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Voluntourism and the Problem with Good Intentions

photograph of African children posing with white volunteers

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In the past few months alone, the global tourism industry has lost a staggering 320 billion dollars, making it just one of many industries to suffer from the pandemic. Most nations are no longer accepting the few American tourists still interested in international travel, rendering American passports “useless” in the words of one critic. Global tourism will have to evolve in the coming years to address health concerns and growing economic disparity, which is why many within the industry see this state of uncertainty as the perfect moment for reform. In particular, some are questioning the future of one of the most contentious sectors of modern global tourism, the “voluntourism” industry.

Voluntourism, a word usually used with derision, combines “volunteer” and “tourism” to describe privileged travelers who visit the so-called Third World and derive personal fulfillment from short-term volunteer work. College students taking a gap year, missionaries, and well-to-do middle-aged couples travel across the globe to build houses, schools, and orphanages for impoverished natives, either for the sake of pleasure or to pad out their CV. A 2008 study estimated that over 1.6 million people incorporate volunteer work into their vacations every year. The popularity of this practice explains why it’s so financially lucrative for religious organizations and charities; the same study found that the voluntourism industry generates nearly 2 billion dollars annually, making up a sizable chunk of overall global tourism.

But as many have pointed out, voluntourism often creates more problems than it solves. In an article for The Guardian, Tina Rosenberg explains how many nations have continued to rely on orphanages (despite their proven inefficiency when compared to foster care systems) simply because there is money to be made off of well-intentioned tourists who wish to volunteer in them. Furthermore, the majority of voluntourists are completely unqualified to perform construction work or care for orphaned children, which ends up creating more unpaid work for locals. Rosenberg also explains how local economies suffer from this practice:

 “Many organisations offer volunteers the chance to dig wells, build schools and do other construction projects in poor villages. It’s easy to understand why it’s done this way: if a charity hired locals for its unskilled work, it would be spending money. If it uses volunteers who pay to be there, it’s raising money. But the last thing a Guatemalan highland village needs is imported unskilled labour. People are desperate for jobs. Public works serve the community better and last longer when locals do them. Besides, long-term change happens when people can solve their own problems, rather than having things done for them.”

Overall, it’s often more expensive to fly out Western tourists and provide them with an “authentic” and emotionally charged experience than it would be to pay local laborers.

And yet, the emotional needs of tourists tend to come first. As Rafia Zakaria points out, “deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character” for well-off voluntourists, who fondly look back on the sweltering heat and squalid living conditions they endured for the sake of helping others. This embrace of discomfort partly stems from white guilt, though some have pointed out that wealthy non-Western countries also participate in voluntourism. It has been labeled a new iteration of colonialism, perhaps with good reason. Colonial subjects have historically been positioned as an abject Other in need of Western paternalism, a dynamic that is reproduced in the modern voluntourism industry. As Cori Jakubiak points out in The Romance of Crossing Borders, voluntourism is essentially an attempt at buying emotional intimacy, which often overshadows the structural inequality that makes such intimacy possible. While voluntourism ostensibly taps into our most charitable impulses, in many ways it can be viewed as a moral deflection. Nakaria notes that

“Typically other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In this context, the decontextualized hunger and homelessness in Haiti, Cambodia or Vietnam is an easy moral choice. Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit is connected to larger political narratives. In simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures makes them easier to help.”

At the same time, it seems wrong to completely reject qualified and genuinely well-intentioned travelers who wish to alleviate human suffering. Good intentions may not redeem the harm caused by the industry, but they also shouldn’t be dismissed as just the vestiges of colonialism. If properly educated on structural inequality, many voluntourists could actually help the communities they visit instead of perpetuate pre-existing problems. Furthermore, one could argue that most forms of volunteer work, whether domestic or abroad, contain some of the worst aspects of voluntourism. Wealthy Americans volunteer to work with the poor and needy at home, and however good their intentions are, they are perfectly capable of reproducing structures of power and privilege within those interactions.

Some see COVID as an opportunity to reform the voluntourism industry and weed out the useless or corrupt organizations, as a recent report for the World Economic Forum proposes. The most important thing moving forward is that we re-assess the needs of disenfranchised communities and adjust the practices of NGOs accordingly. There is a difference between building a school house and reforming educational policies, a fact which all charitable tourists should keep in mind before going abroad.

