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Volunteer tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry that is increasingly run by for-profit organisations sending millions of volunteers to poor communities around the world. The industry is rarely researched and empirical data is scarce, so what are we missing? We speak with Stephen Wearing about how the industry is changing, how it could be regulated and how the media plays a role in popular perceptions of volunteer tourists.



Stephen Wearing is a conjoint professor at the University of Newcastle whose research focuses on sustainable tourism and the importance of community based approaches in the tourism and volunteering sector. For 22 years he ran VOICE Volunteers in Community Engagement (previously known as Youth Challenge Australia), a not-for-profit organisation sending volunteers on grassroots, community-identified development projects since 1992.

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We might need to redefine what volunteer tourism is and exclude a whole lot of what's happening where it isn't really ethically sound.

It's incredibly impactful on young people. It broadens their mind in terms of the world around them. It opens up space for them to understand what's happening in their neighbourhood.

We do need better research frameworks and we do need to think about that impact on venture capital. Their focus on return to the shareholder, asset strip, cut away what we do to make money.

Is there an inherent conflict bringing profit into volunteering?

We've commercialised poverty. It's just astounding when you think that we can commodify disadvantage.

There's no justification for short term contact with orphans for volunteer tourists.

Do I believe that a week's work in a community is life changing? It is for the people that do it, but it doesn't have a significant impact on those communities.

You're listening to Conversations in Development, a podcast about foreign aid, development, and social change. I'm Olivia Rosenman and I'm here with Peter Mason, my co-host and the CEO of the international development agency, Cufa. Hi, Peter.

Hello, Olivia.

In this episode, we're talking about volunteer tourism with Stephen Wearing from the University of Newcastle's School of Business.

Hi, Olivia.

Stephen's research focuses on the importance of community-based approaches in the tourism sector and he's here with us today to talk about how the volunteer tourism industry operates around the world, how well it is regulated, and where some people are calling to close it down. Stephen, I thank you so much for joining us on Conversations in Development.

Now, to start, could you define volunteer tourism and tell us a bit about the different forms it can take?

Yeah, sure. What I was going to was start with a formal definition, which is more an academic definition and then work around that. This original definition is actually from a book I wrote on volunteer tourism and it's where you’re volunteering in an organised way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding, or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society and/or environment.

The reason that's so formal is that it has become diffused a lot. I think the popular term now is voluntourism, and I do see a difference. Essentially, that difference for me is that volunteer tourism is probably where your entire trip revolves around that volunteering. You pre-prepare, you go, and you come back whereas voluntourism is where you might include it in a part of a trip so that you go and you might volunteer for two days or a week of a three month holiday.

There's where I make a distinction in those two. It's probably evolving to a degree. I think that with the movement towards more commercial organisations, I think the nature of that type of tourism is changing and we need to be more refined about the way we define it and look at it.

Peter, I understand that Cufa does some work in the volunteer tourism sphere. Can you tell us a bit about what Cufa does?

Our organisation looks at taking young people overseas to do a range of different things. The Kokoda Trail ... We've taken people on the Kokoda Trail. We've also taken people to Fiji and kayaked around the islands, but then after they do that, they actually go out to some of the more remote areas and work in those communities. Because we're an economic development agency, we get them to use their skills where they work in those communities.

For example, we've set up a whole lot of community banks and so we would get people that work in the mutual sector here, to actually work in those community banks with those community members, and to up skill them. It is only a two week program so they only really get a week of hands-on activity.

Stephen mentioned the increasing commercialisation of the industry. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, as a CEO of an NGO, we have to commercialise it because that's where we generate our income. Well, some of our income at least. Do I believe that a week's work in a community is life changing? It is for the people that do it, but it doesn't have a significant impact on those actual community banks or those communities.

Do you think that there's an important difference between sending people who are unskilled and people who are skilled in the impact that, that has?

