Is this REALLY What Voluntourism Has Come To?

by Published

Voluntourism trends have taken another bizarre turn. In a new extreme for a field, which the international volunteer community already casts an ambivalent eye on, you can now embark on a cruise while devoting part of that time to lending a helping hand within developing communities. The line where luxury travel ends, and where productive volunteer work begins, has thus been further stretched.

These new “social impact” cruises, which opened this past year under the giant travel company Carnival, enable passengers to embark on week-long volunteer vacations where they pop down from Florida to the Dominican Republic for a few days, put in some manual labor hours helping locals with various projects, then return home a newer, more accomplished world citizen. At least, that’s how the narrative goes.

crystal blue tide rolling onto a white sand beach
There is a difference between volunteering abroad and volunteer vacations.

But, is this really how volunteering abroad is supposed to work? There’s no doubt the motives of most passengers that attend these cruises are genuine; it is likely that most want to get away and have an other-worldly experience, while doing some good work for developing communities.

All that glitters is not gold, however, and these aptly named “social impact” cruises may end up having the reverse kind of impact than is intended. And so begins the great tourism debate and voluntourism criticisms...

The Community Perspective

Some of the most potent complaints lodged against this new trend of voluntourism are that these trips do nothing to help the communities they propose to serve, and oftentimes have a detrimental effect by displacing valuable resources that might be contributed in more effective ways. Imagine, for instance, that rather than spending the hundreds of dollars on a cruise, the passenger donates that money directly to a local NGO or nonprofit which is embedded within the community. Which option would have the greater social impact?

Granted this example is black-and-white, it goes to serve a point; regardless of what the budding voluntourism industry would have customers believe, a continuous cycle of new faces, coming and going for a few days at a time as a short term volunteer, is not the type of development assistance that actually benefits communities in need. There are much, much better ways to contribute to the improvement of material and social conditions in the developing world than to disembark from a cruise ship for a few days.

So, as not to antagonize passengers who do embark on these type of trips, it’s important to stress that the criticism is not of them, but that voluntourism criticism lies in the industry itself. By diluting volunteer work to a fleeting experience that requires no genuine commitment and promoting themselves benevolently as such, ventures are diverting scarce resources away from means that can be used much more efficiently for the communities they intend to serve.

kayaking through a river in the jungles of costa rica
If your focus is on travel and adventure, make that your focus.

What’s more, by combining minimal volunteer work with a not-so-subtle dose of luxury, these cruises only exacerbate societal and economic advantages, which traditional volunteering is supposed to aim to alleviate. Showing up to a developing country on a luxury cruise ship, then proposing to help, while putting money into the pockets of a large corporation, instead of investing directly in those local communities, is a troubling venture for all parties involved.

The Individual Perspective

From the individual volunteer’s perspective, too, classic voluntourism is a negative trend that greatly cheapens the experience of what could otherwise be deeply impactful outreach as a cultural ambassador and facilitator of local development. There was a time when, in order to volunteer abroad, aspirants would have to go through a rigorous vetting process and training, and then spend sometimes years at a time at their post (think of the original Peace Corps, founded way back in 1961). Now, with volunteer vacations, volunteering abroad is as easy as hopping aboard a cruise ship headed for the Caribbean.

Communities in need are not the only beneficiaries of long-term, on-the-ground work by committed volunteers, as opposed to short term volunteer sprees that fit neatly into a vacation itinerary. The individual volunteer also benefits tremendously. Cultural ambassadorship is a two-way street, and in order to learn from their hosts, volunteers should take the time to settle themselves within a community and make the effort to immerse themselves, while teaching in turn from their own knowledge.

There is no opportunity for such deep, meaningful interaction in this recent voluntourism trend. As long as the work is shallow and fleeting, then what can you really have learned? And what can your host community really have gained from your presence while your cruise ship sits docked waiting for you at bay?

The project of global volunteerism takes time, patience, and understanding coming from all sides. Voluntourism does not fit anywhere in that picture.

woman on beach in sun hat and bathing suit cover up
Take a vacation or volunteer abroad, but don’t try and do both.

Better Alternatives

Now that you know the answer to the question: what is voluntourism? What, then, are the alternatives? An attractive aspect of voluntourism for participants is the shorter duration and convenience, enabling them to get away for a few weeks at a time and combine their vacation with the opportunity to do some good. The answer, quite simply, is to pick one or the other: vacation or volunteering. Since voluntourism often harms in more ways than it helps local communities, it’s better to keep the two separate, rather than having one consume the other.

There are tons of opportunities to volunteer for just a few weeks or months at a time, if duration is a limiting factor of your trip. The main difference is that you will be committing yourself to actually volunteering, rather than putting in a few good hours while on vacation. 

Well-established NGOs, nonprofits, and other such local volunteer or grassroots organizations are the best way to make a meaningful impact through your work, and be in turn impacted meaningfully yourself.

Here are just a few of many volunteer organizations that can set you off on the right foot as a volunteer abroad:

  • Volunteering Solutions -  From Costa Rica to Tanzania and medicine to wildlife conservation, Volunteering Solutions offers placements in dozens of different countries and fields. Projects start at just $200, which covers your basic needs while working abroad.
  • International Volunteer HQ - IVHQ also offers hundreds of volunteering options, located all over the world, in all different fields and for all durations. IVHQ takes pride in its affordable and flexible programs, with costs beginning at just $10 per day.
  • Volunteers for Peace - For over three decades, this nonprofit organization has committed to promoting harmonious relations among global citizens from different countries and backgrounds through impactful volunteer work.
beach loungers and umbrellas along the coast
If you want to lounge on the beach and read, do that! (Just that.)

The Final Say in this Tourism Debate

If rightly undertaken, volunteering abroad can be a deeply impactful experience, both for the volunteer and the community they serve. A brief luxury cruise, alas, can provide no such mutually beneficial interaction.

Creating a MyGoAbroad account is a good gateway to exploring hundreds of different volunteer programs that have life-changing potential. You can also pledge your allegiance to the cause with GoAbroad’s Meaningful Travel Manifesto. There are so many ways that we can positively impact the world around us by going abroad and committing to hard, respectful volunteer work: just stay away from cruise ships and don’t fall into any voluntourist traps!

Find high-impact volunteer programs: create a MyGoAbroad profile!