The tourism industry ranks amongst the greatest income generating sectors across the world. Consequently, different countries regard tourism as an opportunity to achieve economic growth and development. Tourism leads to improvement in living standards within societies by creating employment. Moreover, the local society benefits from the infrastructures that are built in order to support tourism.
Examples of such infrastructures include airports, telecommunication networks, sewerage systems, and other public utilities (Wearing & Grabowski 2011). Despite the aforementioned economic benefits, tourism can have catastrophic economic effects on developing countries.
Tourism makes countries dependants of foreign investments, hence increasing foreign dependency. Wearing and Grabowski (2011) assert that the need to develop sustainable tourism has increased over the last three decades. This aspect has led to emergence small scale, self-sustaining, and independent tourism, which is a direct contrast to mass tourism.
Previous studies show that the probability of minimising the negative effects of mass tourism is high by developing sustainable forms of tourism. Volunteer tourism “is increasingly becoming one of the most popular types of sustainable tourism” (Wearing 2001, p.93). This form of tourism is also known as voluntourism and it revolves around environmental and community goals.
Wearing (2001) asserts that volunteer tourism has undergone rampant growth over the years and this trend is expected to continue into the future (Tomazos & Cooper 2012). In light of this new development, this paper seeks to analyse whether volunteer tourism is more about the volunteers having a good time and travel companies making a profit than bringing benefits to local communities.
Factors that motivate volunteer tourism
Previous studies show that individuals engage in volunteer tourism for various reasons. Wearing and Grabowski (2012) assert that volunteers are motivated by egoistic and altruistic reasons. In a bid to attract volunteers, organisations highlight the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits associated with volunteer tourism.
Benson (2010) asserts that most “volunteer tourists are not motivated by the external rewards, as it is in the case in mainstream tourism” (p.62). Wearing and Grabowski (2012) cite four main factors that motivate volunteer tourism.
These factors include seeking camaraderie, cultural immersion, family bonding, and the need to make a difference. On the other hand, a study conducted by Seibert and Benson (2009) shows that there are five main objectives that motivate volunteer tourism. These factors include:
- To learn about foreign countries and their cultures
- To meet new people
- To broaden one’s knowledge
- To live in a foreign country
- To gain a new and different experience
The above factors highlight the need to satisfy intrinsic benefits as the main driver for volunteer tourism. According to Wearing and Grabowski (2012), volunteer tourism provides individuals with an opportunity to gain new experience. For example, the traveller has an opportunity to experience local life first-hand.
By interacting with the local citizens, volunteer citizens are in a position to improve their communication skills with regard to foreign language. This experience is rare for average or normal tourists (Zahra 2013).
Some individuals participate in volunteer tourism in order to enhance their personal achievements. As a result, they focus more on their wellbeing rather than assisting the host community. Some of the dimensions that motivate these individuals include “lifting levels of happiness and improving ones’ self-esteem, mental, physical health, self-control coupled with achieving satisfaction in life” (Coghlan & Noakes 2012, p.8).
This aspect emanates from the fact that volunteer tourism provides the participants with an opportunity to broaden their horizons. Moreover, the participants develop new perspectives regarding life in general.
Therefore, one can assert that some individuals engage in volunteer tourism in their pursuit for self-actualisation and self-expression, which emanates from the fact that volunteer tourism provides them with an opportunity to increase their knowledge.
Domingues and Nojd (2012) are of the opinion that the “non-regular, but memorable experiences gained from undertaking an activity increase self-enrichment by providing individuals with intellectual, cultural, and moral resources and recreation” (p.26).
By interacting with individuals from diverse cultural background, the volunteers are in a position to appreciate the prevailing cultural diversity in the world. In addition to the above reasons, individuals are motivated to engage in volunteer tourism in an effort to improve their self-image and develop a sense of belonging. Despite the aforementioned benefits of volunteer tourism, the participants incur a number of costs.
First, their hopes and experiences from participating in volunteer tourism may not be achieved. Therefore, it is imperative for volunteer tourists to ensure that the projects and activities to be engaged in during volunteer tourism align with their interests.
Commercialisation of volunteer tourism
According to Tomazos and Cooper (2012), volunteer tourism is gradually becoming one of the most lucrative market segments within the tourism industry. A study conducted in the UK in 2004 shows that approximately 120,000 UK citizens participated in volunteer tourism in different countries.