I think you've got to work out what is the rationale for doing it. For us, it's about generating not only a source of income for our projects, but it's also to engage people with the projects that we're doing, to wrest them onto who we are, and to understand what we're doing. There are a group of people that look at it to just ... Something they can put on their resume, something that pads out their resume that looks good or makes them feel good, but is that a lasting impact for the communities? Not necessarily.

I mean, that's one of the key questions, isn't it? In terms of what skills does a volunteer tourist have to offer in those communities and I think that as that movement's gone into that more commercial environment, I think you're finding that the skills or the lack of skills that a lot of volunteer tourists have is very apparent.

Earlier on, when it was just NGO-based, a lot of this involved just digging trenches for six to seven hours a day and working in environments where you're pretty well physical labour. You don't really need a skill and there's a certain level of skills that you can offer. I think that's where that question is, do you take qualified teachers into those environments to teach English? Or do you take non-qualified teachers as volunteers to do that? I see that subtle change in that movement to commercial organisations where originally ... If you go back to some of the original NGOs ... English teaching is quite a popular one. They would pay a qualified teacher to go and the volunteer tourists would go with that qualified teacher into a school, and all they would be doing is sitting through those lessons. Then, at the end of that lesson, they would be helping on one-on-one basis with the students so they're not actually teaching English. What they're doing is a Teacher's Aide where they're helping.

That skill level, they do have, but what you've seen is as these agencies have moved from NGO-based to commercial-base, they've taken the qualified teacher away. That's a way of making a profit, basically. Without that qualified teacher there, then the volunteer tourist is teaching English. I think that's a really subtle difference, but it's a big change in the ongoing program.

I think what you're talking about there is real skills transfer, which you don't necessarily get with the types of programs which are a couple of weeks or even a month. You're still not going to get those real skills transfers, which is where the value lies for people working with vulnerable communities.

Let's talk a little bit about the data around this industry. It's a big industry. A 2011 study found that it was worth 2.6 billion. I wonder if either of you have any sense of how much that figure might have changed in the past years since then.

Rubbery figures is really what you're talking about. 2008 was the most comprehensive study done by a UK-based research organisation. They estimated about 1.6 million volunteer tourists internationally and they estimated about 1.3 billion annual turnover. Now, there's been figures tossed around between about 1.3 and about 2.6, seems to be generally wavering around 2 billion a year, but there's no comprehensive studies. The problem is, again, with anything in tourism it's not taken seriously by United Nations or World Bank. They don't see it as an enterprise that they're interested in so the problem is they're not funding any of those really comprehensive, say, "Let's have a look at this as an industry and where it sits."

Is there any sense that as the industry does become more commercial, that those companies are withholding some of that data as well? Is there a sense that they don't want to be transparent?

I mean, we're an NGO so I don't know where that would get captured within our reporting whether it's to DFAT or whether it's in our annual report. It doesn't get captured so I suspect it's well and truly under-reported. I guess additionally, I'd wonder about faith-based missions and whether any of that gets captured as volunteer tourism. I suspect not, but yet there are skills transfer occurring through those processes and there are a lot of volunteers within that sector alone so I doubt that's getting collected.

Yeah, so it is interesting. I think, at a philosophical level, I mean the starting point for most of volunteer tourism was probably in small NGOs. Where it's moved to now is probably the majority of volunteer tourism is through commercial travel agents like student travel and things like that. The shift in the focus there has been ... These NGOs already had on-ground programs within communities and they've been operating long term. This was seen as supplementary labour.

Ah, it could be at some skills level, but to help those programs where it is now is ... It's in that supply chain now. It's about marketing, the higher turnover and the projects become the end point, not the beginning point so they're trying to save money with us because that's where the profits made. The profit is really important. To be competitive, they might have to do that. I mean, acknowledging that they're in a market now that is competitive so they have to find ways of making a better profit, to have investors to satisfy shareholders and things like that.

They've cut their programs back. That's what I'm talking about when you take the English teacher out because that's the paid position and put the volunteer into that position. So there's issues around that. The evaluation of that is non-existent in a lot of cases now because that costs money where as NGOs, because they're evaluating for other people like DFAT and things like that, they have to do that whereas now there's no responsibility to do that.

