What Actually IS A Volunteer Tourist Anyway?


I recently published an academic article in Annals of Tourism Research entitled A Segmented Volunteer Tourism Industry in which I argue that volunteer tourism is no longer a micro form of niche tourism, but has in fact progressed into a marco-niche. How can we justifiably compare a person who pays £2000 to a commercial organisation like Real Gap to build houses in Uganda for two weeks to a person who voluntarily travels over to help in an emergency situation such as the tsunami in Thailand in 2004 or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010? And what about the person who receives a stipend of £300 a month to teach English in Nepal or the person prolonging their Australian backpacking trip by WOOFING (working weekends on organic farms)? These are very different examples, yet in the current literature they tend to be grouped together as one. I believe that this is an outdated approach.

The boundaries between voluntary work and paid work are more blurred than they ever have been. Does a stipend count as a salary? If you are entitled to expenses are you still a volunteer? If you receive any financial benefit does this mean that you are no longer a tourist but a voluntary worker or an expat? And what about students undertaking a placement, such as a British student nurse who spends six months working in Colombia? Or the mass tourist who takes a couple of days out of their holiday to volunteer (have you heard of volunteer cruises-what is the world coming to!?). As you can see, something that in the past might have been viewed as being relatively clear-cut, has become a disarray of tourism/volunteer experiences of which are often clumsily grouped together as one and subsequently termed ‘volunteer tourism’.

TEFL Tourism

My argument is that we should look at these different types of volunteer tourism in solitude, examining them for their individual merits and limitations in order to facilitate optimum management of the sector. In this post-modern volunteer tourism industry, where new commercial operators are emerging and adapting their practices continuously, doesn’t this make sense? In my research, for example, I introduce the concept of TEFL tourism. Whilst some TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teachers might traditionally come under the volunteer tourism umbrella, many do not. This tourist type therefore includes all teachers, whether undertaking voluntary or paid employment, whether they’re on a short-term or long-term placement and whether they spend a significant amount of their time undertaking tourist activities or focus predominantly on their teaching practice. Separating the study of TEFL tourists from the broad notion of volunteer tourism also allows for issues specific to TEFL to be more adequately examined, such as the educational attainment of students, training of teachers or cross-cultural implications.

So in summary, my recent research paper calls for a new, modernised approach to be taken towards the research and management of the volunteer tourism industry, taking into account the many micro-niches which fall beneath the broad volunteer tourism umbrella. Fundamentally, this forms the basis for the rationale of my PhD research of which I will shortly be submitting- I will post more about ‘TEFL tourism’ and my research findings in due course!