A Spellbound Tale of Volunteer Tourisms Misleading Magical Experiences

This article highlights the dark side of the growing ‘voluntourism’ movement, paying particular attention to ‘orphanage tourism’ and the work of JK Rowling’s  Charity ‘Lumos’, as well as offering some useful suggestions of how we can repair some of the damage!    Written by Kirstyn Bowe a student at Plymouth University – Academic member.

Volunteer tourism, once considered “a form of ‘justice’ or ‘goodwill’” (Sin, 2009:480) has recently made the headlines for its dangers (Oppenheim, 2016). J.K. Rowling, a name synonymous with fantasy and magic, has shined a light (Lumos, 2016a) on the “dark side of voluntourism” (Tuovinen, 2014:1), exposing the reality of “rescue fantasies” (Reas, 2013:121) and their “magical memories” (Imire, 2016:No Page). Considered “the world’s most influential person” her voice and stories encourage individuals to think “positively about the Earth they inhabit” (Weller, 2015: No Page). Often times volunteer tourists are portrayed as a ‘hero’ (Tomazos and Butler, 2010) however, not all ‘heroic’ gestures end positively.

J.K. Rowling’s foundation Lumos is working towards aiding children “worldwide to regain their right to a family life and to end the institutionalisation of children” (Lumos, 2016b: No Page). Reaching a million viewers during a Facebook live broadcast (Lumos, 2016a), 60 thousand likes on Facebook (Facebook, 2016) and over 30 thousand shares on various news platforms (Oppenheim, 2016; Ruiz-Grossman, 2016), issues concerning this mass niche market (Reas, 2013; Burrai, Font & Cochrane, 2015) have reached a global audience, fighting to manage its rapid growth (Tomazos and Butler, 2010; Tuovinen, 2014; Conran, 2011; Lupoli, Morse, Bailey and Schelhas, 2014; Lyons and Wearing, 2012).

Alohomora – unlocking the history of volunteer tourism

To fully understand the extent of volunteer tourism it is important to first understand its definition and background. Volunteer tourism is a relatively new trend that emerged in the 1970’s (Gray and Campbell, 2007; Herbutt, 2012). Wearing (2001:1; Tuovinen, 2014:4) has provided the most commonly used definition of volunteer tourism and tourists, as “those […] who, for various reasons, volunteer in an organized way or undertake holidays that […] involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research”. However, this definition is simplistic, it does not address why individuals participate, the factors influencing this choice of holiday (Tomazos and Butler, 2010) and its central theme is positivity, ignoring the potential for negative impacts (Bargeman, Richards and Govers, 2016).

Although this form of tourism is relatively new (Herbutt, 2012) it has endured huge growth in demand and supply (Gray and Campbell, 2007; Herbutt, 2012; Lupoli, Morse, Bailey and Schelhas, 2014; Bargeman et al., 2016; Brown, 2005), particularly since the 1990’s (Carpenter, 2015a) and in correlation with the rise in the gap year (Lyons, Hanley, Wearing and Neil, 2012). An estimation of 1.6 million people worldwide participated annually in volunteer tourism in the 1990’s reaching closer to 10 million within the last few decades. It is estimated that spending within this market is between £832 million and £1.3 billion per year (Wearing and McGehee, 2013; McGehee, 2014). With websites such as Go Abroad offering over a variety of 2000 volunteer programmes (Go Abroad, 2016) it raises concern over the legitimacy and commodification of this form of tourism (Lyons et al., 2012; Lupoli et al., 2014).

Volunteer projects vary in duration and can range from building infrastructure to wildlife conservation, taking place both internationally and domestically. As interest in volunteering, and thus demand for volunteer tourism grows commercial providers are developing volunteer tourism products that may not share the same values as non-governmental and non-profit organisations. Ultimately these products do very little to help the communities visited, in an effort to simply gain a profit (Lyons et al., 2012; McGehee, 2014; Tourism Concern, 2016a; Simpson, 2004; Guiney and Mostafanezhad, 2015) by exploiting the good intentions of volunteers and the local communities (Tourism Concern, 2016b).

