Volunteer Tourism: Interview with Dr. Stephen Wearing

Volunteer Tourism: Seeking Experiences that Make a Difference by Dr. Wearing, Senior Lecturer, University of Technology, and Dr Lyons, University of Newcastle, will be published by CABI in 2012. Concentrating on the experience of the volunteer tourist and the host community, this new edition builds on the view of volunteer tourism as a positive and sustainable form of tourism to examine a broader spectrum of behaviors and experiences and consider critically where the volunteer tourist experience both compliments and collides with host communities. Learn more.

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Interview with Dr. Wearing

TIES: You’ve contributed to the research and development of the TIES Voluntourism Guidelines project – how do you think that these guidelines, once completed, will impact volunteer tourism?

Dr. Wearing: I feel that the value of the volunteer tourism guidelines is largely that they will provide a yardstick for all stakeholders to operate from. This is especially important given the diversity of stakeholders, and the different interests of each. Stakeholders range from those in remote rural communities in developing nations, to large tour operators in developed countries who see volunteer tourism as simply another profit revenue stream, to not-for-profit organisations trying to provide assistance within a development context. This diversity means we can find conflict between stakeholders, particularly when examining outcomes. I feel that these guidelines will enable a dialogue to occur based on an acceptable common measure. This should reduce conflict and improve outcomes for host communities. I see the Voluntourism Guidelines having a similar role to the Ecotourism Society’s Ecotourism Guidelines for Nature Tour Operators (1993), a project which I believe was successful in achieving its goals.

TIES: Volunteer tourism is now a part of the mainstream tourism industry and a common tourism experience. To what do you attribute the rise of volunteer tourism in recent years?

Dr. Wearing: I think that international volunteering has existed for a number of years: the industry report, ‘Volunteer Travel Insights 2009’ (GeckoGo 2009) notes that ‘it was not until after the September 11th incident and the Indonesian Tsunami that travelers started to think about this type of travel and the market came to realize that they could volunteer on their vacation.’ I would suggest that the rise is then a mixture of three things: the success of ecotourism (aligning the altruism for nature which has now moved to communities), the entry to the tourism market place of NGO’s offering these types of volunteer trips, and finally to the industry seeing this – leading to bigger providers also offering this option. This seems to have created a serendipitous alignment. Now these trips abroad have become easier to make, and people are beginning to seek a sense of community which seems to be lacking in neo-liberal societies. People have begun to seek out this sense of community through travel experiences.

TIES: How can volunteer tourism be used as a strategy to increase the sustainability of a destination?

Dr. Wearing: Communities that are living an existence that is marginal often will take assistance in the form of projects directed to assist them, without any critical evaluation of these projects. It is important that these communities are encouraged to take a more critical look at what they are allowing to happen within their communities so that they are able to use this input in an advantageous way. Initially, one of the ways this can be achieved is by finding assistance through organizations that offer volunteer programs to work on such projects. This focus on projects that are not solely economically driven and have input and control from the local communities provides a mixture of elements that are likely to ensure the sustainability of the destination that these activities occur in. I believe this will ensure the sustainability of the destination more than anything else, for example through the empowerment of the communities within the volunteer tourism framework rather than other destination’s frameworks.

As an additional note, I have changed the title from the first book on this topic that I published in 2001 from ‘Volunteer Tourism: Seeking Experiences That Make A Difference’, CABI, Oxon. The new book will now be called ‘International Volunteer Tourism: Integrating Travelers and Communities’. The title of the book reflects my belief that the focus of research needs to be more orientated toward the context of the experience – the host community and their role in the creation of this experience. I hope in this new book to address some of the criticism and to reinforce some of the main points I have made in my earlier work.

TIES: What are some of the greatest benefits – for example cultural, economic, political, or social – of responsible volunteer tourism operations?

