In January 2014, the Journal of Sustainable Tourism published my edited Masters thesis, “Volunteer tourism, greenwashing & understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory” (free download), in which I posed the question, from the hundreds if not thousands of volunteer tourism options out there, can the difference in ethics demonstrated by organisations be perceived from websites? And can organisations use communication of responsibility and sustainability as a marketing differential, and if so, how?
The quick answer was yes, responsible differences can be communicated, it’s not always easy as a potential volunteer to perceive those differences but it is possible if you do your homework and know what to look for: Best practice can be delineated into criteria and content reviewed on a worst/best practice scale. A number of UK sending organisations’ web pages were sampled, comparing and contrasting popular projects and destinations (Community Development in Asia, Childcare in Africa and Conservation in Latin America), as well as their responsible tourism policies and home pages. The data was analysed, displayed on perceptual maps to demonstrate relative sector positioning, and various findings became apparent. By publishing the report, the sector could see how to improve, although the organisations were not publicly named in order to focus on the principles of best practice (and avoid an intent of litigation – the value of the perception of charity in this sector is strong but sometimes incorrect, realistically it is largely business).
The changing market
The research was featured in academic press like the Voluntourism Institute, industry press like Travelmole, Tourism Concern’s website and newsletter, national consumer press such as the Guardian and Telegraph and international travel media like National Geographic. Since then, the market has continued to display poverty marketing, clear publication of belittling or degrading content for the communities involved, but importantly we’ve also seen growing criticism of it and cynicism in consumer press, in websites such as Humanitarians of Tinder and in satirical articles like “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture” and “The Four Cutest Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third World Children”. Consumers like Pippa Biddle are speaking out about their disappointments as never before, whistleblowing irresponsible organisations and projects such as “God’s Grace Orphanage in Uganda”, and calling organisations to account on Social Media, for example Facebook pages “Better Volunteering”, “Negative Volunteer Reviews”, and for conservation, “Volunteers in Africa Beware”.
Thankfully it’s not all negative: great new organisations like Learning Service are rethinking volunteer travel and taking up the responsibility of making it a better and more positive experience for all; Existing organisations like ResponsibleTravel.com are evolving with the market and responsibly removing all orphanage tourism, others volunteer teachers to better empower local staff, protect children, ensure consistency and support sustainability.
Two years on from the original data research, the organisations studied demonstrate some interesting evolutions; importantly all are improving in their responsibility levels. Previously price and responsibility displayed an inverse relationship, concluding Price was not a Responsibility quality signal (as more Responsible products would have resulted in more premium prices). This still holds true with the 2014 data, although to a less exaggerated extent as prices have remained as wide ranging as previously, but overall Responsibility has increased. This suggests that Responsibility is indeed moving to become a quality signal in the market, and that a market advantage can be achieved by better marketing Responsible volunteer tourism: responsible volunteering practices can act as quality assurance and trust for a marketing advantage.
The new data and research will be published shortly and this article updated with further discussion.