How to Ensure You Are Being a Responsible Voluntourist

by Rachel Northover

Voluntourists have huge potential to improve and develop the lives and lands of destination communities worldwide, while also enriching their own lives. But, voluntourism must be done responsibly to become a real form of sustainable tourism.

Responsible voluntourism can have many benefits; it can facilitate an exchange of skills between travelers and communities, and it can aid the less fortunate in society to access education, healthcare, and other basic necessities. The subject of responsible tourism has not been introduced as a barrier to deter people from traveling; quite the opposite. It is a helpful consideration for people to have in mind when they are deciding on their next adventure abroad.

Voluntourism, as a form of responsible tourism, demonstrates the true opportunity for tourism to deliver social, economic, and environmental improvement.
Working in partnership

Responsible Tourism Basics

Let’s get back to basics, before we delve into the sometimes controversial world of voluntourism.

Responsible tourism is really quite simple;  it is largely about common sense. Being a responsible tourist is about respecting others and the communities that you are visiting. Anyone can travel responsibly if they follow simple guidelines of sustainable tourism and have an awareness of the people around them.

Responsible tourism is particularly important where volunteer travel is concerned, because there is likely to be an influx of tourists to an area at particular times of the year, which can have a detrimental effect on the area, should responsible tourism not be considered and practised. For example, if a group of voluntourists were to descend on an area, filling jobs that would have been filled by locals, this would not be considered a positive impact of voluntourism by the host community and would not be well received. Whereas, if the volunteers are acting in a support capacity to skilled local workers, this will expedite work and be beneficial for the community.

Voluntourism, when done right, is surely the best form of tourism. It is naturally a form of responsible tourism, because travelers are going with the intention to give more than they gain in order to benefit their host community. The key point here is to ensure that you are approaching the experience in the right way so you can have the intended positive impact. 

Volunteers with children in Africa
Voluntourism has two-way benefits: those for the host community and those for the volunteer.

How to Ensure You Are Being a Responsible Voluntourist

1. Choose to travel with a company that really believes and promotes sustainable tourism. Such a company is likely to: have an implemented sustainable tourism policy, show due consideration for their host communities, be able to demonstrate positive effects to the local area from their work, have a good knowledge of the local area and the support needed, and have good relations with community figures and work in partnership with them to benefit the local community. You should be able to see from a voluntourism organization’s website that they really care about their host communities, not just about providing tourists with volunteer-like experiences.

2. Educate yourself! Prepare to be a voluntourist by researching and understanding the area that you are visiting. In doing so, you will know what the local cultural practices are and understand how you can be respectful of these. If you are traveling through a voluntourism organization, they should be able to provide you with guidance and advice about how to prepare for the journey ahead and what considerations you should have in mind. Setting expectations is very important here; it will ensure that you have the experience you desire and allow you to be a good voluntourist!

Teaching volunteer
Teaching voluntourists can make a real impact on student learning.

3. Consider simple ways that you can protect the area that you are visiting and support the people in your host community. Take a plastic bag around with you to collect litter whilst you are traveling, conserve water by taking shorter showers, dress respectably by observing the local dress codes and respecting them, support the local economy by buying locally made souvenirs and purchasing from local tradespeople, ask before taking photographs of people, and learn about and respect the culture(s) in your host community. Cultural practices are likely to be very different; embrace these and enjoy the change!

4. Get to know the people who live in the community where you are volunteering. You are being welcomed into their community and it is essential that you respect and appreciate this. Consider what the work you are doing means to them and what impact it may have on their lives. Talk to people and find out about their lives and experiences. Voluntourism provides a perfect opportunity to form new relationships, make new connections, and have whole new experiences, so make the most of it! 

5. Consider the long-term impact of your volunteering and take steps to make it count beyond your volunteer trip. How have you contributed to long-term development? Is there anything more that you can do once you return home to help even more? How is your volunteering a form of sustainable tourism? Hopefully your volunteering experience will make you more globally aware and instill in you a desire to continue helping others and supporting good causes. Don’t let the end of your trip be the end of your volunteering contribution!

Construction volunteers building a wall
Voluntourism can support communities in valuable ways.

At the end of the day, we all want to make honest choices and ensure positive impacts on others, and responsible tourism guidelines can help people do this. The reality is that we can all be responsible voluntourists, if we take the right steps. The steps above should provide some guidance to future voluntourists when they are selecting which voluntourism organization they would like to travel with and what kind of trip they would like to take.

Wherever you go, as long as you support local people, and respect their cultures and lands, you are being a responsible tourist. Remember that responsible tourism is largely about common sense, so make sure you ask the right questions. Choose a voluntourism organization that cares about sustainable tourism and “doing” tourism correctly, and you’ll already be halfway there!