How Problematic is voluntourism?

Celebrities posing next to orphans in Cambodia. Groups of tourists teaching English to students in Costa Rica. Teens digging wells in Kenya.

Especially among social media users, the voluntourism industry — where tourists travel to foreign countries to volunteer and “improve” the conditions of that place — has become increasingly enticing. People are constantly found posting their stories about their journey to “save” poorer African, South American, and Asian countries on Instagram. While this may seem amazing and selfless at first glance, on a deeper level, the rising popularity of voluntourism begs the question of whether these service trips are really helping advance underdeveloped communities, or simply benefitting tourists.

It has been shown that service trips may not only be unhelpful, but actually damaging for the communities. Consider the idea of building a school in Nepal. Taken at face value, selflessly spending one’s vacation helping students sounds like a very generous action. Despite their supposedly kind intentions, it is important to consider that the tourists who volunteer to go on these trips often have absolutely no experience with constructing any sort of building.

For example, imagine a group of American tourists, uneducated in brick-laying and architecture, attempting to build a school for the future generations of Nepalese children. The very idea of this seems ridiculous, especially considering how Nepal also has its own economy, with contractors, engineers, and masons. Not only are the tourists putting people in danger by building structurally questionable schools in the span of months, they are also taking employment from the professional workers who could have earned a wage to support their families. Simply donating the money to hire workers from Nepal to build the school would be more effective and sustainable, by constructing quick and sophisticated buildings and supporting the local economy.

Keeping this in mind, voluntourism could be interpreted as a modern manifestation of the Western savior complex, the idea that people from Western countries believe they are “rescuing” people in non-Western communities by forcing their culture upon them. Voluntourism, at its core, has traces of saviorism, in the aspect that unqualified people are coming into a foreign country to “improve” the conditions without understanding the economic and social situations of that community, and assuming that they need their help.

In fact, this idea of saviorism is the root of many voluntourists’ motivations for helping out. The ability to assert themselves as superior to the citizens of other countries makes people feel better about themselves, and allows them to take advantage of others’ situations to enjoy a vacation and feel like a hero. Additionally, many of the voluntourists go on trips for the social media popularity, and are simply seeking an easy way to boost their image.

Although the native citizens of a country are negatively impacted by the voluntourism industry, Americans are able to gain the experience of traveling to another country, meeting foreigners, and getting the illusion of improving other peoples’ lives. So, who is voluntourism really benefiting? Is it the community that is being disrupted and exploited, or the tourists taking photos and getting an “unforgettable” trip?

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