Voluntourism is Responsible Tourism, Right?



In the past several years, many questions and opinions have been forming around the growing trend of voluntourism. Why do people do it? Does it really make a difference? Who are we actually helping and who are we unintentionally hurting? Do they even want us here? Who’s really benefiting, them or us? What if it’s all just another marketing gimmick? After two months of volunteering in Bolivia, these are some of the questions we’ve begun asking as well.


Last week, the Director of Sustainable Bolivia held a Charla (a small chat) on the topic of responsible tourism: what does it mean and why we do it. Turns out, even among the twelve of us “voluntourists” in attendance, there is no right answer. The conversation, however, made me think about why I am really here. What motivates me to travel to volunteer? It’s personal, of course. I want something from it. We all do. But what? Self-fulfillment. Fun and excitement. More experience to put on my resume. But why not stay at home to volunteer if I’m so “good”?

People who choose to volunteer abroad are doing it for countless reasons. It has been debated in the news, coffee houses, and online forums whether these reasons are selfish or selfless, but the truth is they are both. When you travel as a volunteer, you are, at the very least, helping yourself become a better person, regardless of whether your project was ever finished or the school you built was really needed. Looking back, I probably should have spent my time in Nepal teaching the teachers how to speak English, not the 10 year old kids who only really learned how to do the hokey-pokey. But if it wasn’t for that experience, I would have never been connected with the reality of poverty and a career path in global health.


So why do I choose to do it? I choose to be a voluntourist because of my personal and professional desire to do good in the world (plus, I get my kicks from traveling). I want to help people live healthier lives. I want to experience first hand the vast diversity of the world. I want to understand complex problems and help craft solutions. I want to show people from other countries that Americans are not all “as seen as on TV”. I want to make memories for myself, make new friends, figure out who I am and what is important to me.

I volunteer abroad because I want to be a responsible tourist. But what’s responsible tourism? Is going to another country for one month to a year to build schools, install composting toilets, teach English or test frogs for fungus really doing more good than bad? Is my presence really making a difference? Am I really being responsible? Or am I still just another foreign object?


And what about the cost? Why do you have to pay to volunteer? Where’s the money really going? Can’t I just show up and work for free? Great questions. Long convoluted answers that will not be argued here. However, the short answer (my answer) is because your dollar is your power. Why would you give your money to the Hilton empire when you could give it to a local family? Trust me, with full service, meals and travel advice included, it’s a much better deal.

While I may look like the richest person in the world to some of the people from developing countries, I am not the richest person in my country. Voluntourism allows me the chance to see the world, experience real culture, spread the wealth, and maybe do some good without giving up my life’s savings. The point is, aside from the travel agencies cashing in on the 2-week volunteer vacation fad, voluntourism can be affordable and responsible.

With that, I leave you with the same parting words delivered at the Charla. This is the most comprehensive, straight-forward advice on how to be a responsible tourist that I’ve seen. I hope that all who travel, volunteer, or attempt to do both at the same time will remember these words and return home to share their leanings.

Go slow. Respect people. Practice humility, and don’t condescend with your good intentions. Make friends. Ask questions. Listen. Know that you are a visitor. Keep promises, even if that just means mailing a photograph a few weeks later. Be a personal ambassador of your home culture, and take your new perspectives home so that you can share them with your neighbors. ~ Rolf Potts

Thank you, Ryan, for the thought-provoking discussion and inspirational quotes.