When U.K.-based tour operator Responsible Travel announced in July that it was ending all its volunteer trips to orphanages, citing numerous ethical issues with tourist-orphan interactions, the move brought to light some of the challenges facing the rapidly expanding volunteer and philanthropic travel market.
Among other concerns, Responsible Travel noted that well-intentioned volunteer travelers were inadvertently fueling a demand for "fake orphans," children who were not actually orphans but whose parents had placed them in orphanage facilities with the hope that volunteer visitors would adopt them.
To cite just one example, Siem Reap, Cambodia, the tourist town that serves as a gateway to the celebrated ruins of Angkor Wat, has a population of less than 100,000 people, but it is home to 35 orphanages, according to Responsible Travel.
What's more, Responsible Travel noted, very few tourists are properly trained to interact with vulnerable or traumatized children, and their brief encounters with orphans can foster attachments that lead to disappointment on the part of the children when the volunteers leave.
"It's time to clean up this sector," Justin Francis, managing director of Responsible Travel, wrote in announcing the company's 10 discontinued orphanage trips. "It is crucial that we only market volunteer trips in which we have 100% trust."
What's more, the problem with orphanage interactions is not the only problem that has arisen out of the growing interest in volunteer vacations among people wanting to do good in foreign places.
Overall, volunteer tourism is a positive movement that often comes from a well-meaning place and travelers' desire to forge deeper, stronger connections to the places and people they visit. But as the amount of willing volunteer travelers increases exponentially, the quality of projects and causes being built around that demand has in many cases declined.
Krissy Roe, head of campaigns for Responsible Travel, wrote in an email, "Now more than ever, it is essential that potential volunteers ask questions of these volunteer organizations to [identify] those that are doing real harm rather than good."
Roe added: "The key factor for any organization operating in this sector is ensuring their projects are based on a real local need and that they are sustainable long into the future and make a real difference to local communities and environments."
By all indications, volunteer travel is a robust trend that is going to remain part of the tourism landscape for the foreseeable future. The number of volunteer vacationers doubled between 2002 and 2008, and the number of travelers who had volunteered at least once in their life tripled during that time, according to a Conde Nast Traveler/MSNBC poll cited by the nonprofit organization the Center for Responsible Travel (Crest).
David Krantz, Crest's program director, said the center "has been tracking this trend since before it got trendy. We've seen phenomenal growth."
As travelers' desire grows to give more back to the places they visit around the world, and as more travel suppliers and tour operators give them the opportunity to do so, the charitable travel market has realized enormous potential to effect very real and positive change in the world. But it has also opened itself up to programs and initiatives that, regardless of how well intended, have ended up exploiting, or even harming, local communities.
"I really commend Responsible Travel for its decision to omit orphanage visits," Krantz said. "When you've got visitors who are paying money to spend a few hours, an afternoon, even a few days with these children -- these children suffer from a lack of meaningful connection with people, and they make a connection with these volunteers -- you see a cycle of connection and loss which is not beneficial."
The debate that surfaced with Responsible Travel's decision to shelve the orphanage visits showcased the potential pitfalls that the swelling voluntourism phenomenon presents.
Krantz noted that while there are numerous travel companies partnering with very effective nonprofit organizations to offer laudable fundraising and volunteer opportunities to travelers, there are numerous precautions that travelers and travel sellers should take before investing in a volunteer vacation (see "10 questions to ask a voluntourism provider" at bottom of page).
In 2008, Crest published the Travelers' Philanthropy Handbook in an effort to offer some guidelines and best practices advice to travelers who want to donate time, money and energy to various causes. (A PDF version of the handbook can be found under the Publications section of ResponsibleTravel.org.)
"I see the most success where there's a long-term partnership with a local nonprofit organization," Krantz said. "They're getting support from the volunteers and donors coming through on vacation."
Giving money instead of time
While there are a lot of people who have a desire to do some kind of physical volunteer work while traveling, Krantz and others are finding that oftentimes donating money rather than manual labor can prove more beneficial to various charitable organizations.
"I would rather encourage the donation if it's employing local people to do the work," said Ged Caddick, founder of Terra Incognita Ecotours. "I see it as having more lasting benefit."
The concern about volunteers potentially taking away jobs from locals is a constant in the ongoing discussion about voluntourism. In many cases, potential volunteer travelers are being encouraged to think about the impact on local employment before signing up to work on a given project.
