The Importance of Sustainability in Volunteer Tourism

Haiti Volunteer.jpg

Over the past decade, one of the ways that people have expressed their solidarity with communities that have been hit by disasters is to take their vacations in these places. Many of these “responsible” tourists go beyond the standard of normal tourism and integrate volunteerism into their vacations. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do this if you or your company are thinking about this kind of initiative.

“Voluntourism” is becoming a massive industry, with an estimated 1.6 million people volunteering on vacation, spending about $2 billion a year [1]. Many popular destinations for voluntourists have been third world regions suffering from chronic poverty, such as Central America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. Disaster regions have been popular targets for vacationing volunteers as well, with the catastrophes in Nepal, Puerto Rico, and Japan serving as recent examples.

Voluntourists can sometimes do more harm than good. Take for example the case of Nepal. Following a catastrophic earthquake in 2015, thousands of tourists flocked to the tiny mountainous country with the hope of making a difference, offering to rebuild structures and provide medical aid to suffering Nepalese. Instead, foreign volunteers obstructed the work of skilled search-and-rescue officers and hindered the capacity for local inhabitants to carry out their own construction work.

The issue of drawing work away from local inhabitants has been a persistent problem across the world of voluntourism. For instance, a school built by volunteers in Haiti might deprive native construction workers of work that not only aids reconstruction, but provides for an impoverished family. Furthermore, research has shown that many volunteers who undertake such projects are untrained, meaning that completed projects are not completed to the same standard as they would be if carried out by local professionals [2]. 

Elsewhere, well-intentioned volunteers have led to the creation of sinister business enterprises that capitalize on first-world donations. In Cambodia, for example, a lucrative orphanage industry has sprung up, propped up by the contributions of western visitors . Many of these children are forcibly separated from their families or sold into captivity due to extreme poverty. Conditions in these orphanages are horrific, with incidents of starvation and sexual assault being all too common.

On the plus side, voluntourism can help rebuild and transform suffering communities.

In fact, studies have shown that mere conversation between tourists and locals can go a long way in the long-term recovery of areas affected by disasters. A survey of a number of Japanese individuals involved with tourism in the years immediately following the 2011 earthquakes found that the opportunity for affected Japanese workers to speak with visitors who express empathy for their hardship, and who show a genuine interest in better understanding Japanese culture, had a tremendously positive psychological effect in the wake of the disaster [3].

On another level, voluntourism is an effective tool for generating interest in otherwise overlooked issues. In a world with a short attention span, natural disasters are forgotten in mere weeks and more systemic problems are overlooked altogether. By exposing foreigners to the reality of ongoing issues across the globe, voluntourist efforts help raise awareness and educate individuals in wealthy communities, thereby catalyzing conversations about these issues. In doing so they may generate employee, corporate and donor interest for problems that might otherwise fly under the radar.

Beyond the basic benefits voluntourism can have on communities, volunteer organizations across the world are becoming increasingly intentional in the ways in which their work supports community development.

One of the more well-known examples of this strain of sustainable volunteerism is the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). “WWOOFers” get the opportunity to travel abroad and receive free lodging from local farmers in return for a certain amount of manual farm labor. This approach to foreign volunteer work is beneficial in that it not only provides volunteers with new skills and opportunities, but aids local, environmentally-friendly farmers in boosting production and raising awareness about their work.

Other ecotourism companies are more locally based and maintain a variety of projects in their immediate area. For instance, the Puerto Rican organization Para la Naturaleza directly involves visitors in conservation and recovery efforts while ensuring sustainability and community growth remain the core focus . Through the various programs PLN offers, tourists can reintroduce the Puerto Rican Crested Toad into the environment, conduct research into the effect of pollution and disasters on the island’s terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, and work to ensure Puerto Rico’s public schools are built with sustainability in mind. All of the proceeds generated by these initiatives go directly towards continuing the work conducted by the company.

These tips may help in making informed decisions about voluntourism:

  • Focus on long-term development. The difference between these helpful organizations and harmful companies is the focus of their work. If the emotional experience of visitors is the main focus of a company’s operations, they will likely draw important resources away from locals and stimulate harmful interactions between locals and foreigners. If long-term development is the focus, however, locals come away with a sense of belonging, and hopefully gain skills or resources which otherwise might not be available to them. Consider carefully how your work will contribute to a community after you leave. Is a given area equipped to maintain or build upon the work you’ve contributed, or does the community lack the infrastructure and manpower to make use of your work?
  • Allow time to pass before you schedule a trip. If you’re visiting a region recently affected by disasters just to visit, make sure that enough time has passed since the event, so that your presence does not slow down recovery efforts. If you’re traveling there to volunteer, check to see the kind of work your organization does (tools like Charity Navigator can be especially helpful for this!) During this step of research, check that your organization of choice focuses their work on the long-term development of a given region, rather than tourist-generated profit.
  • Evaluate your motives and capabilities honestly. Reflect on your own motivations for traveling to a sensitive area, and what sort of value you might offer when you arrive. Are you visiting a disaster zone because you truly want to see the affected region develop, or because you want to start a pity party on Facebook? Do you have any special skills that could genuinely assist suffering communities, or will you merely be hindering the work of people already on the ground?

In an increasingly global and volunteer-driven world, these considerations are essential in ensuring the long term growth of communities and in minimizing the effects of tourists on a given environment. This is done in the hope that tourism can be a tremendous force for good, rather than a well-intentioned burden on suffering communities.



1. Carrie Kahn. "As 'Voluntourism' Explodes in Popularity, Who's Helping it Most?," NPR, last modified July 31, 2014,

2.  Smith, Megan. "The Cost of Volunteering: Consequences of Voluntourism," University of Pennsylvania ScholarlyCommons, Spring 2015,

3. Noriyoku Nagai. "The Role of Tourism in Post-Disaster Period of Great East Japan Earthquake," International Institute of Social Studies, December 2012,  file:///Users/draysellers/Downloads/Noriyuki%20Nagai_RP%20final%20Noriyuki%20NAGAI_1579%20(2).pdf




David Sellers