Swimming with Dolphins

Three women in life jackets swimming with two dolphins

As winter quickly approaches, many people seek an escape from the cold by planning a tropical vacation. These trips to paradise frequently include interactions with the area’s sea life, including the beloved “sunset dolphin cruises” and “swim with dolphins” programs for which many tourists try to book tickets. However, seldom do we think about what those exclusive experiences mean for both captive and wild dolphins, and how tourist money continues to fuel an industry centered around the exploitation of wild animals. We must collectively evaluate these human-dolphin interactions and pursue methods to educate the general public about the impact of their support for these organizations, which despite popular claims do not benefit the dolphins.

Ruthanne Johnson wrote an article for the Humane Society of the United States in which she explores how popular animal attractions may not actually have the animals’ well-being in mind. She discusses “swim with dolphin” experiences specifically, stating, “When strangers aren’t hanging on to their fins for a swim, the animals who swim long distances in the wild, are relegated to enclosures the size of a backyard pool. They may appear to be having fun, but they are merely doing the job.” In fact, Naomi Rose, who is a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, discusses the fact that these interactions with tourists have a negative impact on the animals, which could induce dangerous behavior: “dolphins have bitten, rammed and pushed people and male dolphins have shown sexual aggression toward tourists.”  And all of this is without mentioning the transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis and the common cold due to close proximity between humans and captive dolphins.

While Johnson discussed the impact of interactive programs with dolphins in zoos, Christina Russo focuses on dolphins in the Caribbean where swimming with these wild creatures has become an increasingly popular activity. Resort facilities are a common place for these attractions, and one trainer in the Caribbean talked about his concerns with the high number of dolphins enclosed in shallow cells. He estimated that there were “about 40 dolphins caged in three compact cells and within a resort – debris like nails and fish hooks would float in from the ocean.” He echoes the statements from Johnson which outlined the toll these interactions takes on the dolphins:

“They were also under extreme pressure to perform, which may have made them dangerous to humans, they did 10 interactions a day – the same motions, the same speech, the same signals over and over. They would get frustrated and aggressive to guests or knock food buckets out of our hands.”

The obvious alternative for curious individuals would then be to seek out interactions with wild dolphins. However, Virginia Morell published an article for Science which explores why that might also be a detrimental choice. A study was done on Spinner dolphins in Hawaii and the impact tourism had on their wellbeing, The findings demonstrated that because tourist interactions occurred during a critical period of the day in which the dolphins would normally be resting or sleeping, the interruption by humans in the water caused a lack of sleep and as a result there were far fewer spinner dolphins in the lagoons over consecutive years. Interestingly, researchers also found that due to lack of rest the spinner dolphins were performing more aerial displays than dolphins in areas with little to no tourism. Contrary to popular belief these displays are not a sign of playfulness, but rather of distress. These results allow for not only an assessment of captive dolphins’ treatment, but also further education on tourism taking place in these animals natural habitats.

Now the question that remains is, “if not through zoos or theme parks, and not the wild swimming with dolphin excursions,” how is the average individual meant to witness the beauty of these creatures without causing harm? Meagan Salder attempts to answer this question by speaking to the head of the marine research program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine biology. Lars Bejder reiterates the importance of respecting dolphins’ space, especially because a breach of those spaces at the wrong time by humans could result in heightened levels of stress for the entire pod. In terms of determining which tours are best for the dolphins’ safety, Dolphin SMART was created as a partnership between the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) office for marine sanctuaries and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Foundation. It functions as a tool created by conservation agencies to help tourists see which experiences are best for the wellbeing of the animals. Their mission is “To promote responsible stewardship of wild dolphins in coastal waterways,” and the easy-to-remember acronym describes rules to integrate when viewing dolphins. “S” stands for stay back at least 50 yards, “M” reminds us to move cautiously away from a dolphin showing signs of distress, “A” is to always put your engine in neutral around dolphins, “R” is to refrain from feeding, touching or swimming with the wild dolphins, and “T” is to teach others to be dolphin smart. Consumers should keep an eye out for tours which are certified Dolphin SMART, and be sure to implement the rules outlined by dolphin and whale conservation organizations when going out on their own boats.

