Providers must vet participants and partners to ensure good outcomes, says Nikki White, head of destination sustainability at Abta
The massive growth of volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, in recent years has been a heartening indication of the continuing urge by people of different ages to spend their time and money actively helping others around the world.
Specialist companies have sprung up to service this need, many of them highly professional and extremely well‑intentioned.
Unfortunately, the concept has also been open to abuse and to criticism that many of the projects offer little or no benefit to local communities, or in some cases, make problems worse.
While voluntourism has enormous potential to improve the lives of communities worldwide and to enrich the experiences of the travellers who volunteer, if not approached properly, it can result in unforeseen negative impacts on communities and the environment.
Abta has been very aware that guidance was needed for travel companies to ensure they are offering products that truly provide value for all concerned. After extensive research and collaboration with leading experts such as Unicef, we have put together comprehensive guidelines that we have made available to our members.
Volunteers pay thousands of pounds to support the projects they work on and, if they feel that their experience has not been worthwhile, they may well share their feelings on social media.
This clearly runs the risk of significant reputational damage to the companies providing the trip. Our guidance is intended to help companies properly vet the partners they work with and ensure that their volunteers are adequately supported and looked after.
One especially sensitive area is that of residential care, in particular, orphanages. There have been very concerning instances where children have been separated from their families and placed in orphanages so they can be used to attract fee‑paying volunteers and donors.
While orphanage volunteers are generally well-intentioned, they often don’t realise that they could inadvertently cause harm to children.
Research has also found that a constantly changing rota of volunteers, without appropriate skills and training, can cause long-term emotional harm to children such as repeated feelings of abandonment.
Quite rightly, this scandalous situation has had widespread coverage in the media, and care and due diligence needs to be exercised by any company working in this area.
It is also absolutely vital that strict background checks are conducted on any volunteers working with children, and that they are properly supervised while they are volunteering, to reduce any risk of child sexual exploitation.
The altruism and goodwill displayed by volunteers must not be wasted. There are hundreds of examples from across the globe that show the true potential of volunteer tourism, such as conserving natural environments, facilitating an exchange of skills and safeguarding the welfare of animals.
Volunteering work, when done well, can benefit both the recipients and the participants. Volunteering companies carry a heavy responsibility to everyone concerned to get things right.
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