The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Voluntourism in Cambodia

Early this month World Expedition, a global adventure travel company, charged tourists AUS$1,790 (US$ 1,159) for a twelve-day tour of Cambodia, selling their tour product as a “community project,” because four of the twelve days were spent repairing a schoolhouse in Siem Reap.

Is four days work from unskilled laborers an expensive guilt trip for tourists and an onus on the local community, or can it make a real, lasting impact on both the participants and the community?

More travelers than ever are including volunteer work on their vacation itineraries, but when the volunteer tourist sector merges with for-profit tourism, critics warn that do-gooders can be duped into doing more harm than good.

Tourism where one blends vacation time with charity work, dubbed voluntourism, has boomed in the last two years.

According to a poll from Travelocity, a popular travel website, the number of travelers planning to volunteer during their vacation jumped from six percent in 2006 to eleven percent in 2007, and a 2008 survey sponsored by and Condé Nast suggests even faster growth this year with more than 55 percent of people expressing interest in taking a volunteer vacation.

David Clemmons, founder of US-based, said, “The number of participants, as measured by at least 15 Voluntourism operators… is significantly higher than [in] 2007. Some organizations are experiencing more than 100% growth.”

Volunteer tourism is nothing new, but traditionally, the sector was run mainly by church groups and NGOs. Today as interest in voluntourism grows, large, for-profit, travel companies are getting into mix, and they have a different priority — the bottom line.

There is nothing inherently wrong with commercial organisations sending volunteers, but the needs and interests of local communities should still be a concern, Rachel Noble, the campaigns officer of UK-based tourism watchdog Tourism Concern, said.

“It’s vital that the projects are not determined by market demand and provide meaningful long-term benefits to local people. Fulfilling the ‘feel good’ factor for tourists should not be done at the expense of the developmental needs of local communities,” Noble said.

Daniela Papi, the president of Siem Reap-based PEPY Tours, a for-profit tour company designed to fund a separate PEPY nonprofit organisation, is critical of many of the voluntourism opportunities available in Cambodia. She stresses the need of volunteer tour operators to be involved in long-term projects in order to know the effect of the volunteering on the community.

“Short-term volunteering is very hard to translate into positive impact… You can’t monitor the impact on the community if you only visit it three times a year,” she said.

Papi criticised companies like World Expeditions that do not give money to the community or insist that its customers do.

“There are very few situations where unskilled volunteers should come without funding to a project — especially if you’re coming just for two hours. You’re probably just taking the director’s time… Volunteers aren’t free,” Papi said. “If the companies are making money, they should give back.”

PEPY tours integrates their product with their non-profit organisation’s long-term work and requires their tourists to bring in funding, Papi said, but she admits that her organisation is not perfect and stresses that volunteer tourism is a delicate balance that requires constant self-reflection.

“You have to admit you’re going to make mistakes. You have to be willing to change. Too often, people are afraid to do that,” Papi said. “I trust organisations the will admit to the mistakes they’ve made.”

One thing all voluntourism experts agree on is that people interested in volunteering while traveling need to be discerning.

“Travelers need to start demanding that it’s done responsibly. They need to call out tour operators,” Papi said.

There are a few things that customers should look for in a volunteer vacation to ensure that their trip both helpful and fun.

First, Noble at Tourism Concern emphasized that volunteer work should take advantage of the particular skills of the tourists, language skills for instance, so that they are not taking jobs away from locals.

“It’s important that projects don’t take on volunteers to do work that could be done perfectly competently by and provide employment for local people. Our research has shown that volunteers are only too aware when their well-intended efforts are not providing any real benefit to local people, leading to unhappy locals and unhappy volunteers,” she said.

Second, be wary of volunteer tours that advertise a long time ahead of the project and are inflexible about the charitywork they will doing, Papi said. These types of volunteer tours create an incentive not to fix the problem locally, because they know tourists will come in — with additional money — to solve the problem for them.

“When you’re advertising a volunteer tour six months out, there’s a problem. What if you realize the program is corrupt or the needs are elsewhere?” Papi said.

Most importantly, a tourist interested in doing some volunteering should be sure to ask the operator some basic questions about the projects, especially about where the money is going.

Tourism Concern recommends that a person, “enquire about how they [tour operators] work with local communities, whether it’s a long-term partnership, whether they contribute money directly in support of the project and how the project is appraised.”

Despite the dangers of volunteer tours using communities as marketing ploys, Clemmons believes carefully planned voluntourism has the potential to change the very nature of travel by making people engage with local communities and think about where their money is going.

“Voluntourism may… introduce us to unprecedented forms of social entrepreneurism, change travel from a leisure activity to a lifestyle and life-purpose engagement, and shake the roots of capitalism by making it conscious and intentional,” he said.

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