We want to help those in poverty - but we also want to preserve their culture and environment.

Volunteer tourism covers a wide range of practices and durations. Many projects offer tourists the opportunity to alleviate material poverty, while others may have an environmental focus. Either way volunteer tourism is seen as sustainable or eco-tourism, blurring the boundary between work and leisure by providing tourists with an opportunity to benefit the community or environment they are visiting. But there is a tension between the tourists' desire to see "authentic" and traditional landscapes, and the economic and social development of the community visited. 

Dr Émilie Crossley, a member of the Learner Services team at Otago Polytechnic, investigated the attitudes of volunteer tourists who visited Kenya and worked on community projects there.  She interviewed 10 young British volunteer tourists before they went to Kenya, while they were in Kenya, and twice after they had returned to the United Kingdom. 

Émilie found that the participants were aware of the tension. They were thrilled to have the opportunity to see mud huts for example, while also realising that those same huts weren't the best for those who lived in them. They were concerned that the Western technology they brought with them could make the Kenyans discontented - revealing assumptions that the locals were happy in their poverty and could not realistically expect to own such technology themselves.

So if we want more than a tourist experience? Carefully choose the project you work on: Is it a locally led initiative? Does it improve the wellbeing of that community? Do you bring skills that the local people don't have? And don't forget to spend money in the community you visit.

February 2018