Whether a beach cleaning campaign lasting several days following a diving holiday in the Caribbean, a four-week relief mission to an animal clinic in South Africa or afternoon childcare in a street children’s project as a part of a language trip – the combination of volunteer work and tourism, the so-called voluntourism, is booming.
Every year, more than 20,000 Germans travel to a developing or emerging country to volunteer. Approximately 8,000 for a one-year stay and an estimated 15,000 for short-term assignments offered by tour operators. The term “voluntourism” is composed of the words “volunteering” for a temporary, mostly unpaid voluntary service and “tourism” and thus describes a voluntary work assignment during a journey. Since there are overlaps between development policy goals and experience-oriented leisure activities, this type of travel is often controversially discussed and viewed critically.
The trend towards voluntary tourism has increased considerably in recent years. The economic players are tour operators who are developing appropriate offers for this purpose. Due to the increasing interest in volunteering, TourCert has addressed this current issue and developed a product check within the certification for tour operators to evaluate this particular segment.
In collaboration with Tourism Watch/Brot für die Welt and together with selected experts from the TourCert Certification Council, a team was formed to meet the demand from tour operators for an evaluation of this travel concept. With the help of criteria and checks, TourCert can now examine interested tour operators and award certification to responsible operators.
Project types & fields of activity
There are many opportunities for volunteers, but there are different degrees of concern. For example, a cleaning operation on the beach, which takes a few days, is certainly very useful. However, as soon as the volunteer work involves people or animals, it should be considered carefully.
Working with socially disadvantaged groups, such as people with physical disabilities, refugees or unemployed, can be harmless if the conditions are set right. This includes that the host organisation has trained specialist staff under whose instruction the volunteers provide support.
However, social services often include highly controversial projects, such as helping in an orphanage or supporting people with mental disorders. They should not be looked after by volunteers, but trained staff.
Another typical field of action is animal and nature conservation. So-called farm stays, help with turtle rescue or environmentally friendly recycling projects are popular. Care must also be taken with animals and wild animals that are kept in a rescue station, for example. Humans should not interfere too much in the natural habitat and keep the distance to the animals. Caution should also be exercised when looking after animals that may show abnormal behaviour.
In general, it should always be noted that the free activities of volunteers do not compete with paid local jobs and thus jobs are destroyed. All in all, well organised and well thought-out volunteer tourism can be valuable and helpful and can even create local jobs, e.g. for the qualified care of volunteers or for travel guides who develop weekend offers for volunteers. It is important that the commitment of volunteers does not have a negative impact on the target region and the people who are involved.
Quality requirements & on-site support
One of the most important questions in the assessment of voluntourism offers already arises during product development: Is the offer oriented to the actual local demand? When volunteers teach their own level of knowledge in schools for a few weeks, it is questionable whether the children actually benefit from it. In addition, important jobs are filled that would otherwise would bring a source of income to local teachers.
Therefore, a well-founded analysis and a concept for long-term added value are particularly important. What are the objectives of the offering organisation in the local environment and how do concrete volunteering measures contribute to this?
Responsible stays are most likely to be arranged through the longest possible stay and contact with the locals and their culture. According to a study by Tourism Watch, the majority of offers can be booked already for a period of two weeks or longer. We recommend providers to offer stays as long as possible, during which visitors can get used to the new enviromnet and become active. Guidelines and quality requirements help to ensure that the volunteer placement provides meaningful support fot the local community.
It should also be checked whether trained permanent employees can act as the main responsible persons in the projects and guide the volunteers.
In order to avoid negative effects, the suitability of the travellers and the qualifications of the tutors must be checked. This can prevent unskilled helpers from working with traumatised children and adolescents and from reinforcing their fears of trust or their difficulties in bonding through a short-term stay. TourCert has consciously decided to exclude the so-called “orphanage tourism” and does not certify tour operators with offers of volunteer work in orphanages. In many countries, these facilities are associated with child trafficking and labour exploitation and a high risk of sexual exploitation.
TourCert attaches great importance to preparing travellers for encounters with sensitive population groups on the basis of information and recommendations for action. The application should be accompanied by documents proving the volunteer’s suitability. Extensive preparation, e.g. in the form of information material, webinars or appropriate courses, is absolutely essential.
The protection of children should be an integral part of all offers in voluntary tourism and should be described in clear guidelines. Regulations for the protection of animals, the environment and biodiversity should also exist and be agreed (contractually) with the partners.
Arrival & Accommodation
The target regions are often distant countries and there is an incentive for volunteers to attach a trip. In the area of transport and mobility, providers should recommend environmentally friendly travel options and the compensation of air travel in order to meet ecological requirements, too.
We expect providers to seek long-term local partnerships that are carefully selected. This also applies to host family or hostel accommodation provided to volunteers.
In the TourCert survey, marketing is also scrutinized. This has to be free of clichéd dependence relations of the global south. It is important for the suppliers to convince less with poverty-oriented picture material, but with clear communication to the arising activities. It should also be clear which organisations benefit from the work done and whether the travel price is used to promote the destination.
Transparent communication to people interested also encourages them to reflect on their own travel behaviour.
Above all, it is important to obtain feedback and discuss the commitment together. By following up the trip with questionnaires, telephone calls or personal interviews, the organiser can ensure that volunteers are well looked after on site. The responsible local organisation should also provide regular feedback on the development of the project. Transparent reporting also offers an authentic orientation aid to other interested parties. For this purpose, experience reports can, for example, be posted on a blog.
The offers are intended to stimulate the volunteers’ interest in development policy. Many volunteers also get involved in the host country or the topic of their stay after their return.
You are a provider in voluntourism and would like to set an example as a sustainable tour operator? Do you meet all these requirements or do you need support in implementing fair programmes? Feel free to ask us to advise you and to get a certification. We would be happy to work with you on a more transparent travel industry that benefits everyone.