Tourist or Volunteer: The Warning Signs

My first experience with the world of voluntourism came one rainy afternoon, aged 15, sat in my schools’ sports hall. A now well-known international organisation had come to pitch ‘the trip of a lifetime’ to our year group. They came prepared with a well-rehearsed sales patter, handouts, an impressive slideshow of Kenyan countryside and testimonies. As a teenager, wanting to travel and escape the monotony of exams and responsibilities, I did not hesitate to sign up. The price tag hidden in the small print seemed like an irrelevant amount compared to the promises they made.

The draw for myself was obvious, but what convinced my parents, was the ecological and social responsibility twist of the trip. They had agreed to help me save up and fundraise, in hopes of the return of a kinder, more socially aware daughter at the end of two months. From the first discussion, my parents raised the issue of voluntourism—at the time, this was not even a term, but more a vague unease with the emerging industry—and questioned if it was the best way to help in Kenya. Yet, whilst this did play heavily on my mind in the led up to departure, the company was so compelling in its commitment to ethical travel, I felt at ease with the cost.

It is also worth noting, that at this point, the company facilitated all aspects of travel—with online forums, blogs, kit lists, visa applications, and even down to the social networking. The entire experience felt orchestrated and somewhat detached from reality.

The facade built by the company soon came tumbling down once we landed in Nairobi. Our ‘local leaders’ were critical of any money received, and treated our group as an unfortunate appendage to what he saw as a primarily financial transaction. We were promised experience building a school in a rural village, and came to find that our building work had been rebuilt nightly by trained professionals. And most importantly, the trip was treated as a vacation, both by other students (myself included) and by those facilitating the trip. All pretence of volunteering had gone. While comforting, looking back on the experience to know that no jobs were taken from those who needed them, it was an honest introduction to the voluntourism world.

My experience highlights some things to be wary of when researching voluntourism online. We at VOFAIR always say to volunteer long term and ethically, but what exactly are the signs that a company is not ethical?

1. A big emphasis on money

All organisations have to watch their input/output, but are they too focused on this? Can they prove where your money goes? Does the price seem too much? Look for reviews, ask around, and talk to locals if you can. Do they offer several tiers of experience? This would point to the company being more akin to a travel agent than charity—no matter how they define themselves.

2. The ‘Sales Pitch’ experience

What I think my experience really shows well are the lengths these companies will go to turn a profit. Beware expensive looking presentations. If they are coming into your school—don’t take that as a stamp of authenticity. Have you heard of them, or their good work before?

3. The ‘Trip of a Lifetime’

Whilst having fun is important, you have to remember that your volunteer work should be affecting real people. If the trip is not helping others, perhaps your money can be better spent elsewhere on a cultural vacation. Warning signs include too much emphasis on the benefits available to YOU. Be honest with yourself, can you really help?