Is there an inherent conflict there in the idea of bringing profit into volunteering?

Yeah, it's interesting you say that because as Stephen was talking, I was thinking, "Gee, we've commercialised poverty." I mean it's just astounding when you think that we can commodify disadvantage. I mean it's the extreme of economic liberalism. I'm just not sure where you can go with that.

Yeah. For me, it is a problem. I mean, it's the commercial industry. It's competitive. They have to find projects that are cheap to do. What you're finding is a lot of the construction projects and things like that are going, you're finding teaching English because there's already the infrastructure there to do it, and you're finding a lot of that orphanage tourism. It's cheap. It's cheap to do it because you put someone in at a very low cost and so there's a better profit in it and that's outsourced by a lot of the commercial agencies now. On-ground projects are becoming where they're saving money so they're not doing a good job. That's the problem with that commercialisation is you have to make a profit to be competitive. I think there is a problem.

I would like to see it move back towards NGOs. I think they do a better job of it. Sure, they have values. It's no doubt and Peter can probably tell you a little bit about that, but I think that overall philosophical intention is not profit-based. Once it becomes that, I think there are problems that arise.

It's interesting you mention that because I think the other issue is that volunteer tourism also displaces paid workers on the ground. It's not just how much people are being paid, it's actually you're displacing complete workforces through this volunteer tourism.

Stephen: Yeah. Again, the nuances that are really important ... The NGOs used to do a really good job of evaluating that because now they've got long term projects in communities and they can look at that.

Youth Challenges Australia was an NGO I help run for 22 years. We were employing local builders. We were introducing, and soliciting material, and doing things they couldn't do, but the volunteer labour was being taught how to build, but the community could not provide those skills, and they couldn't provide that labour because all of the youth were moving to the bigger cities. It's trying to get that balance, but you have to spend time in individual communities looking at long term ... Are you replacing skilled labour? Should you be doing that project or are there other projects that would be more applicable?

The problem is there's not enough of that going on. It's too quick fix, it's too, "We're going in, send an expert in for three days, evaluate what projects we can do, go and do those." In that case, what Peter says is very true. You're replacing existing labour forces with unpaid labour so it is a big problem.

I should declare a bit of a conflict of interest. I also sit on a committee for Habitat for Humanity who are also very famous in sending plane loads of tourists over to work on housing projects. I feel their pain because they need to do that in order for people to understand what they do, but are they displacing local workers? Absolutely, but if they don't do it then they won't be able to generate the funds to actually build the houses anyway. There's a bit of push-pull there.

The evaluation of it is a lot more sophisticated than a duellist ... They're taking jobs from local workers and the media has really pushed that. It isn't necessarily true and we need to take a couple levels down into those communities, and actually have a look at that over a longer period of time. I've seen a lot of cases what that does is generate other work or it generates other outcomes that are beneficial. It's not that simple.

Let's talk a little bit about regulation. Overall, how regulated is the industry?

Not at all would be my ... Part of that problem, again, is that movement away from NGO. NGOs are regulated. They do report back because of their funding partly and they've got those metrics that they have to meet to exist. In the commercial area, oh sure, travel agents are regulated, but not in the way that volunteer tourism is in what they do on programs, so not at all.

A great example is orphanage tourism. The biggest contributor to orphanage tourism is, I think you're aware of it, is some Australian universities.

Absolutely, and we will talk more about orphanage tourism, but I just would like to ask you first, do you think that there is a role for governments to come in and regulate this industry?

A philosophical question. I don't know. I think ... I've seen the commercial operators in volunteer tourism guidelines. In fact, I had in put into them when the eco-tourism society in America produced them and I think guidelines are needed. Absolutely. Regulation's the next step. I don't know. It doesn't seem to work that well. How do you regulate it and particularly across culture? What are we going to do?

