Vol­un­tourism: Travel with a Pur­pose

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Niche Tourism - Writ­ten by: Alisha So­manas

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.


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.


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-


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.


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.

Vol­un­teers who helped build a dam in the wa­ter­shed for­est with the lo­cals from Baan Hua Tung, Chi­ang Dao

Vol­un­teers teach English to the Hloyo com­mu­nity in Doi Mae Sa­long, Chi­ang Rai

A com­mu­nity- based tourism group in Prom­lok, Nakhon Sri Tham­marat

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