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Opinion | Responsible Tourism


Volunteer tourists, which are their motivations?

Marta Salvador | Alba Sud

Volunteer tourism or voluntourism phenomenon is living a moment of high popularity, not only due to the increased number of tourists and organizations, but also because of the media impact during the last years.

Photography by: Helena Lopes. Source:

News such as Volunteer tourism: is your trip altruistic or ineffective? from The National Student wonder about the purpose of these experiences which take place in the countries located in the area known as Third World. Others such as How to take a gap year and not become a lost year published in El País, include the volunteer tourism as one of the choices that a lot of young people choose before going to the university, when they travel and volunteer. Moreover, newspapers such as The Telegraph, have published the best travel companies for volunteering. On the other hand, La Vanguardia reported that sexual tourism exists in some countries such as Thailand, Cambodia or Philippines and lots of volunteers use their stays in orphanages to take advantage of children.

At the same time, some scandals have appeared like the one involving the organization Yes We Help, which promoted volunteer travels for young people in destinations such as Ghana or Sri Lanka, mainly through social media like Instagram. However, volunteers felt cheated when they realised there was no planning of the volunteer tasks and lived episodes of threats from the authorities of these countries.

In addition to this media interest growth, investigators and academics have started to deeply analyse the real motivations of tourists, in a debate where ethics and the dynamics generated during the experience are very present (Salvador, 2019).

Who are and what motivations have volunteer tourists?

Volunteer tourists are characterized by being Global North inhabitants (mostly from United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries from the North of Europe) who volunteer in Global South countries (South or South-east of Asia, Africa, Centre or South-America). The majority are youngsters and students from 16 to 22, although the age range can reach up to 60 years old. However, there is also a type of volunteers that are professionals from the tourism sector and volunteer as representatives of their company.

The majority of authors who have investigated in the voluntourism field point out that one of the volunteers’ main motivations is to contribute and help the local population (Coghlan, 2008; Daldeniz, 2010; Guiney, 2018; Mc Gloin & Georgeou, 2016; Olsen et al., 2018; Schneller & Coburn, 2018; Sin, 2009), what is also known as ‘give back’, being a sense of debt from the tourist to the host community he or she is visiting.

Nevertheless, other academics have referred to motivations that are not only related to the altruistic wish of helping the ‘others’, people poorer than them who live in underdeveloped countries, but that are instead related to personal and intrinsic benefits. In this sense, six aspects can be differentiated.

First of all, motivations related to the desire of personal grow, development and improvement. For this reason, lots of tourists decide to volunteer in order to obtain new communication and social abilities, team work, empathy and/or knowledge related to the destination, its inhabitants and culture, as well as the performed tasks during the voluntary work. Tourists are also motivated to win personal experience due to the fact of living in a new place, with strangers, in a culture with different customs and lifestyles, etc. apart from achieving personal growth and undergoing self-reflection of what they live, feel or see during this experience. This last motivation is related to the one of volunteering for self-interest and self-gratification.

Volunteer in a South-African classroom. Author: Assia Bouabellou. Source:

Some volunteers are motivated to make a difference in the world, understood as causing a change or feeling especial carrying out a significant activity. For this reason, they use volunteer tourism as a personal strategy and a determined way of life. Other volunteers see this experience as a challenge and want to test themselves in order to prove if they are capable of enjoying it or whether it is such a big challenge that they cannot reach it. Another motivation is to promote family unification between its members, who participate in this experience. Finally, tourism professionals and companies which work in this sector are motivated to obtain personal benefits such as business positioning, stablishing new contacts or relationships, personal satisfaction, etc.

In second place, we can find those motivations related to the desire of breaking with the daily routine in the country of origin of the volunteer. Some tourists look for the possibility of escaping from the job or the professional career that were frustrating them and decide to volunteer in order to deepen in a new sector. Others seek to have a place to escape from the daily life and find that volunteer tourism offers the possibility of staying enough time in a totally different context, allowing them to disconnect and have new experiences. This last fact (having new experiences) is another motivation, since it allows tourists to live new realities, with different people and places other than the usual ones.

