Voluntourism: Travel with a Purpose
The Land of Smiles is a very voluntourism- friendly place, with the concept of social good woven deeply throughout Thai culture. While global voluntourism has taken a harsh beating in recent years, an overview of the sector in Thailand shows that there is a strong case for supporting voluntourism that truly benefits: supporting people to “fish and sell their own fish” rather than just repeatedly giving them fish, empowering both locals and volunteers alike through a mutual exchange of knowledge and experience. This could significantly impact the economic makeup of Thailand should enough individuals and corporations see its huge potential and choose to get involved in voluntourism projects that ultimately support NGOS and social projects to reach their goal and drive local communities and beneficiaries towards sustainable self- reliance. It is undeniable that voluntourists love Thailand; Thailand was listed as the third most- searched for country on the Internet in 2014 by Go Overseas, one of the major volunteer- abroad program search platforms. Unfortunately there is no recent detailed breakdown of the market share or demographics of voluntourism, either domestic or international, individual or corporate, in Thailand.
TRENDS THAT DRIVE VOLUNTOURISM
However, worldwide megatrends such as an aging global population and global warming and natural disasters actually improve the outlook for certain industries, and voluntourism is one of them. An aging global population means more people will need support with manual labor, while a new analysis issued by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction ( UNISDR) shows that as of 2015 – the hottest year on record – weather and climate- related disasters now dominate disaster trends. Voluntourism is a sensitive industry that certainly responds to natural calamity – as illustrated by the earthquake in Nepal, or in 2014 when the Philippines topped the search ranks on Gooverseas. com in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Such mega- trends have helped to drive the creation and growth of the voluntourism segment in recent years.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand ( TAT) itself also put the spotlight on voluntourism in recent campaigns to generate publicity for the country’s tourism industry. When TAT’S “The Little Big Project” – an attempt to take voluntourism to the next level by combining it with a digital campaign – garnered 4,695 applicants and 5 million views globally, the TAT Los
Angeles office quickly followed it up with “Thailand Ultimate Moments,” another online voluntourism and social media campaign in 2014 to further promote volunteer tourism with a global reach. This could possibly also have been one of the factors to impact the 5 million rise in the number of tourists from 2014 to 2015, when Thailand ended the year with the highest number of tourists per annum in its history despite its deadliest ever attack which occurring in August 2015.
Globally, the USD 173- billion- per- annum voluntourism industry has already generated a lot of hype and was listed as one of the fastest- growing areas of travel since 2013. This year, AAA, North America’s largest motoring and leisure travel organization, has again listed it as one of the top five leading travel trends for 2016. It certainly looks like the niche industry is here to stay, while certain trends have made voluntourism more popular and will probably drive it forward as well.
Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability ( LOHAS) – Coined in the late 1990s, LOHAS refers to a segment in the market that is focused on environment, healthy lifestyle, sustainable living and social justice. It incorporates businesses and consumers alike. Travelers Philanthropy is a segment that is increasingly growing among millennials, who highly value giving back; a Wakefield Research for Travelocity recently found that 63% of Americans are interested in travel that combines an opportunity to volunteer and leisure time.
Adventure tourism – The Adventure Travel Trade Association or ATTA has defined adventure tourism as activities that pull travellers out of their comfort zone. Local experiences such as farmstays with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms ( WWOOFS) also count among these, and in this sense voluntourism can also function as a subset of adventure tourism, which is ever- increasing in popularity, especially among millennials.
Multi- generational travel – The AAA predicts that in 2016 families will increasingly want to travel together; thus, it follows that multi- generational voluntourism opportunities might increasingly appeal to travelers. Voluntourism by sea – Cruising is another trend to top the travel charts in 2016, and voluntourism itself was a hot topic at Seatrade Cruise Global 2016 last March, with Fathom, Carnival Corporation’s voluntourism- focused cruise brand sailing to Cuba beginning in May 2016 – potentially indicating a hybrid of these two trends in the years to come.
OPPORTUNITIES IN THAILAND
From Sangklaburi, Thailand’s unofficial voluntourism capital, to one of the bestknown projects among Thais, the Kru Bannok project by the Mirror Foundation, and the TAT which partners with many local organizations for voluntourism such as Volunteer spirit; Local Alike; responsiblevacation. com; STA Travel; and the Matador Network, opportunities in Thailand abound for both corporations and individuals alike to make a difference. This is in addition to working through organizations such as WWOOFS, one of the world’s largest volunteer tourism networks, and many NGOS.
