Say “No” to humanitarian tourism or voluntourism !

Posted on 2015-01-29 21:05:41 by Céline

Quand le commerce s'empare du volontariat

Travel differently

Be a doctor or a teacher for two weeks

Thanks to the services of a business travel agency...

Welcome to the industry "humanitarian tourism"!

Over the last few years, travel agencies have started to offer “volunteering” trips to attract young people. They use the attractiveness of volunteering  service and “useful travel experiences” among young people. This consists in a mixture of backpacker tourism and volunteering. Moreover, it is supposed to add to or to replace traditional holidays activities (trekking, diving or windsurf).

At the beginning, this was merely an Anglophone phenomenon. Those tourists were mostly wealthy customers who were ready to pay a lot of money (i.e. 1500 Euros for a two-week workcamp, plane ticket and training courses are not included). This trend progressively gained fame thanks to effective marketing strategies. Suddenly, genuine non commercial volunteering associations found themselves fading away to invisibility on the Internet.

Try to do a research for "volunteer Vietnam" and you will mostly find commercial travel agencies that use the language used by NGOs and development and volunteering associations to hide their aim: profits. This looks like volunteering but it is not exactly the same. Concealed by nice brochures, skilfully designed websites, eye-catching pictures, call centres working 24h a day and credit card payment options, a very different reality lies behind the nice curtain.

It is a common practice for such firms to use "wholesaler services" for youth volunteering. Some agencies contact NGOs and local associations to offer them the assistance of young European volunteers in exchange for organised day trips, accommodation,... These NGOs and associations are convinced that they are dealing with delegates from a youth association, maybe less lucky than others, but keen to give a hand. This is the case of Cambodia where scouts found themselves working with no remuneration to welcome American tourists who had paid 1500 dollars per week for that trip. In Vietnam, a Dutch travel agency organized initiation courses to Buddhism (in a communist country): monks offered accommodation, food and training to the customers believing that they were hosting young pilgrims and not merely “alternative” tourists wishing to take up yoga.

Sometimes the association itself is charged with participation fees (in Vietnam it often amounts to 50 Euros per week!!!) which are supposed to cover the cost for accommodation, food, project management and entertainment for tourists–volunteers. These activities would not be economically sustainable without the support and free work of local volunteers.

According to figures  provided by almost all the travel agencies (and hardly verifiable), 80 % of participation fees goes towards project costs. In fact,  the greatest proportion of the money ends up in the pockets of travel agencies and their middlemen. Only 100 out of 1500 Euros reaches the hosting country. The local association will earn a few Euros with some good luck, for all the weeks of work. But the volunteers will only discover this situation when they have arrived to the destination.

It can be argued that Southern countries are working somehow on behalf of commercial volunteering firms to offer cheap holidays to tourists and deceive them into believing they are embarking on a humanitarian mission.

Sometimes service dealers and "youth-oriented" travel agencies set up "community development” projects. These are no more than an invention, often quite trendy, in an attempt to meet the desire of wannabe tourists-volunteers to help and to be useful to the others while having fun.

It all comes down to becoming someone different, playing someone else (a doctor, a nurse, an engineer, a hero for the local community) for a couple of weeks on the only ground of coming from far away, from a developed country that certainly has something to teach them. Practically, it amounts to a small rural school, a small donation to the principal of a school or a moto-coach (a 4x4 to experience the taste of adventure) carrying young tourists-volunteers.

Given the short time these young people stay, the lack of any teaching methods knowledge and experience and the fact that they cannot speak the children’s mother tongue, all they can offer pupils is a “hello what’s your name”, some nice picture and some presents (usually pencils).

To customers this may seem appealing. Weren’t they told, after all, that it was only an introduction to intercultural relations? Wasn’t this to stimulate children’s interest in learning new languages and discovering the world? The reality is that schools are turned into touristic attractions. Every time a car full of tourists goes away, another one turns up with another “hello what’s your name”? An educational catastrophe. How would we feel if some good-willing Japanese tourist landed at our school saying "Aligato" to our European children with his hands full of pencils, with the generous intention to help pupils open to the world and learn Japanese, a useful language for business after all!?

