Defending Voluntourism: Where Critics Get It Wrong (& Right)

Voluntourism: Working with elephants in Thailand

According to a recent story by NPR, volunteer tourism (a.k.a. voluntourism) currently ranks among the travel industry’s fastest growing trends.

Rather than taking traditional sun-and-sand vacations, an average of more than 1.6 million people are spending about $2 billion annually on voluntourism. Instead of hanging out on a cruise ship or sunning themselves on some gorgeous tropical beach, volunteer travelers work with local partners in developing countries on programs that address basic needs such as education, health and sanitation.

But as the popularity of voluntourism continues to grow, the industry has attracted more than its fair share of critics and skeptics. They question whether volunteer vacations do more to benefit the travelers themselves (who are often young adults looking to add such experiences to their resumes and college applications) than they do to help local communities.

You only have to look at the titles of most mass media stories on voluntourism to understand their concerns. NPR questions As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes In Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most? The Guardian warns readers to Beware the Voluntourists Intent on Doing Good. As always, Huffington Post provokes with its piece on The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism. There’s even an Instagram feed called “White Savior Barbie” that pokes fun at voluntourism-related issues.

Each of these articles offers many valid points about the issues associated with voluntourism. But few of them dig deep enough to address the differences a responsibly-managed volunteer vacation program can make in terms of creating deeper cross-cultural connections. Here, we’ll take a look at the history of volunteering abroad and address some of the core criticisms…

John F Kennedy greeting Peace Corps volunteers, 1961

The History of Voluntourism

The idea of volunteering abroad dates back over a century. In 1909 the British Red Cross set up the Voluntary Aid Detachment (or VAD). These volunteers joined those from other national Red Cross organizations in Europe and the Middle East to treat soldiers and civilians who were injured during World War I battles. 

By the mid-20th century this concept had gone global with the rise of international volunteering organizations such as Australian Volunteers International, the US-based International Voluntary Services, and the UK’s Voluntary Services Overseas.
Volunteering abroad soared in popularity when John F. Kennedy’s administration established the Peace Corps in 1961. The organization’s core mission was to promote world peace by helping people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; helping to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and helping to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
The popularity of the Peace Corps and similar volunteer organizations, such as the UN Volunteers program, ultimately led to an increase in charities and tour operators connecting volunteers with non-governmental organisations in developing countries.

Defending Voluntourism

The Problems With Voluntourism

The subsequent surge of interest in voluntourism has brought with it controversy. As with any industry that proves profitable, the rise in travelers interested in volunteer vacations has brought with it plenty of irresponsible, unscrupulous businesses looking to cash in on the trend.

Here are just a few of the common criticisms of voluntourism:

The Costs: Between airfare, transportation, lodging, insurance, and tour operator expenses, volunteer vacations aren’t cheap. Critics suggest that if travelers donated these funds, local organizations could use them to hire locals or provide better services.

Lack of Volunteer Skills: Critics have suggested that many international volunteers lack an understanding of the local context, and may not have the correct skill-sets to achieve project goals.

Outcomes of Volunteer Experiences: Other than making travelers feel as if they’ve made a difference in the lives of those less fortunate, what real changes can short-term voluntourism genuinely have on a community? Measuring the tangible benefits is often difficult.

Volunteer Integration: Because volunteers are often more highly educated, there is some concern that they could dominate the workplace, undermining the local management staff or imposing their personal values on the organizations they work with.  


Voluntourism in Costa Rica

In Defense of Voluntourism

 Stories in mass media outlets critiquing voluntourism have become increasingly common.

Writer Jacob Kushner’s recent piece in The New York TimesThe Voluntourist’s Dilemma, rightly took aim at “orphan tourism” and volunteer construction projects in Haiti that took jobs away from seriously impoverished locals.

But Kushner took things further, criticizing those who seek to have a positive impact on the developing nations to which they travel. “Unsatisfying as it may be,” he wrote, “we ought to acknowledge the truth that we, as amateurs, often don’t have much to offer. Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills.”

Kushner’s story inspired Discover Corps founder Andrew Motiwalla to write his own rebuttal to the New York Times, which we’ve reprinted below:

Andrew Motiwalla, founder of Discover Corps


Dear New York Times Editor:

As the founder of a voluntourism organization, I completely disagree with the notion that travelers must dedicate themselves to a career in international relations before they can volunteer overseas.

The author has based their entire argument on the false premises that international volunteers take local jobs, have little to offer because they lack technical skills, and are unsustainable once the voluntourists leave.

This is the type of argument that someone who has studied international affairs would make, but they clearly do not have a true understanding of voluntourism.

My organization, Discover Corps, sees volunteer travel as a way of allowing travelers to understand social issues first-hand by traveling to a country and being in solidarity with local NGOs. In fact, we believe this deeper understanding is essential to building a base of support for foreign aid in the United States of America.

We vet grassroots organizations based on the sustainability of their work, their impact in the community, and their capacity to utilize unskilled foreign volunteers. By selecting these types of NGO partners, our volunteers are able to lend a hand (albeit in a small way), learn first-hand about the work of the organization, offer international solidarity, and become an advocate for that organization once they return home.  

When I visit our community partners in the field, I often have the Directors of those organizations tell me that their staff appreciate the fact that our travelers have paid money and used their vacation time to spend the week with them. They claim that sometimes they feel like people in their own country don’t recognize the difficult work they do. So having a group of foreigners come to lend a hand makes them feel like celebrities and feels empowering and re-energizing.

I would not consider global solidarity and a willingness to help with unskilled tasks as worthless.

Andrew Motiwalla
Founder & Director
Discover Corps


There’s no question that voluntourism– like every form of tourism– can have a positive or negative impact, depending on how it’s managed. But we here at Discover Corps believe that true cultural understanding begins when people from different parts of the world work together towards common goals. We also believe that responsible volunteer vacations can be part of the process of positive change for people on both sides of the equation. –Bret Love


Discover Corps Volunteer Vacations Footer


BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Rolling Stone to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.

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