As 'Voluntourism' Explodes In Popularity, Who's It Helping Most?

Jul 31, 2014
Originally published on July 31, 2014 1:36 pm

As you plan — or even go — on your summer vacation, think about this: More and more Americans are no longer taking a few weeks off to suntan and sightsee abroad. Instead they're working in orphanages, building schools and teaching English.

It's called volunteer tourism, or "voluntourism," and it's one of the fastest growing trends in travel today. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year.

But some people who work in the industry are skeptical of voluntourism's rising popularity. They question whether some trips help young adults pad their resumes or college applications more than they help those in need.

Judith Lopez Lopez, who runs a center for orphans outside Antigua, Guatemala, says she's grateful for the help that volunteers give.

All visitors and volunteers get a big warm welcome when they walk in the doors of her facility, Prodesenh. It's part orphanage, part after-school program and part community center.

Most of the kids at Prodesenh don't have parents, Lopez says. They live with relatives. Some were abandoned by their mothers at birth. Others lost their fathers in accidents or to alcoholism.

There are three volunteers here now, all from the U.S. Lopez says they give the kids what they need most: love and encouragement.

One those volunteers is Kyle Winningham, who just graduated from the University of San Francisco with a degree in entrepreneurship. "Yeah, my real name is Kyle, but mi apodo aqui es Carlos," he says.

Winningham didn't have a job lined up after school, so he decided to spend his summer at Prodesenh. "When the kids have homework, I help with homework," he says. "When they don't, I generally help out with teaching a little bit of English."

But today they are cooking. Lopez hands out bowls filled with bright red tomatoes, onions and mint. She's teaching the kids to make salsa.

Haley Nordeen, an international relations major at American University in the District of Columbia, is also spending her entire summer at Prodesenh. During her first six weeks here, the 19-year-old helped build the newest addition to the center, a small library. Now she's tutoring.

"I've met a lot of international relations majors here, so it seems like a trend," Nordeen says.

Most volunteer tourists are women. They're also young adults, between the ages of 20 and 25, says the industry consulting group Tourism, Research and Marketing, based in Glasbury, Wales. But more and more high school students are also traveling and volunteering.

Sam Daddono is a junior at Rumson-Fair Haven High School in New Jersey. His whole Spanish class is in Antigua, sharpening their Spanish skills. But they're also hiking up the side of a volcano every morning to help tend to a coffee plantation — and learning about what life is like here in Guatemala.

"The way I view things now is a lot different than before," Daddono says. "I've visited other countries, but I've never done hands-on work or really talked to the people about the problems that they face in their lives."

That worldview for many American teens is a lot different than it was two decades ago, says Ken Jones, who owns Maximo Nivel, a volunteer tourism company out of Antigua. He got his start in the travel business, offering only Spanish-language classes. But young people today, he says, want a richer experience.

"It used to be beach and beer," Jones says. "And now it's, 'Well, I want to come down and learn something and figure out how to help or be a part of something.' It was more superficial 20 years ago, maybe."

The industry has exploded in the past few years, says Theresa Higgs, who runs United Planet in Boston. The nonprofit offers what she calls a cultural immersion program.

But Higgs is on the fence about whether the rise in popularity of "voluntourism" is a good thing. She's heartened by the altruism of volunteers, but she's worried about the flood of for-profit organizations bursting onto the scene.

"What I think often gets lost is the host communities," she says. "Are they gaining? Are they winning? Are they true partners in this? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student's learning objective, to someone's desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?" she asks.

Higgs urges travelers to do their homework and research companies, just as you would before giving to a charity or volunteering for any organization.

About a dozen youth from the United Church of Christ from Yarmouth, Maine, are learning how to count to 10 in the Mam language, from an elderly indigenous woman in Guatemala City. They are volunteering for a week at the nonprofit Safe Passage, which helps children and parents who live and work in the capital's sprawling garbage dump.

It's pouring rain outside, but 17-year-old Mary Coyne isn't bummed. She's glad she spent her summer vacation here instead of at the beach, she says. "Yeah, I'm not getting a tan and not eating ice cream," Coyne says. "But it's something different. It's like your whole being is satisfied because of experiences like this."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

More and more young travelers are passing up a few weeks in the sun to work in orphanages, build schools, or teach English in other countries. It's called volunteer tourism or voluntourism. It's one of the fastest-growing trends in travel today, with more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spending about $2 billion dollars a year on do-good trips. NPR's Carrie Khan caught up with some traveling volunteers in Guatemala and filed this report.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: All volunteers and visitors get a big, warm welcome when you walk in the doors of Prodesenh. It's a community center, part orphanage, part afterschool program, in a small village high in the hills above the colonial tourist town of Antigua.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (In unison) Buenos tardes y bienvenidos a Prodesenh.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: There are three volunteers here, all from the U.S.

KYLE WINNINGHAM: Yeah, my real name is Kyle. But yeah, mi apodo aqui es Carlos.

KAHN: Carlos, or Kyle Winningham, just graduated from the University of San Francisco with a degree in entrepreneurship. He didn't have a job lined up so decided to spend his summer here.

WINNINGHAM: When the kids have homework, I help with homework. When they don't, I generally help out teaching a little bit of English. But today, we're going to cook.

JUDITH LOPEZ LOPEZ: A picar, lo vamos a picar...Finamente...Y luego...

KAHN: Judith Lopez Lopez, the center's director, hands out bowls filled with bright, red tomatoes, onions and mint. She's teaching the children how to make salsa.

LOPEZ: La mayoria de ellos sus papas son muertos...

