Volunteer tourism: the give and take

Despite nightly bulletins about conflict, increasing numbers of people around the world are giving their time and talents to others in voluntary work. A recent Gallup International poll showed that as many as two-thirds of people in highly developed countries serve as volunteers and the average for the world is nearly two-thirds. Part of this trend is volunteer tourism, a combination of travel and service that appeals particularly to young people, says Anne Zahra, a lecturer in tourism management at Waikato University, New Zealand. In this interview with MercatorNet she describes the kind of mutual enrichment that can occur in volunteer tourism.

MercatorNet: You have been involved as a participant or coordinator in volunteer tourism for nearly 20 years. How do you define this type of tourism?

Anne Zahra: Volunteer tourism generally applies to people who undertake holidays with the intention of alleviating poverty in a developing country or promoting scientific research or conservation work. But as well as the altruistic motive there is an expectation that the volunteer will also benefit because of the intrinsic interest of the work and through the development of their own personality and sense of identity. It has the potential for a more meaningful and rewarding holiday.

Ecotourism, which grew out of the Green movement, showed that people wanted an alternative to commercial tourism – one that respected the environment and cultures and contributed to the development of local communities. Volunteer tourism puts the accent on serving the local community directly through specific projects which may or may not focus on conservation. Stephen Wearing, an Australian researcher who has written a book on this subject, believes that volunteer tourism will rival the popularity of eco-tourism in this decade.

A quick search on the internet will turn up any number of volunteer tourism opportunities, from restoring Buddhist temples in Nepal, to helping at orphanages in India and Central America.

MercatorNet: Last year you organized a volunteer tourism project in New Zealand, which is not a developing country in the usual sense. How did this project fit the description?

Anne Zahra: We had twelve Australian girls in their late teens who spent a week with a Maori community and a week in the city assisting disabled adults. During their time with the Maori community they were based on a marae – a traditional meeting place – cleaning and painting the building and organising a holiday programme for children from a neighbouring suburb which has a low socio-economic rating and had severe flood damage the previous winter. So, here were groups needing assistance but also able to enrich the volunteers through cultural and personal exchanges.

Although their stay in the Maori community was short, the volunteers were really immersed in the culture, sleeping on the marae and learning the cultural rules from kaumatua (elders) who were in attendance. Through dealing with the children and visiting some of their homes they also encountered a subculture of Maori gangs and drugs, and were both surprised and honoured that they were accepted enough to be shown the whole story – both the strong family values and how these can be shaken and crumble. These experiences led to very lively conversations over dinner and much questioning about the complexities of Maori culture today and how they reflected wider trends in western society.

They also led the volunteers to reflect on themselves and their own families and social milieu. One girl wrote in her diary: "I did not realize how much mum and dad have done for me and for my brothers and sisters… Mum and dad have nothing for themselves, everything is for us." Another commented that she expected it to be a life-changing experience and it was. From now on she would be more involved in other projects, donating more, helping more in the community, even listening more at home and helping her mum more often.

MercatorNet: And what did the Maori hosts think about it all?

Anne Zahra: The children warmed to the volunteers immediately and enjoyed sharing their stories with them and having fun together. They realized that the girls were genuinely interested in them and not wanting to rush off to do their own things at lunch time or later. The elders really valued the example set by the volunteers of young people willing to give something to the community, and what is more, doing it very well and with their hearts in it. One adult, an ex-gang member, told me later that the visit had made the young people proud of their culture and made them more interested in it themselves.

One of the adults related to me a conversation between a volunteer and two girls, aged 10-11, which illustrates the role modeling that the elders valued so much. The girls were painting props for a drama and talking about children. One of the young girls asked the volunteer whether she wanted to have a baby. The volunteer said she wanted a husband first. "So you don't want a baby to your boyfriend?" the girls asked. The volunteer answered, "I don't know yet if my boyfriend is going to stay with me to see our baby grow up. I want my baby to have their father and mother with them if possible." The person who overheard this was very impressed at the straightforward way the volunteer dealt with this situation and delivered a positive message.

