Voluntourism what does it mean?

Voluntourism what does it mean?

A post from Nigel the volunteer newsletter editor.

 I wrote an article in the summer people and places newsletter under the title Editors whinge which seems to have caused a bit of controversy! and I  have  reprinted the article here  – and the emails I received from a couple of volunteers in response. I want to emphasise that this is my opinion and Kate and Sallie do not neccessarily agree and it is certainly not the opinion of people and places but my personal opinion.  What do you think?






The Editor has a whinge! 

There has been a lot of discussion in the press recently about voluntourism, what it means and what it entails. Paul Miedema a people and places partner in South Africa, wrote a very good article on this, click here to read it. 

I know of a large cruise company who offer voluntourism on one of their cruises, one “project” (sic) involves spending 4 hours planting shrubs and trees all for the bargain price of $50! which covers  transportation and materials. 

Sorry to sound cynical but can you do anything meaningful in 4 hours!? I spent 4 weeks volunteering at Mapoch in South Africa and hardly scratched the surface! 

 Personally I think Volunteering is a life time commitment, from working on a project to supporting it after you leave, to working on the next project, ad infinitum. 

 If a cruise company wants to sell an excursion fair enough- there is no problem with making money, just don’t call it voluntourism! 

 I would love to hear what other volunteers think that voluntourism is. Please let me know your thoughts and I can publish some in the next newsletter, email to newsletter@travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk 

And if anyone knows of a project that lasts for less than 4 hours please let me know! 

Nigel Pegler/editor June 2010

 I have no problem with volunteering in any sense, on any project, in any country, my issue is with companies trying to make money out of it!. As you know people and places are a not for profit company and you know EXACTLY  where the money goes. There is no problem with planting a tree which you have paid for it`s just not voluntourism!  

The problem is there are a lot of bad organisation`s about and sorting the wheat from the chaff is not easy and my worry is that well meaning people are being ripped off and may never volunteer again. My whinge was from a personal perspective so I am sure a lot of people disagree with me, 

Below are a couple of responses to my  newsletter article, please let me know on the blog what you think.


Hi Nigel

I read your comments about ‘volunteering’ with interest and am afraid I have to disagree with you when you state that “volunteering is a life time project”, continuing from one project to the next ad infinitum. Life situations change; age, illness, lack of finance, disenchantment can all alter the way people feel about volunteering.

As you know  over the past 4 years I have been a  ‘voluntourist ‘ in South Africa on 3 occasions , a fourth time I was simply a visitor for a week but still offering help and support.  I feel passionately about the projects and the people to the extent that I have raised funds once home, so I feel I speak with some experience. Volunteering, whether it is connected to tourism or not, is a personal matter, there are no rules governing how, why, where, when and for how long a volunteer should offer their services, how much they should spend or give and by which vehicle (e.g. Royal Caribbean) it is given. Surely it is the project who receives the volunteer who decides whether what the volunteer is offering is appropriate, valuable and meets their needs.The RCCL might have trodden on a few peoples toes by calling their tour ‘voluntourism’ but do you think the people who receive the trees care what the name is? no, and  like many projects and  people in need  all over the world they are just grateful for any help or support  and who knows, someone on that cruise ship might be inspired and decide to spend future  holidays as a ‘voluntourist ’ in a more tangible role with ‘Saga ‘or ‘peopleand places’ , well recognised and respected organisations.

As I see it, voluntourism, In the broadest sense, is simply about tourists who combine a holiday with the experience of helping others, whether that is for a few hours or a few months is immaterial and in my opinion, if there are good intentions, it is arrogant to assume otherwise. Voluntourism  is not exclusive to helping the disadvantaged in society, it may be protecting endangered species , working  on the land or wild life sanctuaries, so why be precious about a name?

 Isn’t it all about giving?

Jean Eaton


I was very interested to read Paul’s comments about voluntourism. I am a huge fan of Paul’s and in fact have nominated him as one of Ode Magazine’s “Intelligent Optimists.”  I do have strong feelings about the points he raised, however. I have written to Paul and Sallie about this before. Here are my thoughts:

1- I feel that I have been fortunate enough to experience the ideal voluntourism experience.  I’ve spent 3 weeks in a township twice, and will now return for a third 3-week visit.  I felt completely prepared by both P&P and Calabash, and I have indeed heard stories of voluntourists on other programs who did not feel that way. (A mother and 2 daughters were basically dropped at a program in Central America with little training and no local contacts).

 2. My time in the township has changed me forever (yes, that trite “life-changing”) and inspired my entire family to become even more engaged. Our 32-year-old daughter is returning on this trip, with her husband, and her college roommate who is a children’s literature specialist. Our son, who cannot afford to make the trip, supports the project in other ways.

 3. Our project to create a library for A.V. Bukani School could never have succeeded without the extraordinary help of volunteers in our home area of Washington, D.C.  Some of them ran book drives in schools; some came to our house week after week to help sort and label the books. Others donated books or came to one organizing session. Some wrote checks to support the project, ranging from $25 to $1000. The bottom line is that people gave what they could — this benefited the overall project, and they felt good about that. Each was changed in some small way, and made a difference to the project. The project would not have been successful if only those who could donate many hours or much money were able to participate.

 4. While the goal of long-term intensive involvement in a voluntourism project is noble, I believe other opportunities to make a difference on a smaller scale are also important.  Within the context of ethical, transparent companies (like People & Places and Calabash), I would hope there can be alternatives for those who cannot spend 3-4 weeks on a project, with a huge investment of their own funds (including missed wages if they don’t have that much vacation leave). 

 5. As Paul noted, most of the volunteers are from GAP Year type programs or retirees. That leaves a huge number of individuals in the prime of their lives who cannot participate at that level!   If you change the heart and mind of a 30 year-old — someone more mature than an 18 year-old, with more years of active life ahead than a 60 year-old you could have a long-lasting impact on making true, sustainable change.

 6. Larry and I have spoken to many groups within the U.S. and now have a mailing list of over 500 people who have directly asked to keep them informed of the project. Many have been volunteers or donors. A number have inquired about getting involved personally. Yet, when the time commitment and expense of this project is clear, including the rising airfare from the U.S., it always comes down to our own family and close friend being the only ones who can go. The people who inquire, usually working educators, are not taking other expensive vacations; they simply don’t have the disposable income to be able to make this much of a commitment. In other cases, they can’t take a month off of work.

 7. In summary, I think voluntourism projects that require at least 3 – 4 weeks in a location are the ideal.  But I believe other opportunities for those who cannot spend that much time (and money) should be considered. The bottom line will always be bringing value to the community and working on something that is sustainable. I believe there are other ways individuals can do that, even on a smaller level as part of a project with longer-term volunteers. You build a volunteer corps for the future, while making meaningful change. 

 With respect for the great work of People & Places, Calabash, and others,

 Eileen Kugler


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