Another motivation comes from not knowing what to do in life and choosing volunteer tourism as an option due to the lack of alternatives. This occurs to lots of students when they finish the compulsory education, they don’t know which degree they are going to study and decide to volunteer so as not to stay at home doing nothing. At the same time, tourists want to have fun, enjoying the trip and the volunteering as an amusing, exciting and enriching experience.

In the third place, we can find those motivations related to aspects of the professional career of tourists and their future job. On one hand, they want to improve their curriculum vitae, learning new abilities and living experiences that help them to obtain a work placement or improve in their job. On the other hand, volunteers wish to progress in their professional degree and obtain work experience in their international field.

The fact of finding people with whom to be able to stablish new relationships is another reason to carry out volunteer tourism. Participants are motivated to meet people who share similar interests as well as to make new friends; contacting with tourism professionals and/or communities, establishing contact nets for their own interests; and developing personal relationships with hosts to make their experience more authentic and better understand the local context where the volunteering takes place.

Motivationsrelated to the type of trip constitute the fifth topic. Volunteer tourism is conceived as a more comfortable and cheap way of travelling, as well as an opportunity for travelling in a group, in an organized way, thus becoming a motivation factor for tourists. They also find that volunteer tourism offers them the possibility to carry out long-term volunteering and with more dedication than in their own country or community. Finally, volunteers are motivated to live a lifestyle of ‘holidays’, which allows them to extend the trip they have begun as backpackers and continue it as volunteer tourists.

Backpacker. Source:

The sixth and last aspect referring to tourists’ motivations we can find those related to the volunteering destination since some tourists choose the volunteering guided by their desire to travel to an exotic and unknown place. Others have the willingness to contribute to the reduction of poverty, to which romantic ideas are associated. These ideas include scenarios where relating with local inhabitants is possible, as well as observing foreign culture and the beautiful landscapes. It should be noted that these romantic images are usually created by volunteer tourism organization or the own tourists from preconceived ideas from the Global North.

Another motivation is the fact of being closer to nature, because some volunteer projects are carried out in rural zones or are related to the environmental conservation and more sustainable practices. Tourists are also motivated because they have a personal relationship with the destination or the location is convenient for them, since they are close to home. Finally, in the case of tourism professionals that do volunteering, the fact of preserving, restoring and increasing the sustainability of a touristic product becomes one of their main motivations.

In this sense, a review of the definition of ‘volunteer tourism’ should be done, mainly understood currently as the type of tourism where their participants carry out volunteer work in local communities as part of their trip. Therefore, it should be added that much of the motivation of these tourists is given for reasons that refer to personal and/or professional development, as well as the type of travel and/or destination and not only reasons related to altruism.

The role of volunteer organizations

As it has been explained at the beginning of this article, volunteer tourism has increased in popularity during the last years and it is becoming more accessible to tourists in different parts of the world. Moreover, there has been a growth of organizations which promote, sell and organize programs to send volunteers to poor communities from the Third World or Global South. This big proliferation of organizations can be beneficial for the communities that really need external help because their living conditions are extreme or have a lack of resources to survive. However, the risk of commodification of these experiences must be alerted since many organizations design volunteer programs where they only contemplate their own interests. The main objective of the organizations is, in the majority of cases, to attract volunteers and to obtain economic benefits without taking into account the necessities of locals, possible negative impacts in the host community or the abilities and knowledge that tourists have about the volunteer work. In this sense, we need to be aware that the impacts of volunteering tourism can be much more negative than positive.

In order to prevent from this to happen, volunteer organizations have to improve the participation and integration of local population in the programs’ performance. For this reason, the development of programs together with the host community must be enhanced, because on numerous occasions projects do not receive their support, which can affect the final work of volunteers and their experience in general, since there can be bad relationships between hosts and tourists. It is also necessary to prioritize the needs and wishes of the local community, since they are mostly considered insignificant or left behind in the background, as well as that some projects end up not responding to the expectations and planned actions. Finally, it is necessary to analyze the fact that host communities can have the control of the voluntary program.

