Voluntourism is rising
...What is it?
What are the consequences?
At the moment I am in Nepal for my thesis research and internship as part of the International Land and Water Management BSc. Nepal is a popular destination for mountain climbers and spiritual travelers, but tourist volunteers wanting to help those less fortunate and at the same time enjoy a vacation are present in large numbers as well. A lot of foreigners I spoke to in Thamel (the tourist area of Kathmandu), were doing volunteer work in orphanages, schools or doing construction work. Most of them pay large sums of money to organizations such as Project Abroad for their volunteering activities. Voluntourism business is thriving here. After talking to volunteers and seeing lots of news articles about this controversial theme, I was eager to dive into this further and share my findings with you. As this edition is all about destinations I will pay specific attention to the impact of voluntourism on the destination rather than the volunteers themselves.
What is voluntourism?
In the past 20 years voluntourism has grown exponentially and the estimated revenue of this industry is 173 billion dollars each year (Wearing & McGehee, 2013). Most volunteers take a gap year and come from the US, UK, Germany, Denmark and Spain (Pariyar, 2016). During these 20 years research on volunteers and tourism has also increased significantly (Wearing & McGehee, 2013).
There are multiple definitions given by scientists and alternative terms such as ‘volunteering for development’ are also used. Most of the mainstream definitions of voluntourism include a balanced combination of both the volunteering and the tourism parts of the word. A widely used definition, that I will therefore also use as a basis for my discussion, is: “the conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel - arts, culture, geography, history and recreation - in that destination” (Wearing & McGehee, 2013).
In this article my focus is on international volunteer tourism rather than on volunteering at home, because this phenomenon is by far the most apparent here. International voluntourism focuses on humanitarian and environmental projects, usually connected to development aid. Activities include conservation projects, scientific research (wildlife), medical projects, economic and social development (agriculture, construction and education), and cultural restoration (Wearing & McGehee, 2013)
Why do people get involved in voluntourism?
Cultural immersion. Volunteering is seen as a way to experience the local culture and connect to locals to a degree that would not be possible as a tourist. Volunteer tourists often mention that they seek an authentic experience which is explained as seeing the people, their lives and environment as they really are (Brown, 2005)
Giving back and making a difference. Another commonly cited motivation for voluntourism is having the chance to give back to society and help the less fortunate instead of having a holiday of pure self-enjoyment (Brown, 2005)
Seeking camaraderie. Volunteer tourists are often also motivated by having the opportunity to meet like-minded people, work together as a group and build new friendships in a volunteer project (Brown, 2005)
Career opportunities. Next to the more abstract motivations described above, there are also motivations related to creating career opportunities. Especially gap year students often use voluntourism to get work experience and boost their CV (McGloin & Georgeou, 2016)
Possible negative impacts of voluntourism
Neglect of local desires. Guttentag (2009) states based on several studies that volunteer tourists are only partly motivated by altruism, while in fact personal reasons such as self-gratification may play an even bigger role. In a commercially organized voluntourism industry this becomes problematic. There is a need to adapt to the volunteer’s desires in order to get them involved in projects, which can lead to neglect of local desires and needs. Especially in environmental conservation projects there is a high risk that conservation efforts are valued above the wishes of locals to economically develop the area.
Low work productivity and unsatisfactory outcomes. Volunteers require little special skills to participate in a project and do tasks that they might not be qualified for in their more developed home country. Therefore involved locals have to invest their costly time to train the volunteer. This is especially ineffective as these volunteers often leave after a short period and a new volunteer has to be trained again. In addition, the outcomes are sometimes of low quality when volunteers have duties which they do not have the necessary qualifications for or experiences with (Guttentag, 2009)
Negative influence on the local economy. Many volunteers perform jobs that could have been done by locals, which disrupts the local job market and employment opportunities. In addition the presence of free labour may also create a cycle of dependency on development aid. Local skills and capacity building are not enhanced by sending volunteers who perform labour for free.
