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Volunteering Abroad: What’s the harm in that?

[vc_row parallax=”false” parallax_clr=”no-layer” pattren=”” top_margin=”1″ bottom_margin=”1″][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]Date: January 26, 2015               Author: Christina Nunez

 

Voluntourism seems to be a topic that generates a lot of heat.

Volunteer tourism, aka voluntourism, is one of the fastest trends in tourism today. In fact, NPR states that there are more than 1.6 million voluntourists spending about $2 billion a year.

In theory, this trend is an incredible example of the global community acting selflessly to help others less fortunate. But the industry has come under attack, even by some of my colleagues.

So why are people getting their feathers in a ruffle?

A critique of voluntourism

Why so cross? | Flickr: Luke Addison

Critics argue that the industry irresponsibly promotes the idea that well-meaning visitors can make a real difference to development by spending a short time somewhere. Critics say the reality is a short trip like this benefits the visitor far more than the community. Some take it further, suggesting that voluntourism may even hurt a community by taking jobs away from able people who would require less training and be able to see projects through.

I get what these critics are saying, I do. But this viewpoint is a little extreme, in my opinion.

Traveling is one of the best ways to open our eyes to new perspectives. When we’re forced to spend time among people who are different than us, in a place that is completely unfamiliar, we’re exposed to new experiences and ideas. I believe that this experience makes us more understanding, compassionate, and tolerant of others.

But think about the world’s most traveled destinations. For the most part, they’re in wealthy countries or developing countries where the tourism industry is so strong that travelers will have to go out of their way to get a feel for the real place they’re visiting (hint: lavish resorts don’t count.)

This resort looks LUXURIOUS. But staying here won’t tell you much about the local community (and chatting up the cute bartender doesn’t count.) | Flickr: Brandon

Voluntourism provides an alternative experience. Not only are tourists visiting a place they might not otherwise consider, but they’re establishing a meaningful connection to the community by becoming invested in its well-being.

In an ideal situation, they’re interacting with members of the community and gaining a real understanding of how that community lives. At the same time, they’re establishing connections with the other voluntourists, sharing stories and becoming inspired to come up with things they can do in their own communities to make the world a better place.

Now, I know what critics are thinking. I just proved your point- voluntourism does more for the tourist than the community. Well I don’t think so. I believe that people who have this experience will ultimately make a positive impression on the world. If the positive experience is not immediately felt in the specific community they visit, then the world can still benefit by the choices they make after their trip.

Call me an idealist, but I feel pretty certain that after seeing firsthand the kind of extreme poverty that 1.2 billion people live in, they’ll be more likely to use their privilege to vote and stand up for the issues that matter to them and the world’s most vulnerable. Maybe they’ll be more cognizant of the choices they make as consumers so that their purchases empower communities. Or maybe they’ll share this experience with their friends and family. Ultimately, these choices benefit everyone.

If voluntourism can be that bridge that helps people become more active and engaged in global affairs, then what’s the harm in that? We can find flaws in everything if we look for them. Rather than criticize the industry as a whole, let’s challenge ourselves instead to look for ways to make these experiences as productive as possible.

To read the whole article, click here.

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