Volunteer Travel – why the discussion might be too late

When I was 17 years old I spent 2 months in Thailand with a faith-based “mission” organization. This undoubtedly transformed my worldview, gave me an un-scratchable travel bug and put me on the path where I am today. However, I left that summer feeling so strange about how we interacted with the community… We dug holes, built bricks and tried to tell them that their Buddhist religion – what they had grown up with being taught as good and true – was in fact, all a lie. Even at 17, barely knowing who I was as an independent human…I knew that something was wrong. How would I feel if the situation was reversed? If Thai people came to the USA; built a dock in my backyard, ate with my family and then told me I had been living a lie?

These big questions I asked of myself have led to an exploration of one of my biggest passions in life. Sustainable Tourism. For years, I have had fabulous discussions with academics, professionals, and co-travelers about immersive volunteer opportunities that have transformed their lives for the better – but made them also feel a little funny on the inside.

Like, maybe…we all didn’t really accomplish anything for the community we traveled to serve?

The Voluntourists Dilemma” by Go Overseas should be read and discussed by anyone and everyone who has looked at volunteering abroad during their travels. 

This is BY FAR the best series of articles I’ve ever read about the potential pitfalls of the 2 billion dollar “voluntourism” industry. $2 BILLION DOLLARS is the USA alone. In comparison this number is relatively small as the USA doesn’t have a “gap year” culture or norm of youth solo travel. This industry is MASSIVE and can no longer be ignored.

I sincerely hope this article by Go Overseas is the start of a much bigger discussion from the general public about how we interact with the world. In the USA, we demand students have volunteer experience on their resume in order to get into a good Univeristy. However, we don’t mind at all that they pay for this experience. Or that they take paid jobs away from local communities in order to get these “credit hours.”

Maybe we should stop and think, ask questions and see who is actually benefitting from volunteers. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts below…


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