Naomi Rose makes a good point about the intentions of many tourists when buying tickets to interact with dolphins: “People swim with dolphins because they want a magical experience, or they may believe they are supporting conservation efforts.” However, we have seen that these particular interactions are not conducive to human or animal safety. Thoughtful information about the impact of these activities published by marine conservation organizations will better help individuals to make educated decisions about which experiences they choose to engage in, and as a result encourage them to fully commit to the wellbeing of the dolphins they hope to see.


Ethical Questions about Poverty Tourism

If you choose to visit one of the world’s big cities, a sightseeing option that may be available to you is what is frequently referred to as “poverty tourism.” If you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find tour buses that will drive you through the poorest parts of the city—places that you wouldn’t see if you hitched a ride on the standard hop-on-hop-off tourist bus.  Poverty tourism is common in places that have been hit hard by natural disaster. Tourists tend to be curious about the extent of the devastation. Continue reading “Ethical Questions about Poverty Tourism”

Cape Town is Facing Unprecedented Drought. Should Tourists Still Visit?

Photo of the coast of Cape Town showing high rise buildings and a crane

Cape Town, South Africa is facing the worst drought in over a century. Citizens of Cape Town, South Africa are preparing for “Day Zero,” which is expected to hit the city in April. For decades, the city of Cape Town has been a popular place for tourists to travel to. Cape Town is known for its beaches, wineries, lush gardens, and beautiful coastlines. But after a three-year drought, the city of Cape Town is seriously at risk to become the first major city in the world to lose a significant amount of their water supply. How could it come to this? Continue reading “Cape Town is Facing Unprecedented Drought. Should Tourists Still Visit?”

Fighting Terrorism with Tourism

In the summer of 2015, a lone gunmen massacred 38 tourists enjoying a sunny beach in Tunisia. Since this incident, many radical terrorists have been targeting tourist destinations for attacks, aiming to deter economic progress in these countries. These countries range from fragile Arab Spring nations attempting to progress economically, like Tunisia and Libya, to longstanding Western tourist destinations like France and Spain. Since tourism is an important part of the global economy, does the average traveler have a moral responsibility to ignore terror threats and continue traveling to potentially dangerous countries?

Continue reading “Fighting Terrorism with Tourism”

Fighting Overcrowding in America’s National Parks

This past year marked the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS). Created in 1916, the NPS has had a long standing tradition of stewardship that has preserved many of America’s most beautiful areas from the threats of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. However, the NPS must now deal with a new threat presented through overcrowding and the environmentally degrading practices that come with it. Taken to the extreme through the example of Zion National Park, where rising crowds resulted in six million people visiting the six-mile-long stretch of canyon last year, can result in major infrastructure changes to mitigate the anthropogenic effects.

Continue reading “Fighting Overcrowding in America’s National Parks”

From Concentration Camp to Hotel

Mamula, an island situated on the border of Montenegro and Croatia, was the site of a World War II Italian concentration camp, in which 2,300 people were imprisoned and 130 or so were killed. Now, the Montenegrin government has agreed to a project to transform the island into a resort – a stark contrast to the fate of other concentration camps across Europe, which largely remain empty or act as memorial museums.

Continue reading “From Concentration Camp to Hotel”

Have Some Respect: Ethics and Tourism

With cheap airfare, vacation packages, and travel agencies on the rise, it comes as no surprise that international travel and tourism have become more accessible for citizens of the U.S. and the world. Indeed, particularly for younger demographics, travel presents an opportunity for exposure to new cultures, a better understanding of the world, and immense personal growth.

Continue reading “Have Some Respect: Ethics and Tourism”

Tourist or Terrorist?

Last week, Egyptian army aircraft mistakenly bombed a group of Mexican tourists, under the impression that they were Islamist militants. The tourists were enjoying a barbecue in the Western desert, Bahariya Oasis, when they were attacked. When the tourist group attempted to flee from the bombing, ground forces shot at them. Although exact numbers have been disputed, at least two Mexican tourists are confirmed dead and multiple tourists and Egyptians were injured.

Continue reading “Tourist or Terrorist?”