Global Tourism Controversies

November 9, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 40
Are destinations at risk from too many visitors? By Barbara Mantel


Is volunteer tourism a good way to help the poor?


Konstantinos Tomazos
Associate Business School Dean, Senior Lecturer in International Tourism Management, University of Strathclyde, U.K.. Written for CQ Researcher, November 2018

Volunteer tourism is a meaningful form of travel whose purpose is to contribute to a cause or alleviate a need.

It is not purely tourism, given its underlying mission, and it is not purely international aid or volunteering, given that you cannot separate the volunteer from the tourist. In its current state, volunteer tourism may not be the best way to help the poor. Nevertheless, it is an excellent way to make a difference in the lives of some poor people.

Volunteer tourism has become, to no small extent, a victim of its own success. When you offer entrepreneurs the opportunity to make simultaneous demands on people's time, effort and money, and when minimal barriers of entry into the market exist, the inevitable result is a vast network of projects, stakeholders and beneficiaries who are all pursuing their own interests. The volunteers pay for their flights, their placement, their food, their insurance, their entertainment — everything really — and all the entrepreneur/project broker or nongovernmental organization (NGO) has to supply are the placements. This signals an opportunity to many and leads to proliferation and ambiguity.

While the intentions are good, volunteer tourism falls into the same traps as international aid. This trap fosters relationships and patronage that limit the benefits of volunteer tourism to the same recipients, similar to an automated garden sprinkler that waters at a set time and place.

However, it would be disastrous to dismiss volunteer tourism as harmful to the poor. In most parts of the world where volunteer tourists operate, there is a clear need for help in a variety of areas and projects. The truth is, there will never be a magic bullet that will solve all problems with one stroke. No one contribution could take children out of orphanages, bring water to villages or provide relief to areas hit by catastrophes, and the volunteers themselves are fully conscious of this fact. Volunteers are probably getting more out of the experience than what they are putting in.

But we can find solace and hope in knowing that others will follow who can build on what their predecessors have left behind. It is this cycle that gives meaning and purpose to the volunteer tourism phenomenon. In the long run, and as locals seize the increased economic opportunities, volunteer tourism will meet its potential.


Elisa Burrai
Senior Lecturer, School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management, Leeds Beckett University, U.K.. Written for CQ Researcher, November 2018

Numerous studies and industry debates have focused on the potential of volunteer tourism to alleviate poverty, particularly in the global south.

Volunteer tourism is often regarded as an alternative, responsible form of tourism. It developed in response to significant social, environmental and economic challenges experienced by our modern societies. Volunteer tourists usually travel from “developed” to “developing” countries with the purpose of helping those in need. So, “need,” “help” and “development” are central to volunteer tourism discourses and often are used to justify the roles and practices of those involved.

The way that volunteer tourists, sending organizations, local stakeholders and beneficiaries interpret and engage with the concept of poverty is complex. Yet, the ability of volunteer tourism to alleviate poverty is controversial. There are three main reasons for this.

First, need in volunteer tourism is communicated as poverty and is powerfully marketed to attract volunteers. Western representations romanticize poverty in order to meet the expectations of volunteer tourists. Poverty, in other words, becomes a commodity — an object to be experienced and consumed by tourists.

Current debates on the commercialization of poverty highlight the voyeuristic and exploitative nature of volunteer tourism, whose supporters insist it can help the poor across the globe.

Second, poverty is constructed and marketed following an oversimplified Western view of what poverty is. Under such a construct, volunteer tourists can help alleviate poverty. Yet, these tourists often are young, unskilled and have not experienced poverty or participated in development projects before.

Third, volunteer tourism fosters dependency on charity. Destinations and communities that receive volunteer tourists become financially reliant on foreign help. So, volunteer tourism reinforces dependence on foreign “expert” knowledge instead of helping communities learn how to break out of the poverty cycle.

Volunteer tourism, in short, is a contested form of traveling. Although it often has been flagged as a way out of poverty, particularly in the global south, its aspirations are, in some cases, unachievable.

This is because volunteer tourism emphasizes stereotyped views of poverty. It enables inexperienced volunteers to work in development, and it enhances financial dependency on foreign charitable help. A reformed, more critical engagement with the concepts of poverty and development can make volunteer tourism and its practices more meaningful.

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Document APA Citation
Mantel, B. (2018, November 9). Global tourism controversies. CQ researcher, 28, 945-968. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2018110906
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ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Tourism and Vacation
Nov. 09, 2018  Global Tourism Controversies
Oct. 20, 2006  Ecotourism
Jun. 17, 1988  America's ‘Vacation Gap’
May 04, 1984  Tourism's Economic Impact
Jul. 21, 1978  Tourism Boom
May 14, 1969  Summer Camps and Student Travel
May 18, 1966  Tourist Dollar Gap
Apr. 19, 1961  Two-Way Tourism
Jul. 20, 1955  Competition for Passenger Travel
Jul. 03, 1946  Travel Boom
Jun. 17, 1930  Foreign and Domestic Tourist Traffic
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