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Which are the impacts of volunteer tourism?

Marta Salvador | Alba Sud

Apart from being an increasingly popular and interest phenomenon, volunteer tourism or voluntourism generates debates around it, such as which are the impacts that it has on volunteers and local communities.

Photography by: Group of volunteer tourists. Source: Flickr (creative commons license).

As Wearing’s definition mentions (2001), volunteer tourism encompasses those tourists that, for different reasons, carry out volunteerism in an organized way during their vacations. This can imply helping or relieving material poverty of some society collectives, the restoration of some spots or the research about society and environment aspects. The definition of this academic makes clear that the central idea behind volunteer tourism is that there are positive impacts because it aims to develop a more beneficial tourism for the local community and the environment.Likewise,Guttentag (2009) points out that voluntary work can positively contribute to the hostess society, as it can bring benefits to the tourism sector and more understanding between cultures. However, other authors have also mentioned some negative effects, both for local communities and volunteers. For this reason, in some cases volunteer tourism has been considered as a new way of colonialism, where the voluntary people’s interests and motivations outweigh the locals’ necessities and wishes, and it is also related to a political culture of neoliberal nature (Germann, 2016).

On the other hand, mass media has published some news such as “The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?”. The newspaper The Guardian exposes some facts like 92% of children in orphanages have parents, but they continue living in orphanages because these institutions receive more donations. It also mentions that there are problems for poor communities that receive tourists or cites examples of organizations and their functioning. Another journal, El País, wrote the next article: “Voluntourism: The risk of volunteerism for tourists that manages millions of euros”,where it is claimed that volunteer tourism business maintains the idea of unequal relationships between rich and poor people, and basically consists on tourists paying the organizations to do volunteerism. Another example is the report of The Daily Beast: “The hidden dangers of volunteer tourism”which exposes how the voluntourism industry rapidly grows and is not always regulated, affecting the ideals of this phenomenon or produce negative unintended consequences.

This media repercussion has also been reflected in other topics such as tourist motivations to do volunteer tourism, as we already explained in this article. Both issues, motivations and impacts, are the main ones investigated by academics during the last decades (Salvador, 2019). In the research about volunteer tourism effects, two agents can be distinguished: volunteers and the local community, as the impacts that each receive are different.

The volunteer tourism effects on volunteers

Generally, tourists that travel to carry out volunteer tourism wish to live an enriching and unforgettable adventure. However, the effects of this experience can be either positive or negative.

Regarding the positive impacts, in the specialized literature volunteers’ personal changes that are reflected in personality, behaviour, awareness, self-knowledge, critical thought, etc. can be distinguished. Volunteer tourism represents an opportunity to expose social and environmental inequalities and current political problems, which allows the tourist to gain more consciousness. This turns the personal issues into political ones and leads the volunteer to social change. Another positive effect is that critical reflections about volunteer tourism, its structures and unequal relations derived are promoted.

Volunteer tourists and locals. Source: Flickr (creative commons license). .

During their volunteer stay, tourists deeply understand locals’ conditions and obtain personal growth which is reflected in the social consciousness, sympathy, etc. Moreover, they also change their way of being and behaving: being more self-critical, evaluating their performance in different situations, changing their views of life and environmental conducts. Volunteer tourism allows them to obtain a space for the emancipation of their participants, meaning that volunteers can access a state of autonomy where they get over the existing oppression in society. Finally, it affects the improvement of global citizenship of voluntary people, who obtain a greater feeling of responsibility, become mature leaders and people willing to help in an unfair world.

The second topic that can be differentiated in the positive effects are changes related to the connection, social commitment or the way volunteers implicate themselves. The first positive effect is reflected in more participation and engagement in social movements related to community problems and environmental causes. Some voluntary people keep carrying on volunteer activities, either in their community or in another country, and supporting the organizations that promote it. Related to the last effect, some tourists continue their studies related to the type of volunteerism they experience such as academic studies in environmental sciences.

Volunteer tourism also promotes the building of friendly relationships between tourists and the local population, and the creation of a community of individuals with the same values and objectives, providing a productive soil for the development of networks and experiences that raise consciousness. Tourists have the possibility of becoming agents of change, suggesting that they have the power and capacity to help the ones who need it. Finally, another positive effect is that voluntourism helps to solve existing problems in the Third World and promotes a deeper connection between parents and children when volunteer tourism is carried out with the family.

Regarding the negative impacts on volunteers, two types can be distinguished depending on whether they take place during or after the volunteerism or if they are related to the local community or the volunteer tourists.

First of all, in the negative effects that take place during the volunteerism and are related to the local community, there is the fact of building and maintaining barriers in order to physically and socially separate from locals, apart from not making an effort to explore the autochthonous culture. Moreover, sometimes volunteers establish a dichotomy between “us” (tourists) and “them” (host community) and see more differences, which also helps to reinforce negative stereotypes about locals, seen as inferiors or with fewer possibilities. This is also defined as another negative effect of volunteer tourism.

During their experience, voluntary people can also develop an occidental paternalism and promote superiority in front of communities, as they believe they know what is better for locals. In this way, they act as experts, which is seen as a representation of the neocolonialist construction of the racially and culturally superior occident. Volunteers are usually dependent on an ideal of “luck” to explain inequalities and differences found during the volunteerism. In this sense, to observe poverty makes them feel fortunate and appreciate what they have or the place they were born in, even rejecting the occidental materialism. Finally, volunteers excuse themselves from material inequality and poverty through the conception of “poor but happy” and are not against them. This expression is frequently used in the volunteer tourism literature to refer to poor, but happy communities. However, it can bring contradictions as tourists feel deceived because they do not find the imaginary poverty produced by preconceived ideas. Instead, they meet happy and joyful communities, which makes them feel relieved because they do not need to deal with poverty.