Idealisation of poverty and simplification of culture. Guttentag (2009) describes the idealisation or justification of poverty as the ‘poor-but-happy attitude’. Voluntourists often mention that they have learned to put their own life into perspective and be grateful for what they have themselves. This idealisation of poverty is problematic as it shifts focus to the situation of oneself rather than that of the other (Simpson, 2004). In addition, organizations often depict a simplified image of the beneficiaries; the whole group is defined by a simple set of characteristics of the people and their culture (such as ‘friendly, ‘open’) and their needs. This simplification can lead to stereotypes and reinforcement of the difference between ‘we’ and ‘them’.
The demonstration effect. Wall and Mathieson (2006) argue that the affluence of foreign volunteers can lead to aspirations of especially younger locals that are impossible to achieve, which could lead to discontent and jealousy
Voluntourism in Nepal
Officially travelers are not allowed to volunteer on a tourist visa in Nepal. However, from what I heard many people still do this. The volunteer sector is thus very unregulated and volunteers are not registered, so recent reliable data on how many foreigners do volunteer work each year in Nepal are not available. However, the Social Welfare council estimates that in total around 30.000 tourists volunteer in Nepal each year (Teo, 2014). More and more people call for stricter regulations and enforcement of the regulations for tourist visas.
Instead of the hard statistics I wanted, I came across thousands of volunteer organizations and their advertisements. This shows again how big this industry is. Terms like ‘giving back’, ‘a life changing experience’, ‘cv building’ were widespread. The most advertised volunteer working fields seemed to be medics, education and construction building when I searched for ‘volunteering in Nepal’ on google.
I spoke to several volunteers here and it was interesting to see how the volunteer projects are designed to meet the need of the volunteers as described in literature I found. Volunteers live in host families for the cultural immersion part. The people working together also travel together and undertake tourist activities together (which is the camaraderie part). Especially for the volunteers in the medical field I spoke to, getting work experience played an important role for them as well. Some wanted to study medicine and needed work experience, while others had already graduated or were taking a gap year during their studies. Although I think the motives are not problematic per se, I am concerned that volunteer organizations value volunteers’ interests over that of locals who are supposed to benefit from the project.
To check whether the negative impacts outlined earlier are present here as well, I have to dive further into the volunteer sector of Nepal. However, one thing I have already encountered is the ‘poor-but-happy’ attitude. I have heard people talking about how Nepalese people seem happy with little material wealth and how they work hard without complaining.
What should be done?
The four negative impacts described in this article call, in short, for a shift in focus from the volunteer to the local beneficiaries perspective. For me this is illustrated by the advertisements made by voluntourism organisations where the volunteer experience seems to take the central position instead of the benefits for locals.
In the end I would recommend potential voluntourists to do proper research on the organisation they will work with, and consider their own motives and their added value to volunteer projects before going abroad. If you want to learn more about volunteer tourism and get some practical tips for choosing the right program, I would recommend reading the article ‘Voluntourism: What Could Go Wrong When Trying To Do Right?’ by Daniela Papi-Thornton.
In Nepal the policies for volunteering will be established this year August . They will prevent volunteers from entering workfields where enough Nepalese workforce and knowledge is available. For example, there are enough qualified Nepalese nurses and teachers. The policies will limit the work areas to those where external human resources and technical expertise is really needed. This will have a big impact on the voluntourism sector as short term voluntourists have often very limited relevant technical expertise for the tasks they do. However, it will take time and proper enforcement of these new policies before any real impact can be made. (The Kathmandu Post, 2018)
Brown, S. (2005). Travelling with a purpose: Understanding the motives and benefits of volunteer vacationers. Current issues in tourism, 8(6), 479-496.
McGloin, C., & Georgeou, N. (2016). ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education. Journal of Sociology, 52(2), 403-417.
Pariyar, S. (2016, October 16). Annual $173 Billion Worth Of Volunteer Tourism Industry Is Enough To Make A Change.. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from
Simpson K. 2004. ‘Doing development’: the gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development. Journal of International Development 16: 681–692.
Teo, B. E. (2018, July 27). Volunteering to be a tourist. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from
The Kathmandu Post. (2018, August 13). Centre to limit number of foreign volunteers. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from
Wall G, Mathieson A. 2006. Tourism: Change, Impacts and Opportunities. Pearson Prentice Hall: Toronto.
Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: Experiences that make a difference. Wallingford: CABI.
Wearing, S., & McGehee, N. G. (2013). Volunteer tourism: A review. Tourism Management, 38, 120-130.