One of the options would be the way they did it with sex tourism, which is legislate in the country. If you're a travel agent or an individual court engaging in sex tourism then you can be charged. How you adapt that to volunteer tourism, I don't know, but even that hasn't been entirely successful but it does and has helped in terms of the sex tourism industry.

What are your thoughts on government regulation, Peter?

Philosophically? Absolutely opposed, but in saying that I think an element of self-regulation could work. I won't say, "always works," but "can work." As an NGO, we have a code of conduct, which is regulated by the sector. It works really, really well so there can be some self-regulation with good parameters and some oversight. It can work particularly well, but don't want the government involved, yet another body to report to. As a CEO of an NGO, absolutely not. We've got enough regulation already.

If you've ever reported to AusAID or DFAT, your instant answer is, "No way," because it's very cumbersome. It's not very efficient and in a lot of cases it's not very well done. I'll probably never get another job, will I?

All right, let's talk about orphanages. It's a hot topic right now.

Yeah, it's a bit of an issue ethically, yeah. It's laid out misere in a way. It has to stop. How you do that ... You can't just suddenly close these programs because there's a funding support mechanism there to local communities and to those orphans that's cut off immediately. How do you do that?

But are they really orphans? I mean, we've got so many examples in the countries, in particularly Cambodia where we work, where parents are giving up their children because they think it's going to be a better life for them. They're going to get an education, better quality food. That's not always the case, but that's what they're told by the middle men that are trading in these children.

Yeah, it's ... But it's really complicated. Say, if you go back 15 years before any of those orphanages were set up, those parents are sometimes selling their kids into sex tourism. Let's compare, we've got to measure it against in country historically ... Is orphanage tourism better than sex tourism for that child? Well, you'd have to say, "Yes," but is orphanage tourism appropriate within the metrics that we as a developed country put on it? Absolutely not. How do we come to an outcome that works?

I think there's other ways of doing it and the problem is, again, programming of it. I think there is no justification for short term contact with orphans for volunteer tourists. If you don't have long term contact then there's issues, but there's huge issues around the volunteer agencies that are sending people in for a year or two like paedophilia. It's been a really big issue that's been not talked about so it gets very complicated. You can't just go and say, "No more." You have to say, "Well, what's the transition process to not do that?"

Yeah, I'd like to see what the vast chances of in the universities in Australia have to say about why and how they've been metricing this over the years because we're looking at about 50 to 70% of the contribution to that. Are they actually checking what they're doing? Are they taking any responsibility for what they do?

I think it's a very interesting area that I would say, at the bottom line, ethically there is a really big problem with it, yes.

A recent UNICEF study found 16,500 children living in 406 orphanages in Cambodia, as you said, many of them with living parents, also interestingly more than half of those institutions in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, so close to tourist destinations. In your experience, Cufa does a lot of work in Cambodia, are all orphanages bad? Is there such a thing as a good orphanage?

Oh, absolutely! There's some really high quality orphanages in Cambodia. I mean Sunrise is a great example. Geraldine Cox has been running that for many, many years. Absolutely on top of everything, doesn't allow tourism into her orphanages.

There are many that are ... Sorry, I shouldn't say, "many." There are some that are doing what they need to do for children that do not have parents to look after them so you can't paint all of them with the same brush.

For me, it's about the program. It’s about ... If you're going to take volunteer tourism on, then you shouldn't be running programs where they're engaging with those orphans. You can tell them you can help with administration, you can help with building. There's certain things you can do, but you're not going to have a day-to-day contact with those orphans. It might be you don't have any contact, or you may have incidental contact, but it will not be on a day-to-day basis in their environments. There are ways of making that work.

Unfortunately, I think the commercial end of it and the marketing of that has really been about, "You come, you can have day-to-day contact with these orphans," and that's what appeals. I don't think that some of those agencies want to change that because that's what they sell, basically, to get people to go. You can change it. Yeah, absolutely.

You're absolutely right. I mean, if we put projects up and we've got some projects with Sydney University where we can take people overseas. There's one that's with an orphanage in India. Which one gets the most people? The orphanage, because we're doing economic development. It's not as appealing as, perhaps, going and playing with kids in an orphanage.

