Essay on Voluntourism by Fatima AlSayegh

Posted on: June 29, 2009 Posted by: Kaia Smith Comments: 0

Essay on Voluntourism by Fatima AlSayegh

The following is an essay on "voluntourism" by Fatima AlSayegh for her English Media Writing class.  Fatima studies at Zayed University in Dubai and participated in a PEPY Tour with Dubai Cares this past April.  In her essay, Fatima explores the lessons and questions about volunteer tourism which she has gathered from her PEPY trip, Daniela Kon’s film "Changing the World on Vacation", and her own research and opinions. 

Thank you, Fatima, for being such an active part of the PEPY Team!  We hope you come out and join us in Cambodia again soon!

Voluntourism: Yay or Nay?

by Fatima AlSayegh, PEPY Tour participant

A typical vacation scenario might include you on some tourist-infested beach sipping on umbrella drinks whilst hoping to dear God that maybe this time, you’ll get a decent tan. Sound familiar? That, my friend, is called tourism. Why not live on the edge in as little as one week and dub yourself a voluntourist?

Voluntourists, a hybridization of “volunteerism” and “tourism” is what the word implies: volunteering whilst being a travelling tourist. Also, these two terms define two ever-growing industries. Over the past years, people have travelled miles and miles for the sole reason of volunteering to communities different than their own. Does the Peace Corps or Greenpeace come into mind? Now, people can volunteer while they are on vacation – thus the name “voluntourists”.

What better way to spend your vacation than as a volunteer as well as a tourist? Voluntourism holds many advantages. For one, a voluntourist can be rest assured that their time in the host country wouldn’t be squandered on 5-star hotels or chic fashion boutiques. On the contrary, voluntourists are given the opportunity to actually touch a life or two and make a tangible difference in someone’s future, a future that someone may never have had if said voluntourist didn’t come along. Another great pro is that someone with a busy schedule can actually hit two birds with one stone – volunteering while travelling instead of doing each at separate times. Let’s not forget that the core of voluntourism is to create that people-to-people connection. The voluntourist gets personally acquainted with the community and who he/she seeks to help, furthering a form of cultural exchange that the Peace Corps and UN Volunteer programs vouch for.

Voluntourism has its other face. Playing the role of Mother Theresa for a short period of time in third-world countries can yield positive results – both emotional and spiritual – to the helper, but it also yields negative results – both emotional and spiritual – on the helped. Voluntourism is not something to be taken lightly, and voluntourism companies and NGOs should always weigh the pros to the cons of what they seek to fulfill. The beauty of voluntourism is that anyone can apply and become a voluntourist. The beast, however, is that anyone can apply, which means that unskilled people who are just empowered with the will to volunteer and sightsee are the target audience. Not certified doctors or experts in the field – anyone. Then the question of “what can you possibly achieve in as little as one week?” comes up. Then there’s the issue that voluntourism just makes problems away from home much more appealing to support than those close to home. It takes a lot of planning and organizing to make voluntourism a success, and foregoing such measures can become catastrophic to the local community.

An insightful and personal peak into the core of voluntourism is captured in the documentary “Changing the World on Vacation” by film-maker Daniela Kon. This documentary follows volunteers from the US and Cambodian-registered NGO, PEPY, during their trips across Cambodia. Personal insights and mistakes made on PEPY’s part run throughout the documentary. 

PEPY’s founder, Daniela Papi, has found this documentary as an eye-opener to what the NGO has been promoting, when it essentially had all the best intentions at heart. Examples include not enforcing strict clothing regulations (it is disrespectful in Cambodian culture to expose your shoulders while visiting its temples, a mistake tour participants made during one of the trips), tailoring the trips based around the volunteers’ ideas of education, not the local population’s ideas of education, and when Papi mentioned that “Cambodia has a limitless supply of fish.” I don’t think so.

However, that was all back during PEPY’s first days as a young NGO. Now after 4 years of operation, PEPY has tailored its trips around responsible tourism and responsible giving in which voluntourists ultimately help out the local community whether it be dining in a locally-owned restaurant or not giving in to the hordes of child beggars ravaging the streets of Cambodian tourist destinations (such as the Angkor temples) and preying primarily on foreign tourists as their source of income. Basically, what separates PEPY from your typical tourism agency is that PEPY actually makes sure it gives back to the local community in the form of funding development projects rather than take from the local community which is what tourists tend to unconsciously do.

The documentary also highlights the everyday struggle of PEPY when it comes to maintaining its core belief of responsible giving, even with the problematic reputation some charities may have.

Voluntourism, as appealing as it may sound to actually change the world while you are on vacation, is a relatively new industry, and as such, is affected by many controversies that try to weigh its pros to its cons – is it beneficial to the helped or to the (temporary) helper? Despite such controversies, voluntourism is an ever-expanding industry, with do-good companies springing up within this field promising voluntourists a whole new door to travelling  and volunteering. All that can be said is that voluntourism is much more beneficial to both ends when the voluntourist does the right and responsible decision in the first place by picking the most socially responsible NGO right from the start, before any bags are packed.