The topic of volunteer-tourism has been prolific in recent years, with a focus on one of its most potentially damaging forms: orphanage tourism. The issues surrounding voluntourism are not limited to orphanage tourism however, and many would be voluntourists must now be re-evaluating their options and considering how they can ensure their good will, motivation and often hard-earned cash, translate into positive impacts for the communities or conversation projects they choose to support. Rather than adding to the many articles highlighting the potential unintended consequences of voluntourism, this article proposes an equally worthwhile and more transparent alternative: community-based tourism.
Community-based tourism (CBT) is about paying a fair price for a genuine and usually authentic product. As an alternative to a somewhat Westernised and potentially patronising desire to ‘help’ the poor, CBT provides a means to support communities to diversify their income, on their own terms, and contribute to sustainable development in the process. These communities are often at the forefront of the very issues that voluntourism purports to address: marine and wildlife conservation, deforestation and poverty alleviation. In extreme cases, CBT initiatives can even be the last defence in the fight against oil companies and the like taking over huge swathes of rainforest.
In contrast, community needs and priorities end up side-lined by the many private sector companies offering short-term voluntourism opportunities, as the drive for profit and the preferences of volunteers take precedence. Voluntourism is a rapidly growing industry, estimated to be worth $173 billion dollars a year globally, according to ReThink Orphanages. With so much money at stake, it is not surprising that many private sector companies are scrambling to cater for this increase in demand, by offering volunteers the kind of experiences they enjoy. This usually results in an oversupply of demand-lead experiences, as can been seen by the over-representation of marine conservation, wildlife and childcare volunteering opportunities on offer.
According to GoAbroad.com for example, working with kids is one of the most popular volunteer activities available, whilst they describe marine and wildlife conservation placements as enabling volunteers “to travel to unique places, work with exotic species, and usually live close to the beach or in a naturally beautiful location” – which hardly sounds like volunteering at all. Yes, the funds paid by voluntourists may really help in conservation and community development efforts, but the whole business lacks transparency.
CBT initiatives however are usually run by the community for the community and the income earned through tourism can be spent according to the community’s needs – as identified by them. Where the money goes is usually much more obvious and it is a great way to go holiday, have fun, learn lots, and at the same time contribute to sustainable livelihoods via a fair-trade approach to tourism. In the case of the Juanilama community in rural Costa Rica, long-time resident and general manager Sandra sums up well what tourism means for their community: “Our rural community-based tourism initiative has been empowering, not only in the financial sense but also through cultural and social enrichment. It enables us to help the community, the school for example. […] It has been a beautiful experience and has created many opportunities for work in the area. We are a tiny village but with a huge heart and so much to show and share with our guests. We can teach them what is at the essence of being a Costa Rican farmer”.
Another great example of CBT initiatives being used as a tool to create jobs for local people is the Taselotzin Hotel in Puebla State, Mexico. Here indigenous woman pioneered the construction of the hotel to support their woman’s cooperative and to generate enough income so that their heads of family no longer needed to emigrate far from home in search of work. Here, tourism also helps these communities safeguard their rich indigenous heritage and promote their cultural practices to wider audiences. The woman who pioneered this successful venture are now helping to empower other communities by sharing their story and experiences.
Whilst the desire to want to spend a holiday helping others less fortunate than oneself, or to assist in conservation projects, is of course something to be praised, travellers may not always have the time or knowledge to ensure that the project they wish to support has the community’s needs, and indeed the community’s consent, at its centre. For those people, CBT can provide an equally rewarding experience. There is no pretence of helping people that don’t need or ask for our help – instead CBT is a means for local people to earn money in a dignified way, and to support the many sustainability projects they are already involved with.