Instead of riding an elephant or watching them paint, volunteers can learn to be friends with them, learn how they eat, prepare them food, shower and take care of them at places such as the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, or Elephantsworld in Kanchanaburi that focuses on caring for old and sick elephants. Instead of feeling frustrated with locals who can’t speak English, volunteerminded individuals can seize the chance to partner with bridge organizations to teach English in Khlong Toei or various tourism villages, or enroll in courses with the New Heaven Dive School on Koh Tao, which combines PADI dive courses with lessons on marine and coral reef conservation. The opportunities are endless.
Critics who say that the industry has done more harm than good may have taken too shallow of a look at the industry. For volunteers, it presents a change of pace that often impacts their lives in the long term. “I just wanted to do something out of my structured work- life routine,” says a volunteer who asked to be referred to as Amy, of her enthusiasm for joining the “Thailand Ultimate Moments” voluntourism competition with TAT in 2013 and whose team went on to garner the most social engagement, winning the entire competition. Ultimately, Amy resigned from her job working as an advisor for the International Studies program at UC San Diego. “My Thailand experience led me to want to continue to do more volunteer work. Hence my decision to resign from my stable job to do more work in Southeast Asia,” she says. Today, she teaches
English in Myanmar and hopes to do something on an even greater scale in the future.
Positive long- term consequences include volunteers discovering their true purpose and going on to start their own NGOS, social enterprises or social projects, as is the case with Coby Schoffman’s The Nation Foundation that provides impoverished schools with essential scholastic resources, which he set up upon his return from volunteering in Uganda. Many others volunteers go back home and create solutions for the communities they visited, or apply insights that they gained from their hands- on immersion experience in the communities to design new social innovations that can solve other problems.
Industry experience suggests that the following can ensure that true positive impact is created for local communities:
• The experience should be as much of a give- and- take as possible; volunteers should go as ready to receive as they are to “give,” so that voluntourism can create meaningful experiences for travelers and locals alike.
The experience should also be focused on co- creation, creating a sense of ownership for both travellers and locals. An excellent illustration is Baan Hua Tung village near Chiang Dao’s watershed, where young volunteers labored to build water dykes for a community comprised mostly of elderly people who closely mentored the entire process, drawing on their wealth of wisdom to show young volunteers how to co- exist with the forest and conserve nature’s watersheds.
Visitors should also ensure the project is designed based on the true needs of people, and that profit is really going to the community or the beneficiaries, with a view toward sustainable self- reliance and fair trade practices, such as the voluntourism standards established by Fair Trade Tourism.
Applied to the community at hand. One of voluntourism’s greatest challenges, as reported by the Wyse Travel Confederation in 2015, is that sending orga-
THE POTENTIAL FOR LONG- TERM POSITIVE IMPACT
One of voluntourism’s greatest potentials may be in the high- level skill exchange between Thai volunteers and local communities. Often it’s outsiders who end up helping local communities with skills such as product design, marketing, IT and finance. There is a strong case for sharing higher- level skills with local communities, as they can make a wonderful application of such skills to their indigenous lifestyle.
Some excellent examples include the Air Asia English- On- Air program, organized in conjunction with Local Alike, where Thai Air Asia staff form teams and rotate between communities from month to month in order to teach basic English skills needed for hosting tourists in local communities, helping to prepare them for community- based tourism. Furthermore NGOS like Oxfam, through a pilot project with Global Impactors Network, have started linking women in challenged socio- geopolitical areas to Thai urban professionals who can “mentor” their craftsmanship and product design through the project “Wanita.”
When framed this way, it’s undeniable that voluntourism shows immense potential to strengthen the country’s foundation and generate socioeconomic opportunities and possibly even SME activity amongst villages, while the volunteers themselves will come away forever impacted by their exposure to the diversity of society. Voluntourism can help new generations develop a deeper sense of empathy and provide an unforgettable reminder to always think beyond themselves and to discover their true purpose in life.
START TRAVELLING WITH A PURPOSE!
Check out websites and web boards of volunteer communities to get updates on upcoming projects; start with the Volunteerspirit Network ( www. volunteerspirit. org) or Volunteer Service Foundation ( www. thaivolunteer. org).
Also, Local Alike, a social enterprise that utilizes tourism as a development tool, is now offering not- for- profit test trips for real travelers to provide feedback on the routes or projects to help develop local communities, as well as six new CSR travel routes with DASTA Thailand. A special discount is available for AMCHAM subscribers – please key in “Amchammagazine” at www. localalike. com to get a Baht 200 discount voucher when booking for two or more persons on any trip. Those interested in joining a test trip or receiving more information should contact noon@ localalike. com.
Alisha Somanas is a freelance travel industry writer. She can be contacted at annecdotes@ gmail. com.