Good Points to Remember from the Voluntourism Conference

Guest post from Kelly Galaski, Planeterra Foundation

Many know “VoluntourismGal,” Alexia Nestora, through her voice online; on Twitter and through her blog where the Voluntourism sector meets. When Alexia suggested a meeting to discuss current voluntourism issues, in person, among industry practitioners, many people jumped at the chance. Not only is voluntourism growing but so are criticisms and questions regarding its effectiveness, success and even its ethicality. It was time to have a chat, so to speak.

So on June 28, 2011, 46 people including operators, NGOs, academics and media gathered together to discuss such issues.

Daniela Papi, of PEPY, also known for her voice in voluntourism, challenging the sector to look deep into the issues, started off the day, and these are some of the things she said:

Invest in People, Not Things

Build Long Term Relationships

Be Willing to Change

Research and Measure Impacts over the Long Term

These are points that stuck with me as the day went forward. They are points to remember, for everyone involved in voluntourism, but they also resonate for practitioners of community-based tourism and any tourism that aims to be a development tool.

I agree with each and hope that all voluntourism providers adopt these as mantras. What I really love is “Invest in People, Not Things.” I think it is a good lens through which all development initatives should be scanned. A new school is only as effective as how well its teachers are trained, and a healthcare facility as good as its staff’s medical knowledge. So where does that leave voluntourism providers? Well, I think that’s where “be willing to change” comes in. Look at the programs you have, and decide whether you believe in them and whether maybe they need to change.

Our intentions are always good, so why not really stay true to those intentions?

Another point made on the day that I think we really need to propagate not only in the voluntourism sector but in all tourism sectors is the concept of economic multipliers stemming from tourism spending in local communities. Kristin Lamoureux, Director of International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University, brought this point to light in her discussion. She is publishing a model to help measure economic impacts of voluntourists. Sometimes emphasis is on raising money for donations or to buy things, rather than to spend that money at local businesses, and the effectiveness of this is contested.

I think Kristin’s model will show us that their impact will be greater, if the tourists really act as tourists, and spend money on services in the local community. I do think it’s the responsibility of all of us aware of this to spread the word and help educate travelers on the potential impact they can have, by promoting the value of making local expenditures while on any trip whether it be volunteering or otherwise.

There was a lot of great discussion and I think we could have easily filled up two days with more questions and answers, but I’m glad we had the chance to at least get one day in.

Thanks Alexia, looking forward to more discussions.

- Kelly Galaski, Planeterra Foundation

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