We're talking about doing accounting and bookkeeping, and things that are a bit dry that they've been doing in their university studies. They don't want to do that. They want to go and engage with kids and kick a ball around.

I think, once you take the orphanages out, I think the market is going to suffer for-

Yeah, and that's a problem for commercial agencies, but there are ways of changing that. You have to be serious about volunteer tourism. It's not just a holiday. It's not going to Majorca. It's about a serious consideration about a working holiday. There has to be a hard line on some of that about what you can do and when it's inappropriate. We need to be saying it is inappropriate.

I think the volunteer tourism end of the spectrum has to start to say that. It is not appropriate for you to do this. If you want to engage in this, you're going to have to find some other way of doing it. I think that's important.

Once again, who's going to draw this hard line? Is it something that the government should do? As you both said, these commercial interests will suffer if you remove the orphanages, which are desirable activities for young volunteer tourists.

Oh, I think the market will draw the line. I mean, this is ... The change is that people, now, are aware of it. There's just discussion all over the place. When Rowling’s, Harry Potter, came out and put it on her Facebook page, the ripple effect was huge across the world. Some places immediately stopped doing it. I think the line will get drawn if you get it out in the ... As a debate in the public sphere because companies will basically say ... It's got such a negative impact on the image of their company that they're not going to do it. I think that ... Yeah, that's where that marketplace ... You have to deal in that marketplace.

At the NGO level, I think it's a lot easier. I mean, they can just basically say, "We don't do it because it ... We're not interested in it. We don't need to."

I don't think there has to be a government hard line about this. I think it will happen.

But even if you do task the government to do it, what are the resources they're going to need to police it? You can't just regulate something without proper supervision. I don't necessarily think that the government is able to supervise that because you're talking about a global issue. It's not one or two countries, it's a global issue.

If the government were to regulate, how are they going to police that? I'm not quite sure that it's doable.

It comes back to that guidelines and self-regulation. I don't think that is pushed enough and that might be a way to do that, is start to use examples of companies that do it really well and say, "here's best practice. Let's have a look. Here's how it's done," and get that out to people to say, "Here." If you're a volunteer tourist, you can see that. You can say, "all right, we can have a look at these companies here. They're the ones that look like they're doing best practice."

That marketplace is quite intelligent. Its university students, in a lot of cases, they're quite smart about looking at social media and having a look at being able to evaluate that.

I think we need to be really, really careful here. We're talking negatively about voluntourism, but the reality is it's incredibly impactful on young people. It broadens their mind in terms of the world around them. It opens up space for them to understand what's happening in their neighbourhood. I speak from experience in terms of when we see volunteers coming back. Their outlook on life is completely different. We're talking about just a few weeks.

Yeah, it's a great caveat for one of my burning passions, which is ... The media has really focused on Western young women, where they're volunteering altruistically to go and work. The media has focused on the negative of that rather than focusing on, say, venture capital, which has now moved into buying up the small NGOs to turn them in to commercial volunteer tourism agencies and then stripping away all of that support, and all of that on-ground check that goes on with projects.

Here we are blaming Western young women for the negative impacts of volunteer tourism. Here's an opportunity for these women. It's an experience of a lifetime for them. It's an experience where they can contribute and be a part of that global community, in an environment that's relatively safe for them and that may go onto to having them going to work in environments like that in the future, and we're shutting that down because the media's saying, "What you're doing is bad." This idea of neo-colonialism or reinvention of colonialism into those communities ... I have a problem with that.

I think that we need to allow that altruistic participation, which lets them grow. Well, sure, what's the matter to this, let’s them add it to their CV, but also as a person that engages them in that exchange with communities, which develops their thinking, and their appreciations of those communities, and possibly in the future they may be making decisions about funding for those communities, about voting for mechanisms that might help support those communities.

