Traditional Tourism vs. Volunteer Tourism

by Published

Learn once and for all which one is the best for you!

Travelling to volunteer for a cause seems like an excellent idea for anyone, right? Who wouldn’t want to experience new cultures, feel useful, and grow as a person. Not to mention, you can also save some cash while travelling, making it even better!

If this sentence summarize your feelings regarding voluntourism, you need to think again.

Truth is, even if we want to do something, we’re not always ready to live up to the expectations that we have created ourselves or to realize the extensions of the impact we can create, for good and bad.

Volunteers enjoying a boat ride in Brazil

Volunteers enjoying a boat ride in Brazil

What is the difference between traditional tourism and volunteer tourism?

Face the points below with an open mind and evaluate if, perhaps, a little more reading and reflecting on the subject might do you some good before packing your bags to volunteer abroad.

1. Why Are You Doing This?

Experience new cultures, feel useful, grow as a person -- these are all things people tend to point out as reasons to volunteer abroad, and I think they are all good arguments. After all, they reflect very well some of the sensations you might love experiencing while travelling abroad with a purpose. But wait a second: shouldn’t the main reason for volunteering abroad be focused on the people you want to help?

I get it, you got confused. It’s easy to maintain the mentality we’ve been cultivating all our lives through traditional tourism, the one entirely based on our personal experience gained through travel. However, if you want to volunteer abroad, you have to change your priorities (though you’ll still get to be a little selfish).

Between the many good reasons to embark on volunteer tourism, there has to be the motivation to truly help another, in whatever way is deemed useful. In fact, this has to be on the top of your list! The other motives for traveling abroad are just bonuses of volunteer tourism.

Are you ready to leave you expectations aside and do things that might not be entertaining at all because they are needed? If the answer is yes, then volunteer tourism may be best for you.

Volunteer working alongside a local carpenter

Volunteer working alongside a local carpenter

2. How Much Planning Do You Want to Do?

In traditional tourism, you simply depart from some random airport or bus station and begin your vacation. Most experienced travelers are adventurous and react to the unexpected with great enthusiasm, and this is about all you need for traditional tourism to work out well for you. But when it comes to volunteer tourism, the beginning of your trip is exactly where you are right now, the planning, researching, and figuring out what you want to (and can) do stage.

Consider this scenario: you start looking for options to volunteer, find an orphanage in Kenya with great reviews, the activity – teaching english – seems captivating, and the prerequisites are basic to intermediate English. Your first thought is, “Any English I have is surely superior to theirs.” You send an inquiry to the organization, apply, get accepted, and then you’re just waiting around for the departure date, right? Wrong! That is NOT how volunteer tourism works.

Volunteer tourism is very serious. It’s not a job, but it’s a lot of work! This means you need to be as well prepared as you can. If you are going to be teaching English abroad, you might consider looking for teaching methods and materials, but you also have to understand the cultural background and be well informed about what to expect in the classroom.

If you just want to hop on a plane and then literally kick back and enjoy the ride, traditional tourism will be MUCH more fitting for you.

[Ask Yourself: Are Ready to Volunteer Abroad?]

3. Do You Have Any Experience?

If you have any experience volunteering in your community, you know it is possible for some disturbing situations to come up. Maybe someone you are trying to help will say or do something shocking to you, or maybe you’ll even encounter something that makes you feel uncomfortable about the way the world works. Now, imagine going through these feelings for the first time in a place where you barely understand the language being spoken around you, where you might not have someone to turn to who can understand what you’re going through. Seems a lot harder, right?

We’re not just talking about “having prior experience volunteering,” because that is not mandatory for most projects and it may or may not be helpful. Volunteering in your hometown could make you more valuable to the social project you choose abroad, by giving you essential knowledge in the focus area, or it could be absolutely irrelevant. So, don’t make volunteering at home a requirement for you to volunteer abroad, consider it as a worthy alternative you should consider instead.

Imagine traveling miles and miles away just to find out you picked the completely wrong project for your skills and experience. This is far different than working at a soup kitchen on a Saturday and realizing you’d rather work with orphaned animals than people dealing with homelessness. Therefore, it is even more important to take time to think a little further about what useful experience you really have and how this will translate abroad before deciding volunteer tourism is best for you.

Agriculture volunteers in Brazil

Agriculture volunteers in Brazil

4. Are You Looking For a Bargain Travel Opportunity?

If you are, it is very likely that your priorities are leaning toward a traditional tourism adventure abroad, possibly on the form of a work exchange. Many people confuse “work exchange” with “volunteer tourism,” but these are entirely different. In work exchanges, the traveler offers labor in exchange for food and accommodation, providing them with a fantastic way to travel on a low budget. However, this is absolutely not volunteering!

According to the United Nations, a volunteer is someone who dedicates part of their time, without any form of compensation, to a diverse range of welfare activities. So think about that opportunity you saw again, does working at the front desk of a hostel seem to fit the description? I hope you see my point now...

The only bargain you get from volunteer tourism is the opportunity to learn from locals and have a life-changing experience in a few short weeks. If you’re looking for a cheap means to travel, look into how to travel on a shoestring budget instead.

5. What Do You Want To Spend Your Time Doing?

Traditionally, people travel to relax, to forget their problems, and to have lots of fun. But, for better or for worse, volunteer tourism is not always like this.

When you become a volunteer abroad, you’ll have to deal with things that might be difficult to handle; the situation you’ll be in may often be precarious, the stories of people you meet may be a little shocking, and at times you’re likely to feel more than a little helpless. But, you’ll also have amazing days when you can see the results of your efforts and feel a sense of accomplishment beyond words. Volunteer tourism can sometimes feel like a roller coaster of emotions, with ups and downs, good days and bad days. This is exactly why people need decide if they are ready to volunteer abroad before they embark, because not everyone is quite ready to for such a journey.

This is where a traditional traveler’s experience varies most greatly with a volunteer tourist. Though you’re going to have fun during either form of tourism, meet new people and get to know amazing places, one form with give you this between hard periods of limited resources and trying situations you may not be quite ready to deal with.

[READ: How to Be a Responsible Voluntourist]

Volunteers enjoying an excursion with locals in Brazil

Volunteers enjoying an excursion with locals in Brazil

Make your choice: Traditional tourism or volunteer tourism?

Ultimately, all you need to do is think long and hard about every component of your trip, the expectations you have, and each question above before making your decision between traditional tourism and volunteer tourism. Consider the arguments for each, and most importantly, only choose volunteer tourism if you feel ready to surrender yourself fully to the experience. And if you do, we promise it will be worth every second.

Find the Best Volunteer Tourism Opportunity for YOU!

This article was contributed by Iris Social, a Brazilian social enterprise committed to change the way in which we travel; a Brazilian social enterprise committed to create unique experiences combining volunteering and community based tourism; a Brazilian social enterprise committed to work hand to hand with the NGOs and local community.