Thoughts on the good and bad of the current voluntourism trend
as I prepare for my own experience with Fathom Impact Travel
Would you spend money on a vacation to a far-away place where you dig in the dirt, build a school, haul water or do some other form of work? A current vacation trend known as voluntourism offers these types of experiences. Travellers participate in volunteer work to help in needy areas. Samples of the type of work include teaching English, helping to build schools and houses, and working to develop clean water supplies. More traditional tourist activities may take place in between periods of work.
Why do people spend precious vacation dollars and time on a volunteer trip? There are probably as many answers as there are travellers, but there is usually a sincere desire to improve the lives of others. Travel is a luxury. Many of those privileged enough to travel are disturbed by the poverty they’ve witnessed and want to make a difference. The desire to “travel deep” and become more immersed in a culture is also a factor.
The Good and the Bad
The movement has its critics, suggesting it accomplishes little more than make the volunteer feel smug and self-satisfied. One of the complaints is that “episodic” one-time efforts leave no lasting impact or improvement. They may even make things worse. Volunteers may be mismatched to the task at hand or have such a poor initial understanding of the culture they become condescending. Traveller inexperience and activities geared to provide the traveller with information may slow down real work done by long-time workers on the ground.
The criticisms likely developed from real situations and as such have some merit, but I believe there is more to the story. When properly partnered with established aid programs, voluntourism brings a labour force which would not otherwise have been available. Sometimes a few helping hands can accomplish a lot. Interaction with other cultures and connecting on an one-to-one basis leads to greater understanding and fosters tolerance. Anything which breaks down walls and misunderstandings between people leads to a better world. Volunteers bring new insights back home with them. In sharing these they help others gain new understanding. They may even help bring more aid to the problems by shedding a light on the need.
There are two particular criticisms I discount as irrelevant. One is that the focus on volunteer activities in a far-away place diverts attention from needs closer to home. We are citizens of the world. Helping address the needs of others is a worthwhile activity, wherever those needs are. Helping far away from home does not preclude also helping closer to home. The other criticism is that companies make money from voluntourism. While many organizations involved in voluntourism are non-profit, there are also for-profit companies. Both are capable of providing the type of experiences which have lead to the criticisms or providing programs which do real good. There is a risk that for-profit companies pull out when profits fall or the current trend is no longer popular. But there is a similar risk to programs with non-profit organizations should their funding dry up. The best aid programs in both cases aim to make a lasting impact and do work which lives on beyond the specific volunteer activity.
Opportunity to Check It Out for Myself
I’ve often wondered about the effectiveness of volunteerism but it is more on my mind these days because I’ve been offered the opportunity to experience it first-hand with Fathom. Fathom is a new company offering what it calls “impact travel.” It’s about travel with purpose, becoming immersed in another culture, and working alongside its people to create an enduring social impact.
Later this month, I will sail on the Adonia with Fathom from Miami to the Dominican Republic. While docked at Amber Cove for three days, I and other cruisers will participate in volunteer activities. Fathom has partnered with two local organizations to provide these experiences. Entrena, specializing in training, education and social enterprising, has run initiatives in the Dominican Republic for over twenty-five years. The objective of IDDI, a non-profit organization created in 1984, is to contribute to the transformation of the human being, families, and the communities in which they live, concentrating on supporting the low-income population in rural and urban areas of the Dominican Republic and the border areas of Haiti.
Each cruise passenger has the opportunity to participate in three volunteer activities. My husband and I will participate in a community English conversation and learning program, and help in a women’s cacao and chocolate cooperative. I will work at a women’s entrepreneurship association with recycled paper and crafts while my husband helps build a concrete floor in a community home. Others on board will help build water filtration systems and plant trees as part of a local reforestation program. During our days at sea, we can take part in programs to learn more about the Dominican culture, the activities we will participate in, and even a bit of Spanish.
The Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is a popular tourist destination, with beautiful beaches, sea life, diverse natural landscapes, a rich history, and lively night life. In spite of having one of the fastest growing economies in the Americas, poverty levels remain high.
I have visited the Dominican Republic twice on vacation, staying both times in the wind-surfing tourist town of Cabarete. My experience was a typcial tourist one – time lying in the sun, fun at the beach, great dining, dancing to merengue music. I saw a bit of beautiful landscape through short jaunts outside of Cabarete and on a day-long bus trip from Sosua to the resort community of Punta Cana. I gained only cursory insights into its culture and had brief but disturbing glimpses into its poverty and need. I expect to bring back quite different images on this trip.
There is some irony in the fact that we will help and learn more about Dominican culture from the luxury of a cruise ship, where we will have access to ample food, a pool, a spa and entertainment. The experience combines vacation elements (including opportunities for tourist shore excursions) with volunteer work. This combination is a good mix for someone who needs to use limited vacation time for rest and downtime, the original purpose of company allotted vacation days, but would also like the opportunity to volunteer. I wonder if the contrast between our privileged surroundings and the areas in which we volunteer will sharpen our insights or numb the impact. I thank Fathom for the opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the Dominican culture and the world of voluntourism.
Some of you may notice I haven’t definitely answered the question I posed in the title of this post. Does voluntourism make a positive social impact? I believe the answer can be yes and truly hope that it is the case in most situations. I look forward to getting a better handle on this question and sharing what I learn in future posts.
Have you participated in any voluntourism activities? What was your experience?
Update After Travel
I have now returned from my Fathom experience and found it to be fun, inspirational and transforming. I believe the programs are making positive differences. Read about my experiences at Fathom Travel: Making a Difference in the Dominican Republic.