Can you tell us a bit more about that other side of it, these venture capitalists, or people buying up NGOs? What would you like to see? Can you give us an example of the story you'd like to see covered more by the media?

One of the bigger companies in the UK ... It's now owned by shareholders. The two original brothers that set it up have sold, and one of them sold it for profit ... The other one didn't want to do that, but he spent so much time fighting with the new management system of that that he just got sick of it. Their focus, again, was on return to the shareholder, asset strip, cut away what we do to make money rather than on the quality of what's being delivered. I think that's happening in a lot of cases.

The other side of it is a lot of those smaller NGOs are going out of business, can't do it anymore because they can't compete against some of the bigger like student travel because they've got a bit of marketing mechanism. They've got a bigger audience and a change in the marketplace.

If you go back to when I started in around 1988, it was a very small market and only the very best of students were interested. They had to work really hard to get the funding to go and do it. You had to do a lot of self-supporting like fundraising and things like that.

Now, it's like they're a little bit interested. They do a little bit of research. They can pay a commercial company and off they go. Well, some of the early NGOs, you had to learn the language of the country you were going to. You couldn't go if you couldn't speak the language. I mean, not said that they'd spoke it well, there are some very funny stories about ... But, now, no you don't have to do that. As long as you're willing to pay the fee, you can go. What do you learn about the culture before you go? All of that prep stuff is gone. I think there is an issue and I think we should be putting up signs saying, "No, they're not good. It's just a commercial. You buy into it off a webpage and then you pay your money and off you go."

That's not to say ... There's a lot of companies that I don't ... I'm saying that's where it's moved towards-

But it's a superficial engagement rather than a deep engagement.

Yeah, and I, as one of the people that probably framed a lot of this in an academic environment, resent that a little bit. I think that ... I've tracked the people we took 25 years ago and seen where they've gone. I'm amazed at how they remembered those experiences and what they do, and amazed at some of the communities that they worked in, and what's happened in those communities.

But we're not tracking that. We're not looking at what happened 25 years ago with those experiences for the participants, and for the communities because we've probably moved onto the stage where they go once into those communities, might have a program in there for five years and that's a long time. Then they move onto another community.

We do need better research frameworks and we do need to think about that impact and venture capital into that. It changes the nature of the way we do it. If we're outsourcing those components rather than our cradle-to-grave approach, which I think is a much better sustainability-wise. Outsourcing everything, we hand over ethical responsibility, and we hand over commercial responsibility, and we hand over the way we measure the success of it.

I think there's a bright future for volunteer tourism. It's about starting to work around how it's evolving, and looking to a future where we need to rethink what it is. I go back to definitions, where we started at the beginning, we might need to redefine what voluntourism is and exclude a whole lot of what's happening where it isn't really ethically sound. I think we can do that and we need to do a bit more research about what is this success? What's the long term impact of this on communities? We don't do enough of that. Where are some of those communities 25 years later having engaged with volunteer tourists?

There's some really good stories out there. Youth Challenge Australia probably had over 800 projects over a period of 24 years. I've tracked some of the early ones that I was involved with in Costa Rica, and there's some great success stories there. There's a few where it didn't work, but there's never abject failure. We need to look at that and how we start to construct those metrics, and track what's going.

I think, certainly, we have to keep in our mind that we're working with vulnerable communities. That is central to all the decision making because I think if you're just looking at from a commercial angle, we will harm those communities. I would always say your basis from which you go from is these are vulnerable people and you need to respect that before you design any projects around tourists coming into their communities.

All right, Stephen Wearing, thank you so much for joining us.

It was a pleasure. Thank you, Olivia.

Conversations in Development is produced by me, Olivia Rosenman, with music by Studio Gary. The podcast is brought to you by Cufa. Cufa is an international development agency whose work creates infinite value alleviating poverty, reaching more than 4 million people across the Asia Pacific. To learn more about Cufa's work and for more information on our guests, visit ConversatonsInDevelopment.com.au, and for more Conversations in Development make sure you subscribe to the podcast to catch all our episodes.