On the other hand, the organizations have the challenge of improving the design of volunteer programs adapting them to the characteristics, expectations and abilities of tourists. One of the proposals consists on being more aware of the differences between volunteers, their motivations and the necessities they want to achieve during their holidays. Another one refers to developing appropriate and realistic expectations to volunteers about what the destination is like, what are they going to do, to see and feel, etc. It is also recommended to have agreater understanding of the process of development and maturation of the participants, which are mainly teenagers who are in a process of change and planning of future studies and want to have a significant and educational experience. At the same time, it would be necessary to establish minimum requirements for the volunteers regarding the required skills to carry out tasks in the projects. In addition, organizations must be aware of the stereotypes that tourists have regarding host communities and the romantic view of poverty.

In order for the volunteers to be well prepared, it is recommended to provide them with assistance and training before the trip and thus be able to increase their knowledge about the destination, explain what their work will be as volunteers, solve doubts, etc. In this way, volunteers feel more prepared and get all the information prior to the experience. However, these encounters should lead to the debate and reflection of the volunteers on their motivations for volunteer tourism, as well as the positive or negative impacts they will bring to the local community. It is also very interesting that organizations could keep track of the tourists' stay and, above all, a final reflection of the experience. This last point can be crucial for the future of these participants, who are able to assess what volunteerism has contributed to them, how they face their lives once they have returned to their country of origin and reflect on the main motivations that led them to live this experience.

Finally, organizations should improve the management of projects to foster the positive impacts of cultural exchange and appreciation and, at the same time, reduce the negatives. First, in order to reduce the negative impacts of the sector, it is necessary to have a greater awareness of them so that the projects are developed and managed avoiding that they occur. Secondly, in order to promote positive impacts, organizations are encouraged to facilitate the development of networks and exchange opportunities among volunteer tourists and the community. Thirdly, it is proposed to commercialize volunteer programs in different countries to attract more diverse people and increase cultural exchange. Finally, organizations should help achieve the goal of volunteer tourism to develop a cultural appreciation and understanding of communities, as well as to promote transformative and experiential learning.

All these conduct recommendations for volunteer organizations are key to avoiding the perversion and commodification of volunteering tourism. In addition, although it is not a very explored topic, these organizations can play an important role in the motivations of volunteers to live this experience and lead them to carry out a personal assessment and reflection on what this experience means. However, there are many NGOs with a long history in the field of volunteerism, which may have threatened their work due to the appearance of new companies or forms of non-clear associations that have been interested in this new niche business. That is why we must recognize their daily work and effort to maintain the original meaning of volunteering tourism, where volunteers, local communities and organizations have to work together in the same direction and with common objectives.


Coghlan, A. (2008). Exploring the Role of Expedition Staff in Volunteer Tourism. International journal of Tourism Research (10), 183-191.
Daldeniz, B. & Hampton, M. (2010). Charity-based Voluntourism Versus ‘Lifestyle’ Voluntourism: Evidence from Nicaragua and Malaysia. Working paper, 211.  
Guiney, T. (2018). ‘Hug-an-orphan vacations’: ‘Love’ and emotion in orphanage tourism. Geographical Journal, 184(2), 125-137.
McGloin, C., & Georgeou, N. (2016). ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education. Journal of Sociology, 52(2), 403–417. 
Olsen, L. M., Vogt, C., & Andereck, K. (2018). Sustaining the common good: tourism professional motives to volunteer for the tourism industry. Tourism Recreation Research, 43(1), 68–81.
Salvador, M. (2019). Characterization and debates about volunteer tourism (Degree Dissertation). CETT-UB, Barcelona.
Schneller, A. J., & Coburn, S. (2018). For-profit environmental voluntourism in Costa Rica: teen volunteer, host community, and environmental outcomes. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 26(5), 832–851.
Sin, H.L. (2009). Volunteer tourism – Involve me and I will learn’?. Annals of Tourism Research, 36(3), 480-501.
Aquest article es publica en el marc del projecte «Enfortir el criteri d'inclusivitat en el turisme responsable: una resposta als reptes de l'Educació per a la Justícia Global», executat per Alba Sud amb el suport de l'Ajuntament de Barcelona a través del Programa d' educació per a la Justícia Global (convocatòria 2018).

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