MercatorNet: The Sydney Morning Herald recently featured a new label for generation Y and X –"yeppies" or young, experimenting perfection seekers – who are idealistic but confused. Given umpteen possibilities, they flit from one thing to another looking for what they can commit themselves to. Could the volunteer tourism experience help them in their search?

Anne Zahra: I'm sure it can, and does. Having participated in and organized many volunteer tourism projects over 18 years I can say that each project has had its own impact on me. They ground you and force you to face the fundamentals of life.

I recently carried out a study of six young women from Australia and New Zealand who had participated in a service project in South Asia or the Pacific between 1989 and 2000. When they set out, their main motivations were to experience a culture, go overseas, go on a holiday in which everything was organized, and to do something worthwhile. But when they were confronted with suffering, poverty, cultures with deep values devoid of materialism and consumerism, and the cheerfulness of people lacking basic necessities, each volunteer found it a life-changing experience.

In particular, they each made an unexpected discovery about their spiritual selves that had a lasting impact on them. It is a fact that the vast majority of people in developing countries have religious beliefs and a religious culture that sustains them in the hardships of life. So when these girls – who were fairly typical young members of affluent, secularized societies – were transposed into poor but religious communities, they naturally noticed the difference. It made them reflect, and reflect very deeply. I had traveled with four of them and was aware of their spiritual experience at the time without being aware of its depth.

When I interviewed them up to 15 years later the experience was still very vivid and the change it had brought about in each person's life was solid. Here is one typical quote:

"I used to spend so much money, I was trapped by consumerism. I always had to have a boyfriend and he had to be good looking otherwise my life was not worth living. Then I was in Tonga. it was like I was on another planet. The hardships, the poverty, the hard work, the sacrifices I was making just to survive every day, cold showers, horrible food. All this was preparing me. But there was a pivotal moment – it hit me when I realized there were no shops. There were two clothes shops where you could buy only T-shirts and sarongs. Nobody cared what you wore. I was stripped of my image, my identity was meaningless. But I needed a purpose. I turned to the people around me and observed. What gave them meaning? Family, time for people, time for prayer, time for God – this is what I saw. They were happy. I was happy. Why was I happy? Two things hit me simultaneously and they cannot be separated: I was not thinking of self and I turned outwards and God was there and he has been there ever since."

MercatorNet: The search for an alternative spirituality in an exotic culture is a well-established theme in the West. Is the experience of your study group any different to the spiritual tourism of young people in the 1960s and 1970s who discovered Eastern mysticism in India or Tibet or Japan?

Anne Zahra: Yes it is. In the first place, the volunteers were not looking for anything like that. And, in the second place, what they found was not an exotic spirituality, but a spiritual experience that was made available to them through mainstream religion: Catholicism in the Philippines, strong Protestant and – to a lesser extent Catholic – communities in Tonga and Fiji, and Islam and Hinduism in India. And it turned them towards their own religious heritage.

Most significantly, what turned them in this direction was not a focus on their own spiritual needs, but the volunteer experience of trying to serve other people and doing so in very difficult and demanding circumstances. In the interviews they were very aware that it was going out of themselves and focusing on others that had changed them and, in their own opinion, made them better people.

MercatorNet: Had they settled on a profession or a path in life?

Anne Zahra: I can only talk about the older ones that I interviewed. All of them settled back into their own country of origin and stayed there, completing their studies and pursuing their career. Most are now married. One said that learning how to give herself to others had helped her a lot in her marriage.

Another said volunteering had actually opened her to the whole idea of marriage. I'll end with a quote from her “I was a yuppie, a successful professional earning big bucks, a career woman. I am now married with a family. The family, rather than career is very important to me. I also now appreciate the value of education and the education of children, especially culture and having a well rounded education.”

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.


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  • Christina Nicholas