Aparecium – revealing the impacts of volunteer tourism

Volunteer tourism is seen as having the ability to correct “mainstream tourism’s negative consequences” (Caton, 2012), associated with improvements in education, cultural awareness and economic prosperity (Bargeman et al., 2016). It can contribute to the personal development of both parties involved by creating greater tolerance, empathy and affection towards one another. Local communities also benefit from the work accomplished by volunteers from the physical creation of infrastructure to improvements in education and environmental conservation. Volunteer projects can also promote gender equality throughout the community and create jobs both indirectly and directly (Corti, Marola and Castro, 2010). It is even argued that this form of tourism is aiding in creating global citizens by reducing “racial, cultural and social boundaries” (Coren and Gray, 2012:223).

However, not all outcomes of volunteer tourism are positive and mixed results have been reported (McGehee, 2012). At times volunteers have little skills in relation to their volunteer projects, thus resulting in unsatisfactory work, and reducing potential employment opportunities for locals. They expose cultures to different attitudes and ideas that may infringe on local society, inspiring cultural changes (Guttentag, 2009; Tuovinen, 2014; Richter and Norman, 2010; McGehee, 2012) through the demonstration effect. Volunteer tourism can also be responsible for strengthening cultural differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’ (Guttentag, 2009; McGehee, 2012). Further, volunteer tourism has been found to produce dependency from aiding countries (Simpson, 2004; McGehee, 2012) as well as neglect for community desires (Guttentag, 2009; McGehee, 2012).

Lumos – illuminating the dark side of volunteer tourisms infringement on human rights  

J.K. Rowling created one of the most famous orphans, and heroes, in history and her foundation is working towards alleviating the amount of children living in institutions (Lumos, 2016b). Volunteer tourism is highly concentrated in the ‘global south’ (Butcher and Smith, 2010) and, although not limited to, Cambodia has witnessed one of the largest ‘booms’ in orphanages, and subsequently orphanage tourism (Carpenter, 2015b). Increasing by 75% since 2005 (UNICEF, 2011), it is suggested that the percent of children in orphanages that are not indeed orphans ranges from 70% – 90%, depending on the source (UNICEF, 2011; Hartman, 2014; Tuovinen, 2014; Ruhfus and Haan, 2012; Lumos, 2016c). Volunteer tourism is the influential factor in this rapid increase, where institutions are growing faster than the rate of orphans (Hartman, 2014; Tuovinen, 2014). This rapid growth has led to concerns over the commodification of orphans (Carpenter, 2015a; Conran, 2011; Reas, 2013), infringing on the very first Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHR) article 1; ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (United Nations, 2016).

Orphanage tourism is an area of tourism research that has been neglected (Canosa and Graham, 2016), which is of major concern as children “are vulnerable and in need of protection” (Carpenter, 2015a:16;Bluebond-Langner and Korbin, 2007). Volunteering with children happens to be one of the most popular and controversial activities within this industry (Carpenter, 2015a; Tuovinen, 2014). Children have become themselves the attraction (Carpenter, 2015a; Guiney, 2012; Reas, 2013). The short film ‘Cambodia’s Orphans Business’ (Ruhfus and Haan, 2012) explores this form of volunteer tourism as a business. Footage shows the influx of volunteers to orphanages on a weekly basis, invading children’s privacy (Carpenter, 2015a). Volunteer projects such as this infringe on the UNHR article 12, ‘no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation’ (United Nations, 2016).

As volunteer tourists visit orphanages, interact with the children and teach them English they are being objectified in their own homes (Reas, 2013; Pitrelli, 2012). Further, they are put at serious risk from organisations that do not exercise volunteer or facility background checks (Tuovinen, 2014; Guiney, 2012). The UNHR article 25 states ‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself […] and the right to security’ (United Nations, 2016). Children are exposed to the potential for sexual abuse, malnutrition, poor hygiene and unsanitary and poor living conditions (Tuovinen, 2014; Ruhfus and Haan, 2012). It has been suggested that organisations are purposefully keeping children in poor conditions to encourage donations as a form of income generation (Ruhfus and Haan, 2012; Pitrelli, 2012).