KAHN: Lopez says most of the kids here don't have parents. They live with relatives. Some were abandoned by their mothers at birth. Others lost their fathers in accidents or to alcoholism. She says she's grateful for the volunteers who give the kids what they need most - love and encouragement. Nineteen-year-old Haley Nordine is spending her whole summer here. The first six weeks, she helped build the newest addition to the center, a small library. Now she's tutoring. She's an international relations major at American University in Washington, D.C.

HALEY NORDINE: I've met a lot of international relations majors who are here volunteering. It seems like a trend.

KAHN: Most volunteer tourists are women and young, between the ages of 20 and 25 according to Tourism Research and Marketing, an industry consultancy. But more and more high schoolers are traveling and volunteering too. Sam Daddono is a junior at Rumson Fair Haven High School in New Jersey. His whole Spanish class is in Antigua, boning up on their language skills, hiking up the side of a volcano every morning to help tend to a coffee plantation and also learning about what life is like here in Guatemala.

SAM DADDONO: The way I view things now is a lot different from before - 'cause I've visited other countries, but I've never done, like, hands-on work or really talked to the people about, like, the problems that they face in their life.

KAHN: That worldview is a lot different than just two decades ago, says Ken Jones, who owns Maximo Nivel, a volunteer tourism company out of Antigua. He got his start in the travel business just offering Spanish language classes. But he says young people today want a richer experience.

KEN JONES: It used to be beach and beer. And now it's, well, I want to come down and learn something or, I want to come down and figure out how to help or be a part of something. It was more superficial 20 years ago.

KAHN: Theresa Higgs has seen the industry explode in the past few years too. She runs United Planet out of Boston, what she calls a cultural immersion program. She says she's heartened by the altruism of volunteers, but is worried about the flood of for-profit organizations bursting onto the scene.

THERESA HIGGS: And what I think often gets lost is the host communities. Are they gaining? Are they winning? Are they true partners in this? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student's learning objective, to someone's desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?

KAHN: Higgs urges travelers to do their homework and research companies just as you would before giving to a charity or volunteering for any organization.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Mam spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (In unison) Ten, ten, ten.

KAHN: About a dozen youth from United Church of Christ of Yarmouth, Maine are learning how to count to ten in the Mam language from an elderly, indigenous woman in Guatemala City. They're volunteering for a week at Safe Passages, a non-profit that helps children and parents who live and work in the capital's sprawling garbage dump. It's pouring rain outside, but 17-year-old Mary Coyne isn't bummed. She says she's glad she spent her summer vacation here instead of at the beach.

MARY COYNE: Yes, I'm not getting a tan, and I'm not eating ice cream and whatnot. But it's something different. It's like your whole being is satisfied because of experiences like this.

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now let's get a broader look at the phenomenon. Nancy McGehee is a professor of hospitality and tourism at Virginia Tech. She studies volunteer tourism and its impacts. Nancy McGehee, welcome to the program.

NANCY MCGEHEE: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Why exactly, in this last couple of decades, has this exploded?

MCGEHEE: Well, I think there are a combination of things. Post 2000s and with the recession and that sort of thing, young people are having difficulty in the job market. So instead of opting for sitting at home, trying to get a job, they opt for this volunteer tourism. They can travel cheaply. They can engage in activities that they find fulfilling. And they can build their resume. So it's a sort of perfect storm of all truism and resume building. And I think, for me, one of the biggest perks to this is the recognition that volunteer tourism, while on the surface looks like something that's going to benefit host communities, at the heart I think it's about transforming the volunteer. It's helping them see where they fit in the global scheme of things.

MONTAGNE: Well, if, at the heart of it, it has to do with helping or transforming, in some way, those who are looking to do good, what about the communities themselves? We just heard about this group in Guatemala volunteering at an orphanage and community center. And on one level, that seems to be doing some good, as you just suggested. But on the other, spending a few weeks helping at an orphanage, offering children love - wouldn't these kids and the community be better if local people were hired who could build relationships with the kids?

MCGEHEE: I guess for me, when I'm looking at the research, there's a full spectrum in terms of volunteer tourism. Those are those kinds of activities, but there are lots of other things going on. And my concern is that we throw the baby out with the bathwater because I think the volunteer tourism itself still offers some of the greatest potential for economic opportunity if you do it right. But I would agree that it's not necessarily that form of volunteer tourism that does that best.

MONTAGNE: Could you give us an example of, say, how to do it right?

MCGEHEE: One of the things that's really intriguing me right now is this idea of applying fair trade concepts to volunteer travel. So are the organizations creating opportunities for disadvantaged producers? Are the organizations pointing to ways in which they're doing community capacity building? So those are sorts of - the framework that we're looking at for organizations that are doing it right.

MONTAGNE: Since this boom in volunteer tourism, there's been a bit of piling on of criticism about how much good they're really doing. What would you say to that?

MCGEHEE: Well, there has been a lot of negative press these days about volunteer tourism. And I kind of draw the analogy with ecotourism in the 80s because when it initially emerged, it was, you know - it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. And it was wonderful. And it was going to do great things for the environment. And then we had this sort of natural swinging of the pendulum to the other side, where all of a sudden we were pointing to bad examples. And we were saying, maybe not - this isn't the best idea. And I'm seeing a very similar thing happening with volunteer tourism. And I guess what I hope for is that we find that happy medium and we find that place where we can, on one side, recognize the great examples of volunteer tourism that are out there but, on the other hand, take advantage of this time to really look critically at the various organizations that are there and to help them be accountable for their activities in these host communities. And that's where I think you really need to do your homework, recognize whether the organization is transparent. Is the organization community centered? And all these things maximize the positive impacts while minimizing the negatives.

MONTAGNE: Nancy McGehee is a professor of hospitality and tourism at Virginia Tech. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.