The lucrative nature of the market segment has led to the emergence of numerous volunteer tourism organisations. The organisations operate as travel agents of volunteering experiences. In 2008, there were approximately 300 listed volunteer organisations in the UK.
The majority of the organisations that engage in volunteer tourism brand themselves as non-profit organisations. However, some organisations are specifically designed to operate as profit making entities.
The non-profit making organisations that engage in volunteer tourism are increasingly collaborating with various corporate entities, which present a major challenge to volunteer tourism in its effort to support local communities. This aspect arises from the fact that volunteer tourism will undergo the process of commoditisation, and thus lose its intended objective.
The high market potential with regard to volunteer tourism has increased the number of commercial organisations that have commercialised volunteer tourism. Moreover, the entry of profit making entities in the volunteer tourism market niche has increased the intensity of competition in the market (Tomazos & Cooper 2012).
In an effort to survive in this market, most non-profit making volunteer organisations are adjusting their operational strategy. The firms are adopting sophisticated service and marketing approaches.
Volunteer tourism organisations are increasingly being forced to adjust their volunteer tourist recruitment and funding strategies (Aabo 2006). This trend has been occasioned by the organisations’ effort to achieve financial sustainability (Coghlan 2006).
Tomazos and Cooper (2012) assert that volunteer organisations engage in massive promotional campaigns in an effort to attract volunteer tourists. The volunteer organisations undertake a comprehensive training in order to equip the volunteers with the skills and knowledge that they require to participate in various projects.
On the other hand, individuals who are interested in volunteer work abroad are required to pay a specified amount of money so that they can be recruited in their intended projects. Tomazos and Cooper (2012) assert that the volunteer tourists have to meet their lodging, travel, and other expenses.
The volunteer organisations design their pricing strategy depending on the nature of the project. Moreover, the pricing strategy is also based on the additional benefits that the customer will acquire. Some of these benefits include “participating in short safaris, city tours, and excursions” (Benson 2010, p.77).
The pricing strategies of some of the volunteer organisations are characterised by uncertainty and ambiguity. Tomazos and Cooper (2012) note, “The monetary value of volunteer tourism is calculated at around £ 1 billion” (p. 405).
Contribution of volunteer tourism to the society
According to Domingues and Nojd (2012), most studies on volunteer tourism focus on the personal experiences of volunteer tourism. As a result, the impact of volunteer tourism on the host society is overlooked. Currently, the concept of social responsibility is one of the elements that have increasingly become entrenched in the society.
As a result, developed countries have an obligation to care for the less developed countries in the world and this point of view explains the emergence of volunteer tourism.
According to Raymond and Hall (2008), some individuals are motivated to participate in volunteer tourism by the fact that they have an opportunity to give back to the society. As a result, they are in a position to influence the lives of the less privileged positively. Therefore, volunteer tourism is beneficial to the host society.
Volunteer tourism is organised around various humanitarian projects. These projects aim at improving the lives of individuals within the host countries. Some of the projects that volunteers engage in include educational projects, poverty alleviation, environmental planning and conservation, gender equality, health, and community development.
Dealing with these issues is very challenging especially in the less developed economies. Coghlan and Noakes (2012) are of the opinion that most host countries do not have the necessary skills and human capital to address these challenges. On the other hand, the developed economies are characterised by a strong human capital, which presents a unique opportunity for the host country to benefit.
Volunteer tourism and environmental conservation
Volunteer tourism provides a perfect opportunity for host countries to address various social, environmental, and humanitarian issues. First, the volunteers who are selected to participate in these projects are professionals. As a result, they assist the local community in formulating policies and innovative mechanisms to deal with the challenges faced (Coghlan & Noakes 2012).
Climate change is one of the major pertinent environmental issues across the world. Butcher (2011) asserts that climate change has emanated from the high rate of environmental degradation. According to the Vrasti (2012), environmental degradation has a direct impact on mainstream tourism, which may affect the ability of a country to generate revenue from tourism negatively.
Volunteer tourism plays a significant role in protecting the environment. Various non-governmental organisations, for example the i-to-i, use volunteer tourism in an effort to conserve the environment within the host community.
These firms achieve their environmental protection goal by developing various environmental protection programmes. In 2011, the United Nations Volunteers program in collaboration with Projekte Vullentare Nderkombetare (PVN), a non-profit making organisation, organised a volunteer work camp aimed at promoting environmental protection in South Albania through volunteer tourism.
