteering projects offered by commercial organisations is that the the company's main interest is in profit rather than development. Projects are developed based on what the customer wants to do, what is marketable, rather than the needs of local communities. Some companies will send volunteers to do the same project repeatedly, with little benefit to the host community. The other concerns about the commercial organisations are that they don't match volunteers to suitable placements or interview prospective volunteers to assess their suitability for projects and they offer minimal preparation or training.

Two organisations which stand out for their responsible credentials are Global Vision International (GVI)  and people and places. GVI won the 2011 Responsible Tourism Award for best volunteering organisation and were praised for the scale of their impact on the ground. They operate long term, sustainable projects in 25 countries focusing on environmental research, conservation, education and community development. Projects are developed for the benefit of both the volunteer and local communities.

people and places, who also won the best volunteering organisation award in 2009, emphasise their commitment to both volunteers and communities and matching the right volunteer to the right placement. Their organisation was conceived out of concern over the "chasm between marketing and reality in a significant number of volunteer offers". They work with local partners and develop volunteer placements based on their needs. This is very much the model used by international development volunteering organisations like VSO and 2Way Development. They provide detail about the project and local partner and are transparent about how the volunteer's payment is spent. They are now working with companies like Tribes and ITC Classics to provide their volunteering trips.  

What is particularly interesting is that people and places emphasise on their website that these kind of volunteering projects are not holidays - "Volunteering responsibly cannot and should not replace the traditional holiday. It will be emotionally exhausting and mentally challenging".  

So is the volunteer travel market growing? The number of organisations and projects available would indicate that it is. Despite the recession, there seems to be a demand for this sort of travel. The current job market and wave of redundancies could be seen as an opportunity to take time out and travel or volunteer, gain new skills and experience to add to CVs. The high cost of many of the projects could be the main barrier for growth in this market, only affordable to the more affluent. But with the the rise of the career breaker and the growing conscience of mainstream tourism, perhaps 2012 really is the year of  the volunteer tourist?

Natasha Stein

Natasha Stein[email protected] has worked for VSO, Earthwatch and Thomson Holidays and specialises in best practice in overseas volunteering programmes and identifying the right placements for volunteers. Natasha developed an interest in responsible tourism whilst working at Thomson Holidays as a Product Manager for long-haul destinations. After 6 years with VSO's volunteering team, she decided to combine her experience in tour operations and international development and pursue a career in responsible travel. She is currently studying for a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management at the International Centre for Responsible Tourism.

Sustainable Tourism Report Suite more info : HERE


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  • Interesting Read

    Hi Natasha, thanks for the interesting article. Potential volunteers have so much they need to consider and look into when choosing an organization and it definitely should not be viewed as just a holiday as you say! Regards

    By Rick North, Monday, February 20, 2012

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