Doing Good? Another Look at Voluntourism

This month Carnival Cruises will sail the Adonia into Amber Cove on the north shore of the Dominican Republic to initiate a new cruise line called Fathom.  Departing weekly from Miami, 700+ passengers will have an opportunity to include a day or two of volunteer activities in their cruise agenda. Other cruise lines offer similar programs with titles such Holland America’s “Cruise with Purpose” and Crystal Cruises’ “You Care, We Care.”

You may already have seen travelers involved in this growing “voluntourism” industry, but now the cruise lines are expanding this segment of the traveling public in a big way. To read more about what cruise lines are offering, see: “Cruise Voluntourism: Ways to Give Back at Sea”.

As an NP who has volunteered on both short-term disaster relief efforts and long-term medical missions, I have my own opinion about these short-term volunteer experiences that are rapidly multiplying. As it turns out, so does Judith Lasker who just authored a book, Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering. Reviewed in the NY Times on April 26 by Dr. Abigail Zuger, this book raises many questions about the potential negative impact and dubious benefit of short-term volunteer efforts.

Having prepared a number of travelers over the years for short-term volunteer efforts, I know that programs can differ considerably and not all programs are without benefit; some do an excellent job preparing volunteers even for short-term assignments. However, that is not always the case, and voluntourism can have another “darker side.”  For example, are volunteers undermining local efforts for full employment? While volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina, I learned that as a volunteer I was personally displacing two paid workers at a local clothing recycle center…Do volunteers try to engage in activities beyond their scope? First year medical students who assist in surgery after two days in country come to mind…How many volunteers are prepared to be culturally sensitive to local customs? Who hasn’t seen photos of girls volunteering in tank tops and shorts in regions with modest dress codes? With large numbers of volunteers arriving each week, what kinds of meaningful contributions can be made? Local high school students volunteering in Costa Rica last summer reported to me they were the sixth group to repaint the same church that summer…

As more retirees add a day or two of volunteering to their vacations, as more high school and college students add a week of volunteering to pad their resumes, and as more organizations and companies add voluntourism options to their trip itineraries, I think it is important for travel health nurses to understand the issues and the risks raised by short-term volunteer activities.

I plan on reading Judith Lasker’s book and I encourage us all to be more aware of voluntourism’s impact on both volunteers and host communities. Then the next time travelers check the voluntourism box on their pre-travel assessment form, we will be more informed to prepare them appropriately for this travel experience.

And for further reading, here are three additional online articles about the potentially negative effects of voluntourism:

Helping or Hurting? The Ethics of Voluntourism

The Givers Conundrum: can doing good be bad? As volunteer trips multiply, tough questions arise”

‘The people are so beautiful!’ That’s enough of the colonial tourism

Travel Well-

Gail Rosselot NP, MPH, COHN-S, FAANP

May 2016