The participants engaged in an environmental protection exercise by cleaning the polluted sites within the coastal areas. Additionally, they also educated the local population on how to protect the environment (UNV Albania 2013).
Most rural populations do not have adequate knowledge on how to conserve the environment. Volunteer tourism is very effective in educating local communities on how to conserve and restore endangered wildlife and exploited nature (UNV Albania 2013).
Volunteer tourism benefits the host community through various community development projects. Examples of such projects include offering educational services to children and adults, promoting community organisation, empowering women groups, physical infrastructure development, supporting community projects, and initiating grassroots organisations (Dees 2008).
Moreover, volunteer tourists also engage in various health care projects such as installing water purification systems. Such projects play a significant role in empowering the citizens of the host society and improving their living standards.
According to Ojo et al. (2012), poverty is one of the obstinate menaces facing the society today. Poverty has adverse effects on citizens’ wellbeing. The level of poverty is relatively high in developing economies compared to the developed countries.
For example, a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria shows that the number of Nigerians living in poverty increased from 54.7% in 2004 to 60.9% in 2010, which represents 112 million individuals living in poverty, which is a relatively large population (Ojo et al. 2012). Volunteer tourism assists such communities in alleviating poverty, which is achieved through a number of ways.
One of these ways entails knowledge transfer. Ojo et al. (2012) assert that volunteer tourists impart significant managerial and technical expertise on the host community on the strategies that they can adopt in order to eliminate poverty. For example, the volunteers may teach the local citizens on how to utilise the Internet and other electronic media in fighting poverty.
The volunteers may be required to teach in various educational institutions within the host country. Such projects play a significant role in developing long-term, sustainable, and beneficial effects to the local society (Domingues & Nojd 2012). Ojo et al. (2012) further assert that volunteer tourism promotes poverty alleviation by promoting international connection. As a result, the public image of the host country improves.
The net effect is that the likelihood of multinational organisations entering the host country to help in improving the citizens living conditions is increased (Ojo et al. 2012). Most developing countries do not have substantial resources to enable them deal with poverty.
Additionally, the meagre resources available are usually misappropriated due to the high rate of corruption. Therefore, it is has become very difficult for the developing and less developed economies to eliminate poverty. This assertion underscores the importance of improving voluntourism as an alternative source of financial aid (Ojo et al. 2012).
From the analysis conducted, it is evident that volunteer tourism has undergone significant growth over the past few decades. Its growth has arisen from a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Volunteer tourism provides participants with an opportunity to achieve their personal objectives. These objectives are related to self-actualisation, self-control, self-enrichment, and improvement of one’s self esteem.
Volunteer tourists achieve these objectives due to the various activities and projects that they undertake during the volunteering period. For example, the tourists gain new knowledge from the extensive interaction with individuals from the host community. Such interactions allow the tourists to appreciate diverse cultures. Secondly, some individuals focus on their wellbeing when engaging in volunteer tourism.
Some of the dimensions that motivate these individuals include lifting the level of happiness and improving ones’ mental and physical health coupled with achieving satisfaction in life. Volunteer tourism is motivated by the need to deal with various humanitarian, economic, and social challenges facing the society.
Volunteer organisations design their programs around these elements. As a result, volunteer tourism has a significant contribution to the host community, which emanates from the various volunteer programmes designed by the volunteer organisation. Some of these programmes relate to environmental protection and conservation, community development, and poverty alleviation.
Therefore, volunteer tourism contributes towards improvement in the general wellbeing of the host country’s citizens. Despite its contribution to the host community, volunteer tourism faces a major threat due to increased commercialisation. Most volunteer tourism organisations were started with the objective of helping societies deal with various humanitarian issues.
Therefore, they were not motivated by profit; however, the past few decades have been characterised by entry of profit making volunteer tourism organisations. In an effort to survive in the industry, volunteer tourism organisations are increasingly adjusting their operational strategies such as pricing in order to achieve sustainability.
In summary, the paper underscores the fact that volunteer tourism is not just about volunteers having a good time and travel companies making profit. However, volunteer tourism is focused towards benefiting the local communities.
The trend towards profitability has emanated from the intensity of competition within the volunteer tourism market segment. In order to survive, volunteer tourism organisations have to achieve financial sustainability.
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