In some countries, schools are turned into orphanages for children affected by HIV-AIDS who are purposely gathered by the travel agencies. This is somehow popular.

Recently, new forms of attractions are offered: medical volunteering. This takes place outside any academic framework and gives the opportunity to play the doctor and help nurses for a couple of weeks. Some “humanitarian catalogues” proudly advertise the possibility that customers assist to operations, even a Caesarean!!!... What about the requirements for participation? Being a medical student or having some knowledge of medical science. It is clear that virtually anyone with sufficient financial means would fit in. This is not limited to observing a local doctor in action. It obviously entails pitching in with important risks of infection for both the volunteer and the patient. Serious consequences may arise from a bandage not correctly applied... Sometimes this kind of tourism goes as far as providing medical students with a training they could not get easily through their university. This form of volunteering often includes nice projects like looking after elephants in Thailand, teaching languages in private schools in China,… Tourists can afford to work for free for a few weeks, which is not the case of the local people whose jobs they take…

Most of these young customers do not attend any preparation training course: they leave for a magnanimous exotic dream experience without any previous knowledge of the destination country. They have no information about the cultural shock they are going to face. They sometimes even do not know the name of the organisation they are going to join. They are far from being aware that the hosting association will only benefit from a very little part of the fees they pay. This association will have to get along somehow to host the volunteers and live up to those dreams they bought to a travel agency, on the phone or on the internet. However, in many cases the young is left with a bitter taste and goes home realising they have paid a heavy price to live in awful conditions, in a remote area, while doing utterly useless jobs. Such a high price is only paid on the grounds of being “young” and a “volunteer”.

Also, should a limited company or a private limited partnership suggest you to pay for charity, while claiming that this would not generate any income for their activities, be aware that you are having your first brush with a “naïve and idealist youth-oriented” swindle.

To meet the wishes of modern travelers, the tourism industry expands offers and products. Let’s go and create huge amusement parks in poor countries where illusions, good feelings and wonderful things rhyme with profits. The humanitarian tourism, or voluntourism, is nothing but a form of voyeurism, a new form of "positive" racism (“even without qualification you can also help them: they are under-developed") and a return to the myth of the noble savage: "They are poor but so happy. They are simple people who will be delighted to invite you to their home because you're not a tourist."

These commercial companies successfully use the concept of "humanitarian" to turn it into a lucrative commodity, a touristic attraction to fashion: "See and help the poor! An unforgettable adventure!”  It is not rare that a volunteer has to pay 700 to 2000 Euros, excluding travel, for 2 weeks of volunteering in a developing country. However, the association receives between 20 and 150 Euros... You said “fair trade'

Tip of the day: if you want to be a tourist, please go to a travel agency that professionally does its job, possibly benefiting local enterprises. For 2000 Euros, you can enjoy the services of an excellent local guide, stay in good hotels, eat in good restaurants, etc. Much of your money will stay in the visited country. If you want to do volunteering, you should turn to a genuine volunteering association. Volountourism is the downmarket adventurous side of tourism, it is worth a circus experience, a volunteering spell at a price worth some luxury holiday. However, if you want to go volunteering, go with the volunteering sector who knows the local needs. A mixture of volunteering and tourism (voluntourism) is nothing more than an attractive marketing concept that often offers the worst of volunteering and tourism: absurd projects (repainting a school every two weeks, giving class without qualification,...) and the comfort of volunteering for the price of a luxury tourist trip (it is very popular, you must travel in third class to meet the real local people). 

SVI wishes to inform young people on this phenomenon and on its disastrous consequences for the volunteering and touristic sectors and for local populations. SVI has reacted by promoting real and non profit volunteering itself.

"Yes, it is possible to conduct volunteering with the quality of non-profit sector!
NO, volunteering is not a new commercial product!
NO, poverty is not a new tourist attraction! "

Additional info:

About "Projects-Abroad". If you can not see this video, go to  here


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