You are still a tourist…
The tourism market place is a crowded landscape of niche groups with differing wants, needs, and motivation; however, they all have one thing in common…they are outsiders. It does not matter if you are a domestic business traveller from a nearby city or an international leisure traveller from a country that locals have never heard of, if you come from away you, are an outsider – it’s just a question of how much of an outsider you are.
For some being the other is a new experience, often an uncomfortable experience of not knowing the language, the food, the customs, or the environment. This can be shocking and unsettling for visitors who have spent most of their lives in places (even when travelling) that have people who look, speak, and dress like in similar ways to home. It is when travellers are confronted with these differences that we tend to see the two anchors on a spectrum of reactions: a) the visitor attempts to adjust and assimilate, so as to function more respectfully and effectively, or b) the visitor attempts to change the environment to match their own personal values and expectations. Regardless of where one ends up on the reaction spectrum, it is important to note that outsiders(or touristsas we are commonly known) come with all kinds of baggage and not all of it can be stowed in the trunk!
The tourism niches that I will speak to here, include: a) Voluntourism, and b) Educational Tourism. Both of these may also be put under other categories such as: service learning, missions, volunteer tourism, sport for development trips, community development programs, etc.What I am focused on is short term travel (<6 month) where the purpose of the trip is either to help (‘Save’) a community or group of people or expose students (predominantly from the global north) to developing countries through short term study tours, internships, and/or a combination of both. It is worth noting that I do not hold myself outside of this critique and many of the lessons and much of the critique shared here comes from firsthand experience (and my own mistakes).
Volunteer + Tourist = Voluntourist
According to Wearing (2002) voluntourism is defined as “those tourists who, for various reasons, volunteer in an organized way to undertake holidays that may involve the aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment” (p. 240). While the idea of voluntourism suggests a more responsible alternative to mass tourism, the reality is that it has become a billion dollar industry that is fueled by two groups. The first includes ethical organizations with close ties to the communities and the people that are being helped. The second group is comprised of unethical and fraudulent organizations that are capitalizing on the narrative that those who hold social advantages and privilege should dogoodby volunteering to help those without social advantage and privilege.
The research on this form of tourism is still growing but there is a clear trend…the benefits accrued through voluntourism are largely experienced by the tourist and not the host. In some cases (see Tourism Concern for more info) problems/issues are invented, children are trafficked, and community are left dealing with work completed by unskilled foreign labour that at best leaves them were they started and at worst puts them in a worse position.
University Program + Travel = Educational Tourist
International Internship + Student = Educational Tourist
Educational tourism shares a lot of the characteristics with voluntourism (particularly short term study tours and ill-conceived internships). Universities, professors, and internship coordinators can be myopic – keeping a singular focus on achieving the desired learning outcomes for students. Unfortunately, when this myopia is taken into a cross-cultural setting by those with limited understanding (or care) of the context, the learning for foreign students may come at the cost of the community.
When faculty/program leaders do not take into consideration the nature of the experience, do not assess the suitability of the students to participate in the international program, and do not take the time to build the relationships BEFORE bringing students into the mix, issues are bound to happen. When you put all of this into a post-colonial context where white (and foreign) privilege is high, the end result is the reinforcing of colonial or imperialistic perspectives. Worse, students return to their home countries thinking that their truth (as defined by their experience) is the true story of the place/organization with which they interacted.
What’s a Prof to do?
So should we end international volunteer experiences and short term field schools – NO!! There are incredible positives that can come about from cross-cultural interaction. A greater sense of understanding and awareness of different ways of knowing is just a start. However, we must do better and we must take a much more critical look at the programs that we design and the work that we do.
Here are some questions that we should ask ourselves:
My international experiences over the past 12 years of teaching at VIU have taught me a few things that now guide my practice:
Educational tourism and voluntourism both have the potential to lead to greater cultural awareness and to social change and development; however, if you are not willing to do the necessary work you should stay within the tourism bubble. The cultural space that has already been sacrificed to the economic development model that is mass tourism.
Dr. Aggie Weighill
Fernweh is a German noun that speaks to longing for travel to distant places - something that I strong relate to. I am very fortunate to have a career that helps me to fulfil my desire to travel and to explore our amazing planet. I also have incredible friends and family who both encourage me and join me on adventures at home and abroad.