Instead of contributing able hands and hard labor, Caddick has donated more than $130,000 to environmental and wildlife preservation charities in more than seven countries since founding his Florida-based tour company nine years ago.
Caddick's model is to make a contribution for every traveler to the conservation organization with which his company has partnered in each destination. Depending on the project, the contribution could be $100 per person, or it could be $500 per person.
"I'm looking for organizations that are not multimillion-dollar corporations, where our $1,000 or $10,000 contributions make a difference, where they're excited to work with us," Caddick said. "I want them to meet with our travelers. I want them to be excited about what they're doing."
One of the programs he's worked with extensively is Gorilla Doctors, a gorilla veterinary program in Rwanda and Uganda, to which Terra Incognita Ecotours and its guests have contributed more than $100,000.
Lindblad Expeditions, a company known for its deep-seated roots in environmental and ecotourism, has recently put greater emphasis on those efforts by naming Amy Cadge as director of conservation and strategic initiatives, a position created this year to primarily oversee the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Joint Fund for Exploration and Conservation (www.expeditions.com/about-us/global-stewardship).
"We invite the guests to donate to the fund," Cadge said. "One hundred percent of their donation goes to support their fund."
The Lindblad-National Geographic fund supports projects in Alaska, Antarctica, Baja California, Central America and Galapagos as well as larger initiatives such as ocean conservation, education, sustainable and local food production and artisan assistance.
Cadge said that being involved in the fund and its projects is something guests are actively requesting more and more.
Finding the right cause
The challenge for travelers and travel suppliers alike is identifying the charitable organization and causes with which they would like to work.
For travelers and their travel agents, searching for a volunteer vacation can be an overwhelming endeavor. A simple Web search for "volunteer vacations" or "voluntourism" yields countless sites touting everything from gap-year volunteer projects to family-friendly volunteering options to daunting forums filled with commentary from volunteer travelers applauding or denigrating their volunteer vacation experiences.
According to Crest, volunteer travelers generally fall under three categories:
- Those under age 25, who are often gap-year volunteer travelers or recent graduates. In those cases, the desire to volunteer is about resume building in a tough job market.
- The 25- to 50-year-old set, which could be people looking for family-friendly volunteer travel experiences or a midcareer break.
- Finally, there is the age 50-plus category, empty nesters and retirees who want to leave something meaningful behind.
Regardless of the reasons, once travelers decide that a volunteer experience while traveling is what they are looking for, a growing number of tour operators and travel suppliers who are entering this space attempt to mitigate the risk and decision-making process by doing some of the behind-the-scenes legwork on behalf of their guests.
"While I'm on the ground, I'm always on the lookout for a conservation partner," Caddick said. "Once I've identified three or four or five organizations, I'll scope them out."
Travel suppliers have a wide-ranging system of checks and balances in place to identify and choose the organizations to which their guests will contribute either money or work.
Unfortunately, there are also travel companies out there looking to capitalize on the trend but unwilling to do their due diligence, and travelers should be warned to avoid them.
One thing that travelers shouldn't expect is for volunteer vacations to be cheap. Some younger or budget-minded travelers might have an idealized notion of volunteering their way through their travels to help cut costs. But in many cases, volunteer vacations cost more than their leisure travel counterparts.
"It's definitely something I struggled with when I was a backpacker years ago," Krantz said. "I found it kind of silly that I should pay more -- or even pay at all -- to be a volunteer."
But the reason that volunteer vacations often have added costs built in, he said, is because "basically, you have to subsidize the salary of a program officer to set it all up. And that's a good thing, because they will do due diligence. Paying somebody to do all that legwork makes sense. I think that's the primary reason why it costs more and it costs at all. As a volunteer, you really want to make sure that you're not a burden."
This last point is perhaps the most poignant in the ongoing and evolving dialogue about philanthropic travel. At the end of the day, whatever the volunteer traveler is contributing, it should ultimately benefit rather than burden the destination's local community or cause.
One way of ensuring that is the case, Krantz advised, is for travelers to really take a better look at their skill set: what one does for a profession or for a hobby that could be taught or that could contribute to a community's needs.
An obvious example is medical professionals doing clinical work abroad. But that kind of quality contribution can translate to almost any field, whether it's language education or technical support.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.