The second part is focused on the negative effects that take place after the volunteerism and are directly related to volunteers. Once the participants return home, they are equally susceptible not to contribute to their communities of origin, and sometimes decide not to participant neither support social movements. On the other hand, they express an appreciation for their daily life, feeling fortunate without talking about problems about global inequality or poverty. Finally, they do not have the desire of breaking power structures currently existing between north and south communities, which promote global inequalities and only want to personally reproduce.

Volunteer tourism effects on the local community

Volunteer tourism, like any other kind of tourism, has a series of impacts on the community where tourism takes place and, in this case, where the volunteerism does too. The local or host community is defined as the group of people that live in the Global South and receive help from volunteers that visit them coming from the Global North. On this occasion, the effects can also be divided into positive and negative.

Regarding the positive effects, economic, social and environmental benefits can be differentiated. Focusing on the first ones, there is economic growth in the destination thanks to volunteer tourism and an increase in the educational tools and construction of new schools thanks to the donations of tourists.

Meeting of local women. Source: Flickr (creative commons license).

Secondly, the social benefits identified are: the reinforcement of the community; the improvement of education and knowledge, both of children and teachers; the creation of a more affectioned environment, as volunteer tourists pay more personal attention to the boys and girls and that makes them feel like home when they are at school; a greater socio-cultural understanding coming from the community because of their implication on the projects; the local development with, for example, projects that work for the rural development in areas where the community now has access to alternative energy sources or water purification systems; the obtention of a space for the local emancipation that, as it is mentioned in the positive impacts of volunteer tourism on volunteers, in this case host communities can access an autonomy state, opposite the oppression feeling that takes place in unequal power relationships. Finally, the last social benefit is the creation of friendly relationships with voluntary people.

Thirdly, there are environmental benefits as some volunteer projects are dedicated to nature conservation such as the savannah or marine resources, to clean natural areas, to help in the birth of marine turtles, etc. On one hand, more environmental awareness is achieved as tourists can become the engine of the local environmental action, helping to clean beaches or coral reefs in destinations. On the other hand, conservation and development needs of the ecosystems are met, getting support for the investigation, conservation and improvement of subsistence means of less-favoured regions.

The second part of this section refers to the negative effects of volunteer tourism on the community, classified in three different topics. Firstly, there are unpredicted negative effects derived from the presence of volunteer tourism. These are divided into four impacts: the reduction of job opportunities as volunteers occupy them and/or work for free, taking the place of members of the local community who could work for a salary; the creation of dependency because communities rely on assistance external resources and distrust local providers, making them extremely vulnerable since projects can cease in any moment; cultural changes that have negative effects on communities and come from the exchange between volunteer tourists and locals and, finally, the local population and children become a sign of exoticism, the authentic “other”, which can be treated as an object and consumed by the tourist gaze, provoking harmful power relationships.

The following negative effects are derived from reactions, feelings or changes in the behaviour of locals. One of the impacts is cultural tensions between voluntary people and locals, as volunteers often behave following customs and rules that they have in their country of origin disregarding how can it affect the host community. Jealousy feelings can emerge because locals (mostly children) try to copy foreign consumption patrons, but the richness elements are out of their reach. Finally, an inferiority feeling can appear from locals to the tourists due to power/knowledge inequalities between travellers and hosts, where a hierarchy that places volunteers as well-intended donors and locals as charity receptors is generated.

Lastly, negative effects provoked by inefficient management of the projects or the lack of tourists’ abilities can be found. Sometimes, the objectives of projects of the organizations can be contrary to the desires of the local communities. In other cases, the social transformations in destinations or the cause of why a project is being developed are less valued, as final and economic results are prioritized. Another possible scenario is the impediment or unsatisfactory fulfilment of work, due to a lack of abilities and knowledge of volunteers. This can happen in a school where tourists are teaching English as it is their mother tongue, but they have never studied before how to teach a language or worked the abilities a teacher must have. Finally, the last negative effect is related to the excessive use of natural resources of a destination due to a commodification of the area or field where projects are carried out.

Opposed visions

As it is explained in this article, the experience of doing volunteer tourism has positive and negative effects on volunteers. However, there is a huge contraposition of the arguments exposed by different investigators. For this reason, a diverse scenario about the same model is made clear, without enough consensus to determine the type of impacts that volunteer tourism generates. This scenario is also reflected in the polarisation of arguments regarding the local community. On this basis, it can be confirmed that there is much controversy of visions in the evaluation of volunteer tourism and that it is difficult to make a balance because it exists plenty of success and failure cases.

In this sense, it is crucial to continue investigating why these differences are produced and keep on deeply analysing both the positives and negative impacts. However, it must be taken into account that volunteer tourism is not a homogeneous phenomenon and that each lived experience is different, either from the point of view of the volunteer, the local community or the organization that manages the projects.


Caparrós, M. (16 December 2018). Volunturismo: El riesgo del voluntariado para turistas que mueve millones de euros. El País.
Germann Molz, J. (2016). Making a difference together: discourses of transformation in family voluntourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 24(6), 805-823.
Guttentag, D. (2009). The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism. International Journal of Tourism Research 11(6) 537-551.
Rosenberg, T. (13 September 2018). The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?The Guardian.
Salvador, M. (2019). Characterization and debates about volunteer tourism (Degree Dissertation). CETT-UB, Barcelona.
Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism. Experiences that make a difference. Wallingford: CABI
Withrow, B. (22 February 2019). The Hidden Dangers of Volunteer Tourism. The Daily Beast.

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