The Volunteer Tourist

Getting and giving the best in a vacation

Yasuharu Katsube's vacation to Rwanda.

Volunteer tourism is an emerging trend in the travel industry. Here, tourists engage in some sort of volunteerism in addition to typical vacation activities.  Volunteer tourists might build schools or homes in developing countries, or even provide medical care, as part of their trips.

To better understand the rewards and pitfalls of this activity, Carla Barbieri, assistant professor in Parks, Recreation and Tourism in the School of Natural Resources, University of Missouri, teamed with graduate student Yasuharu Katsube who traveled to Rwanda on a typical volunteer tourism trip.

“Volunteer tourism is a great way for travelers to help those in need,” Barbieri said. “Often, volunteer tourists go alone or in groups, and the trip is usually organized by a third party, non-profit organization. These trip facilitators are key to ensuring a positive experience for the traveler and the community in need. Following his travel, we found that Yasuharu’s experience mirrored what was in the research, especially related to the intrinsic rewards he experienced helping Rwandan families and kids in need.”

A Niche Tourism Market

Volunteer vacations vary widely in scope, from low-skill work cleaning up local wildlife areas to providing high-tech medical aid. Generally, tours are arranged through a charitable organization or tour company specializing in this area of tourism.  Volunteer tourist participants are a diverse group, but typically share a desire to “do something good” while also experiencing new places and challenges in locales they might not otherwise visit.

Volunteer tourism began during the 1990s when the travel industry started to develop niche packages and has grown since then.  The Travel Industry Association estimates that more than 55 million Americans have participated in a volunteer vacation, and about 100 million more are considering one.

Carla Barbieri.

This market is not without controversy.  While some experts on volunteering welcome the expansion of such vacations as an opportunity to provide more resources to projects and to encourage a volunteer ethic in people, others have pointed out that the business methods used by tour operators, such as exclusivity deals and catering to the needs of the tourist rather than the volunteer project, exploit the communities the projects are intended to help.  Sometimes, more resources – such as housing and food —are expended on the travelers than are received by the community in need.

Do a Little Homework Before Going

To create the best experience for both the volunteer and those being helped, Barbieri advises people considering volunteer tourism to:

  • Beware of scams: Travelers should protect themselves from fraudulent organizations. Barbieri recommends that people check references, contact staff members and research previously facilitated trips. For example, prior to Katsube’s trip, he researched the organization and found that school groups had positive experiences under the organization’s guidance on prior trips.
  • Understand exactly what the trip will entail: To ensure a high-quality experience, Barbieri recommends extensive communication with the facilitator prior to traveling. She recommends that travelers understand the trip’s lodging and volunteer and tourism activities. For example, Katsube understood that he would have the opportunity to immerse himself in the local Rwandan culture by staying with a host family rather than in a hotel.
  • Understand how the organization supports the community: Facilitators usually charge a fee for their services to invest to community development and needs. By understanding if the facilitator follows this practice, travelers can ensure that their money and time makes the greatest community impact.

The Industry Needs Improvement

Barbieri and Katsube found that volunteer tourism facilitators have room for improvement. She suggests operators consider the tourists’ goals for the trip. Increased communication with tourists before and after the trip can enable volunteers to be better utilized in community service and to have a more enjoyable experience.

In addition, Barbieri recommends that facilitators give tourists a choice of volunteer activities prior to departure. This would allow tourists to participate in activities more suitable to their skill sets. By having tourists choose their activities prior to traveling, facilitators can provide manuals to better prepare for their volunteer tasks.

Barbieri and Katsube have shared their findings with the industry and the tourism scientific community.  They collaborated with Carla Almeida Santos, an associate professor of Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois, to produce a study, “Volunteer tourism: On-the-ground observations from Rwanda.” It was published in the Tourism Management journal.

“A further understanding is needed on the impact of volunteer tourism in local employment generation and education enhancement, as well as in identifying ways to promote better communication between local people and volunteer tourists,” Barbieri concluded.