Can 'Voluntourism' Outgrow The White Saviour Stereotype And Make A Positive Change Post-Pandemic?

Author: Sharon McLennan

(MENAFN- The Conversation)

As the tourism industry emerges from pandemic shutdowns and border closures, so too is“voluntourism”, the sometimes controversial combination of overseas volunteer work and more traditional tourist experiences.

Although hard to measure, pre-pandemic estimates suggest voluntourism was worth us$2 billion annually , with up to ten million volunteers globally. While COVID shut the practice down for the duration, it remains a multi-billion-dollar industry , now poised to return and rebuild .

But volunteer tourism has met with considerable criticism. Voluntourists have been accused of putting vulnerable people at risk (including children ), commodifying volunteer work , perpetuating neo-colonialism and reinforcing a“white saviour” complex.

Voluntourism is also largely unregulated , raising important ethical questions about who it really aims to serve – travellers or hosts. These issues are now being felt in the Pacific, where voluntourism is a relatively new but growing industry. As simone kaho wrote of her experience in Tonga:

my research in Fiji has also highlighted the problems associated with the commercialisation and commodification of volunteering. These are real and important issues that need close examination as tourism in general picks up.

Behind the 'bula smile'

The Fiji case study – conducted with an international, for-profit, specialist voluntourism agency – tells a complex story about the benefits and downsides of voluntourism.

Volunteers are hosted by local families and included in household life, attending church or religious functions, learning to cook Fijian food, and spending time with children and other family members. Through this, they gain an understanding of life behind the famous“bula” smile. As one staff member said:

Read more: covid-19 has devastated the popular but flawed volunteer tourism business – here's what needs to be done

Hosts often put considerable energy into sharing their way of life and teaching volunteers Fijian culture. Most hosts and staff took pride in helping travellers find their way around and teaching them Fijian ways. In turn, this helped Fijian staff build knowledge and pride in their own culture.

A chance to improve voluntourism

The growth of voluntourism in Fiji follows half a century of mass tourism , in which contact between Fijians and tourists has been largely limited and manufactured. Hosts embrace the opportunity to interact with tourists more directly and to build connections across the globe.

However, the commercial nature of the encounter has the potential to significantly undermine these connections. The large fees paid by voluntourists mean they – like any tourist – are consumers.

Volunteers have certain expectations, ranging from the mundane (internet access, good food and logistical support) to the more profound (a sense of accomplishment, a feeling they've made a difference). They will complain if these expectations aren't met.

The pandemic also raised questions about the sustainability of voluntourism. The organisation I studied cut its global workforce significantly. In Fiji it had provided jobs for about a dozen Fijian staff, as well as home-stay income for many households.

Read more: volunteer tourism: what's wrong with it and how it can be changed

While there is evidence that reliance on customary knowledge, systems and practices helped tourism workers to survive and even thrive during the pandemic, the future for many is uncertain.

COVID-19 has been something of a wake-up call that we need to move beyond voluntourism as a pseudo-development practice or as a commodified, profit-making experience. This is an opportunity for the industry to take on board the criticisms, examine past practice and reassess the role and impact of volunteering.

Rather than rush back to business as usual, this is the perfect moment to look at reconfiguring the industry in line with the principles of sustainability and regenerative tourism . In the process, perhaps voluntourism's strengths – building cross-cultural relationships, learning and solidarity – can contribute more to meaningful social and environmental change.

The Conversation


Legal Disclaimer:
MENAFN provides the information “as is” without warranty of any kind. We do not accept any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, content, images, videos, licenses, completeness, legality, or reliability of the information contained in this article. If you have any complaints or copyright issues related to this article, kindly contact the provider above.