Voluntourism is emerging as an important and growing alternative to traditional tourism. Wealthy and priviledged people are now flying half way a across the world armed not only with cameras, but with hammers and nails. They are building houses and trails, schools and sanitation sanitation systems. These journies enable busy people to become more connected with their world and the people in it; even if they’re not in our backyard.
Like a Peace Corp volunteer just two-weeks at a time, doing morally good and rewarding work; it’s pretty cynical to search for a downside in such an endeavor. Yet there is room for concern. Author Paul Theroux writes at length in his book Dark Star Safari of the harm honest charities do to societies they are only trying to help. The sheer volume of wealthy westerners searching for rewarding, short term experiences must raise a questioning eyebrow.
How many simple, two week, tasks are available in any given region? Are these activities replacing earning opportunities for the locals with free labor from the well-off? Religious charities may be confident that, even if they’re not effective in helping people, at least they are offering them the opportunity to see the light of their chosen religion. That seems like a good idea until the helped return to proselytize the missionaries. How will the people of Louisiana feel when wealthy Iranian muslims come to minister to them while rebuilding hurricane damage?
When Charles Darwin first visited the naked, nomadic Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, he thought of them as “miserable, degraded savages”. He wrote “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man” The ship’s crew took three Yaghani back with them to Merry ol’ England, taught them English and enlightened them from the Good Book. They were returned to the tip of the world with new clothes, and given a huts to live in, hopefully to minister teachings of civilization to their people. A later visit found our English speaking Yaghan happily naked, his hut deserted and in disrepair. It seems that even after a year of English luxury, they had even been introduced at the royal court, they preferred their original, ‘primitive’ lives. Offered the chance to return England the native is reported as saying he had “not the least wish to return to England” as he was “happy and contented” with “plenty fruits,” “plenty fish,” and “plenty birdies.”see page 216)
According to Voluntourism.org, most participants return from their journeys feeling that they were the “benefactor, altruist, servant…whereby ‘riches’ flow to the recipient from” those they had come to help. Voluntourism is described by participants themselves as “life-changing”, “transformative” , “they changed my foundation.”
Phrases like that ought to be red flags. Not because there is anything wrong with getting a personal benefit from our actions or that there should be anything at all wrong from having selfish reasons for your trip. Indeed, I think these may be the real and valid justifications that will someday make voluntourism a successful endeavor for everyone. Like Theroux, I don’t question the sincerity of travelers or charities. Instead, I just wonder how carefully we’ve analyzed our intent to do good compared with all the unintended consequences of our actions. The real work of the budding voluntourist must begin long before the journey begins; doing one’s best to weed out the ethically dubious tour operators, ego-stroking guides, and western biases from the growing choices that will enrich our lives and share our wealth. It might be easiest to start at home.