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Searching for meaning

Young people are looking for a new kind of travel experience. Rather than simply booking a trip, visiting that country for a few weeks and then leaving with a fridge magnet, today’s travellers are increasingly looking to find purpose in their overseas experience.

Out of this has arisen an entire industry which has been nicknamed ‘voluntourism’, where companies facilitate a volunteer experience to immerse visitors in a foreign culture. Estimates put the industry worth at over $173 billion globally and as much as $2 billion annually among Aussies alone. 

And it all sounds attractive. These programs and organisations are designed to show the best of both worlds, benefiting the local people while the traveller gets a ‘real’ experience. 

Voluntourism's hidden cost

Unfortunately, the programs often cause more harm than good. Many of the travellers approach these programs with an unconscious inherent superiority, the white saviour who ‘knows best’ riding in to alleviate the poor and disadvantaged, and then leaving a few weeks later feeling good about the work they’ve done.

This mentality is apparent in the practice of everyday — often untrained — people working as   doctors and teachers. They are there for a short time but they take positions and training away from   local workers and professionals who will still be there long after the tourists are gone. Sadly, the foreign money and free labour that voluntourists bring is often highly attractive to unscrupulous  operators. 

You often hear of horror stories such as orphanages bribing or buying children from impoverished local families to fill their institutions in order to inspire foreign sympathy. These stories abound from Haiti to Nepal. Typically, well intentioned and unsuspecting foreigners have no idea about these backroom realities.

A way forward

To me the difference between meaningful volunteer experience and ones which cause harm come down to qualities of patience, curiosity and genuine understanding on the part of stakeholders.

Time is needed to identify underlying societal needs instead of a brief scan of the surface problems. I prefer to see participants develop the art of listening — really listening — to the local people, in order to understand their world and concerns.