Dr. Wearing: Voluntary tourism with community involvement can support a wide range of benefits, for example site and species surveys, practical conservation projects, and longer term care and management which contributes to improving biodiversity. People can gain social and economic benefits including understanding, knowledge and skills. Volunteer tourism can take place in varied locations such as rainforests and cloud forests, biological reserves and conservation areas. Activities can vary across many areas, such as scientific research (wildlife, land and water), conservation projects, medical assistance, economic and social development (including agriculture, construction and education), and cultural restoration. Indeed, volunteers can find themselves anywhere and working on a multitude of projects including assisting with mass eye surgery operations, tree planting, conducting a health campaign, teaching English, improving village sanitation, constructing a rainforest reserve, and assisting physicians and nurses with a mobile clinic.

There is usually always, however, the opportunity for volunteers to take part in local activities and interact further with the community. Hence the volunteer tourist contribution is bilateral, in that the most important development that may occur in the volunteer tourist experience is that of a personal nature – that of a greater awareness of the self as a global citizen. Also of interest, however, is that volunteer tourists will almost always pay in some way to participate in these activities. Furthermore, the amount is usually more than an average tourist would expect to pay on a ‘normal’ holiday to a similar location. While there are some sponsorship programs and alternative contribution arrangements provided by some organizations, the financial contribution required of the volunteer tourist is illustrative of the wider nature of the experience; of greater benefits for host and tourist alike.

TIES: What are some of the greatest risks and/or challenges associated with volunteer tourism worldwide?

Dr. Wearing: I think that getting a set of guidelines in place to ensure we are able to examine the success of volunteer tourism or otherwise of its contribution is critical. Development agencies are suggesting that it interferes with what they call proper development. This criticism is based on the projects volunteer tourists work on which they say are often short term. In these cases the voluntary work is often low skilled, and risks displacing locals who need the employment. My experience is entirely at odds with those criticisms, and often projects only occur because of the volunteers being available and the additional labour they provide. Much of the work required is labouring and the often young and unskilled volunteers can provide this.

Additionally, many volunteer tourism organisations work over the long term with communities, where they do a variety of projects and are not present all the time in the communities. This gives these communities time to assess and reflect on the presence of volunteers – this maybe being an improvement on having more established, older, skilled development workers in these communities for long periods of time that then can reemphasise the colonial issues inherent in this, and give communities little change to reflect independently on their value. These conflicting views of volunteer tourism highlight a need to avoid a generalised assumption that volunteer tourism is automatically good, just, and altruistic. It is a layered phenomenon, with multiple stakeholders who have multiple needs and agendas, and requires a more critical analysis and untangling of its components. Thus a set of guidelines will help, I believe, in overcoming these risks and to provide the basis for a way forward.

More about CABI

CABI is a not-for-profit science-based development and information organization that applies scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment, to address the challenges of food security, and to improve access to agricultural and environmental scientific knowledge. CABI’s mission and direction is influenced by member countries who help guide activities undertaken. These include scientific publishing, development projects and research, and microbial services. CABI has published numerous books on the subject of tourism and ecotourism. For a complete list of these publications, visit the CABI bookstore here.

About Dr. Stephen Wearing

Dr. Stephen Wearing specializes in the social sciences in natural resource management and has degrees in environmental and town planning. His PhD is focused on community development within the context of leisure and tourism. His research and publications range across the areas of the sociology of leisure and tourism. He has been project director for a range of social sciences in natural resource management projects and research and a team leader for a variety of ecotourism, volunteer tourism and outdoor education activities internationally. His latest book, Tourism Cultures: Identity, Place and Traveler, contributes to the growing area of ‘critical tourism studies’ – a movement that seeks to bring an alternative commentary and new theoretical thinking to the understanding of tourism in contemporary society.

About Lindsay Milich

Lindsay is a graduate of Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, where she studied Recreation and Tourism Administration with an emphasis in Sustainable Tourism. She has developed an interest in tourism-related research on topics such as poverty reduction through tourism, the cultural implications of tourism, and culinary tourism. She has studied abroad in Heidelberg, Germany, and traveled to Eastern Europe and Spain. Her lifelong passions for travel, culture, and cuisine have led to her to recently venture into the world of blogging. On her site, Coffee Cup Travels, Lindsay explores the vibrant food and lifestyle of the Mediterranean and shares original recipes with readers. She believes that educated and responsible travel can bridge gaps and promote cross-cultural understanding. She is thrilled to have joined the TIES team as Research and Communications intern.

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