What are ALL voluntourists good at?

In recent years Voluntourism it has gotten a bad name.  There are a lot of valid reasons that people have been turned off by voluntourism, including:

  • voluntourism’s potential to foster colonialist attitudes and cause harmful side effects (as in Illich’s thoughts on Peace Corps)
  • projects which place unskilled foreign travelers in jobs requiring skilled laborers or taking away local jobs
  • short term interactions with children without proper child protection policies (Some argue that English teaching is a great way to engage English-speaking travelers in volunteer work, and perhaps sometimes it is, but I feel that even this is not always a good fit. Often times native speakers know the language, but are not trained teachers and repeated short-term interactions can have harmful side effects for children.)
  • volunteer placement agencies charging exorbitant fees from their overseas offices with little to no money reaching the development projects themselves (no need to link to a lot of them for examples, just google “volunteer abroad”!)

These reasons are some of the reasons that I too am skeptical of voluntourism initiatives. I have seen some damaging results of travelers philanthropy which did not embody effective voluntourism or development practices and ended up causing more harm than good.  At PEPY, we have made many mistakes ourselves, especially in our first few years of operations where we designed trips for tourists to “teach and give” rather than “learn and support” and where we designed trips around the needs and demands of travelers rather than those of the communities we were working with.  Many of our initial mistakes are highlighted in the documentary “Changing the World on Vacation” by Deeda Productions. Although watching some of your mistakes on TV and seeing yourself say some ridiculous things you no longer believe in is not a fun pass time, I appreciative that filmmaker Daniela Kon’s work will serve as a learning tool for many others and reminder to me about the lessons we have learned.

As we have examined at the hands-on service portions of our trips looking to find the most useful way to engage tourists in something they are skilled at, we asked ourselves: What ARE all tourists experts at?

The answer we came up with is this: All tourists are experts at being tourists!  Of course!

They know what THEY want when they travel, and that knowledge is often the missing key to successful community based tourism initiatives. Now of course, you and I don’t share the same wants/needs as every tourist and living in Cambodia with a huge child sex tourism industry, I surely wouldn’t want to take the opinions of all tourists to heart when developing new programs. I do though believe that if we find similar minded people looking for an eco-friendly and responsible adventure, one very useful skill they all can bring is the ability to give their feedback and ideas about how to design such a trip.

Tourists can use these skills to help local communities who have a tourism product to offer but are perhaps lacking the experience to market or tailor the trip to tourists.  They can also help promote positive environmental practices by highlighting their desire to see natural environments and physical and cultural preservation in the countries they visit.

By matching travelers up with community based tourism initiatives, we hope to improve the whole adventure tourism supply chain by:

  • giving thorough feedback and ideas for improvement to community based tourism initiatives and groups looking to offer such products
  • offering marketing advice
  • promoting positive environmental practices and preservation initiatives
  • creating informational and promotional material for the organizations we believe in from signs helping travelers find their way to the site to English language placards or hand-outs describing the locations highlights in areas where English speaking guides might not be available
  • Physically helping to improve offerings in the area (constructing signage, cleaning surroundings, beautifying local infrastructure, building safety or protective tools such as fencing or walkways, etc)

We believe that, by designing trips which improve the local adventure tourism supply chain, we can place travelers in a position where both their time and funding are valuable while also helping to ensure that tourism dollars support local initiatives.

We have done some of this in the past, but had not embraced the concept of “using voluntourists as tourists” as much as we currently are in our upcoming tours. Our updated website (coming soon!) will highlight these offerings.  In the meantime… what do you think?  No, it’s not building a house for a family nor petting kids in an orphanage, so it might not have the same appeal as other offerings, but we believe that if we highlight the added value travelers can bring to responsible (aka. well-vetted) community tourism programs, people will be excited to support these programs.

What do YOU think?





Daniela is the Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. She has spearheaded student programming initiatives at Saïd Business School including the Leading for Impact programme and had taught on MBA courses including the Entrepreneurship Project and a course on high-impact entrepreneurship. Daniela is a graduate of Saïd Business School's MBA programme and was a Skoll Scholarship recipient. 

Prior to coming to Oxford, Daniela spent six years in Cambodia where she grew a youth leadership organization, PEPY, an educational travel company, PEPY Tours, and an advocacy organisation, Learning Service. Daniela is co-authoring a book advocating for a 'Learning Service' approach to philanthropic and volunteer travel and has worked as a consultant to other social impact organizations, typically supporting their strategy redesign by incorporating her experience in social marketing and user-centered programme design. She recently wrote a report called 'Tackling Heropreneurship' focused on fuelling collective impact through an 'apprenticing with a problem' approach.

Check out Learning Service for more.