Voluntourism: What Does It Mean?

Dec 11, 2019

As more and more individuals and groups pack their bags and travel the world, many of those travelers are beginning to look for tours that are outside the box.

Instead of standard travel itineraries that include all the same sights and activities, an increasing number of travelers seek out authentic and meaningful experiences as part of their tours. As a result, voluntourism is a growing sector of the travel market—filling the need to travel with purpose. At its core, voluntourism can be defined as tourism that involves volunteer service work. This could mean an entire tour based around service work, or any amount of time on a typical tour that takes time to give back.

“At Global Travel Alliance we have seen an uptick in requests for opportunities to give back while on tour,” said Steve Maehl, Vice President – Field Operations. “For us, that has included everything from building houses in Central America to volunteering at schools, trail maintenance on science trips, or delivering material goods to schools and families in need.”

It’s not only the adults requesting voluntourism; students are seeking this type of experience as well. “Students have told us they would like to ‘impact someone’s life for the better’ or that they seek to help others less fortunate then themselves,” Maehl said.

While voluntourism trips may have previously been led by churches or missions, schools of all backgrounds are helping lead these emerging trends to give back while touring.

“In less than a week, a group can build a house from start to finish,” said Maehl. “While we are changing a family’s life through that experience, we often find that the impact is just as a great on students doing the work.” As one of Global Travel Alliance’s high school group leaders aptly stated, “I can teach my students about justice and compassion in the classroom, but they don’t really learn it until they get the chance to experience it.”

Voluntourism is often an eye-opening experience.

“These types of trips reveal to travelers that some cultures and people have tremendous amount of wealth in areas that may not be financial—such as deep connections to family, community and the world beneath their feet,” said Ryan Sparzak, Vice President – Educational Programs.

“Building a safe and proper home for a person or family that does not have this is one of the most basic needs of all people,” said Paul Belanger, Director of GTrek. Providing such can have profound effects on quality of life and often on the ability to work and support the needs of a family.

“One family of five that had a home built for them by a group of high school students was living in a house in the rain forest that had a leaky scrap metal roof, dirt floors, and no real division of kitchen, bathroom, and living space,” Belanger said. “The living conditions were cramped, dirty, and constantly damp from the persistent rain. The mother had medical issues that required regular weekly visits to the local clinic, which, in turn impacted the entire family—from the school-aged children to the husband.” Global Travel Alliance learned that after several months of living in their new home, the mother’s medical condition improved to the point that her clinic visits were cut in half, allowing for more family stability.

Then there was a single mother who struggled to find ways to make money and raise her family. After her new home was built, she turned her small previous home—which had a dirt floor and leaky roof—into a sewing workshop. The woman now has a steady business as the local seamstress, making and repairing clothes for the community.

“The development of our service programs, particularly to Costa Rica,” Belanger said, “grew from not only interest from teachers and students wanting to do this work, but also because of recognition by our staff in Costa Rica that with our student groups, there was an opportunity to use tourism as a way to lift up people and communities.

“We have choices in how and where we spend our money in places that we visit. When given the opportunity, we always want to choose to spend our time and money in ways that maximize positive contributions to local communities.”

Written by Global Travel Alliance.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Teach & Travel.