Can ‘voluntourism’ outgrow the white saviour stereotype and make a optimistic change post-pandemic?


ANALYSIS: Because the tourism business emerges from pandemic shutdowns and border closures, so too is “voluntourism”, the typically controversial mixture of abroad volunteer work and extra conventional vacationer experiences.

Though arduous to measure, pre-pandemic estimates counsel voluntourism was price US$2 billion yearly, with as much as 10 million volunteers globally. Whereas Covid shut the observe down for the period, it stays a multi-billion-dollar business, now poised to return and rebuild.

However volunteer tourism has met with appreciable criticism. Voluntourists have been accused of placing susceptible folks in danger (together with youngsters), commodifying volunteer work, perpetuating neo-colonialism and reinforcing a “white saviour” advanced.

Voluntourism can also be largely unregulated, elevating vital moral questions about who it actually goals to serve – travellers or hosts. These points are actually being felt within the Pacific, the place voluntourism is a comparatively new however rising business. As Simone Kaho wrote of her expertise in Tonga: “In lots of circumstances, voluntourism asks the local people to face again, and permit themselves to be helped. It turns serving to right into a enterprise mannequin.”

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My analysis in Fiji has additionally highlighted the issues related to the commercialisation and commodification of volunteering. These are actual and vital points that want shut examination as tourism normally picks up.

Although hard to measure, pre-pandemic estimates suggest voluntourism was worth US$2 billion annually.


Though arduous to measure, pre-pandemic estimates counsel voluntourism was price US$2 billion yearly.

Behind the ‘bula smile’

The Fiji case examine – carried out with a global, for-profit, specialist voluntourism company – tells a posh story about the advantages and drawbacks of voluntourism.

Volunteers are hosted by native households and included in family life, attending church or spiritual features, studying to cook dinner Fijian meals, and spending time with youngsters and different members of the family. By this, they achieve an understanding of life behind the well-known “bula” smile. As one workers member mentioned: “The host might get offended with you when you go away the sunshine on, chances are you’ll really feel like you’re again dwelling with mum and pa as a result of they might offer you a lunch field, issues like that. However it’s vital that they see the one who is paid to smile on the Hilton, what they’re like at residence with their children, how they make ends meet, how they eat.

Hosts typically put appreciable vitality into sharing their lifestyle and instructing volunteers Fijian tradition. Most hosts and workers took satisfaction in serving to travellers discover their means round and instructing them Fijian methods. In flip, this helped Fijian workers construct information and satisfaction in their very own tradition.

“Additionally the nice factor is that we sustain with our tradition. As a result of in case you are speaking about it on daily basis and also you present them and attempt to discuss it, then the historical past stays […] Now once we go to the village we do the sevusevu [kava ceremony] and all these issues, and we go together with the elders. It was our moms that did that, however now we’re doing it, the following technology.

“When we’ve got volunteers in a Fijian village we are going to go to any lengths to provide them what they need, to try to serve them […] However after all then the volunteers change to change into extra Fijian!

An opportunity to enhance voluntourism

The expansion of voluntourism in Fiji follows half a century of mass tourism, during which contact between Fijians and vacationers has been largely restricted and manufactured. Hosts embrace the chance to work together with vacationers extra immediately and to construct connections throughout the globe.

Nevertheless, the business nature of the encounter has the potential to considerably undermine these connections. The big charges paid by voluntourists imply they – like every vacationer – are customers.

Volunteers have sure expectations, starting from the mundane (web entry, good meals and logistical assist) to the extra profound (a way of accomplishment, a sense they’ve made a distinction). They’ll complain if these expectations aren’t met.

The pandemic additionally raised questions in regards to the sustainability of voluntourism. The organisation I studied minimize its world workforce considerably. In Fiji it had offered jobs for a few dozen Fijian workers, in addition to home-stay earnings for a lot of households.

Whereas there’s proof that reliance on customary information, methods and practices helped tourism staff to outlive and even thrive throughout the pandemic, the long run for a lot of is unsure.

Covid-19 has been one thing of a wake-up name that we have to transfer past voluntourism as a pseudo-development observe or as a commodified, profit-making expertise. This is a chance for the business to tackle board the criticisms, look at previous observe and reassess the function and affect of volunteering.

Relatively than rush again to enterprise as standard, that is the right second to take a look at reconfiguring the business consistent with the rules of sustainability and regenerative tourism. Within the course of, maybe voluntourism’s strengths – constructing cross-cultural relationships, studying and solidarity – can contribute extra to significant social and environmental change. The Conversation

Sharon McLennan is a Senior Lecturer at Massey College

This text is republished from The Dialog below a Inventive Commons license. Learn the authentic article.

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