The “revolving door of volunteers” (Pitrelli, 2012: No Page) passing through orphanages creates a form of unstable dependency from organisations for charitable income and children for emotional support (Ruhfus and Haan, 2012; Holmberg, 2014; Richter and Norman, 2010; Carpenter, 2015a). With the continuous change, children who have already experienced abandonment, neglect and abuse have to endure such pains again. This constant exposure can lead to problems in their social, psychological and physical development ultimately damaging their health and well being in the future (Richter and Norman, 2010; Guiney, 2012; Emond, 2009). Evidence shows that after care in orphanages, young adults suffer with trafficking, drugs, homelessness and broken family ties (Tuovinen, 2014).

Education plays a vital role in volunteering at orphanages. Article 26 of the UNHR acknowledges that ‘everyone has the right to education’ (United Nations, 2016) and so parents place their children in institutions where they believe their child will receive a better education (Carpenter, 2015a; Richter and Norman, 2010). However, unskilled, untrained (Tuovinen, 2014) and lack of professionalism found within volunteers (Carpenter, 2015a) makes achieving this right difficult. Orphanage businesses are exploiting the local culture in Cambodia where “parents believe that by selling their children […] they will get a better life” (Tuovinen, 2014:38) in institutionalised care (Carpenter, 2015a; 2015b; Friends-International, 2015). Exploitation of culture is further exercised once children are institutionalised. Reports of children performing around tourist areas (Pitrelli, 2012) or hosting cultural presentations at the orphanage are done solely for donations and to encourage visits, in some cases this occurs nightly (Tuovinen, 2014).

Although the picture of orphanage tourism seems to be filled with negativity, violating fundamental human rights, to some it is a source of light in an otherwise difficult situation. As discussed briefly above it is something of a cultural normality to send children to live in institutions in Cambodia (Carpenter, 2015a; 2015b).  Children in Cambodia have been documented to describe their situation as an orphan as ‘lucky’. They are grateful for the opportunities found in institutionalised care for education, nutrition, social prospects, and to no longer be demanded to work (Carpenter, 2015b; Emond, 2009). One child explained, “life in the orphanage is easier; we have three meals a day and can go and study freely. It was quite different [..] with my family.  All we thought about was […] getting food” (Emond, 2009:413). A survey conducted by Carpenter (2015b) found that 90% of the 7500 children in care were in fact healthy and developing normally. Thus, not all organisations are bad (Tourism Concern, 2016a) and perhaps the “western notions of group care as stigmatizing and limiting” (Emond, 2009:415) influences individuals overall image of orphanages stimulating their “rescue fantasies” (Reas, 2013:121).

Reparo – management suggestions to repair damages

In order to manage volunteer tourism and its impacts it is essential to first raise awareness of the current issues concerning this form of tourism. It should be clear what the weaknesses and damaging effects are to allow volunteers to make educated decisions and to allow projects to be individually developed and managed accordingly  (Guttentag, 2009; Barbieri, Santod and Katsube, 2012; Tuovinen, 2014; Richter and Norman, 2010). Government involvement is crucial in protecting local communities by offering support, monitoring organisations and running campaigns to discourage non-beneficial programmes (Tuovinen, 2014). By understanding governmental involvement, volunteer motivation, and organisations themselves, managing this growing market is possible.

Organisations play a vital role in reducing the threats of volunteer tourism, as they can be the catalysts for positive change (McGehee, 2012). Volunteers should be required to undertake background checks (Tuovinen, 2014), particularly if they will be working with children (Pitrelli, 2012). Their skills should be assessed in accordance to the projects goals and a clear work plan should be provided in order to ensure suitability, therefore resulting in successful execution on site and reducing the number of volunteers (Loiseau, Sibbald, Raman, Darren, Loh and Dimaras, 2016; Guttentag, 2009; Barbieri et al., 2012).

Organisations should also prepare volunteers pre-departure through orientations and debriefings (McGehee, 2012). During the volunteer process it is important organisations establish contact with volunteers throughout the duration of the programme (Tuovinen, 2014) and act as gatekeepers between volunteers and locals. Organisations with members skilled in languages, preferably English, should rotate these members throughout the project to increase quality of work and productivity by reducing confusion caused by language barriers (Barbieri et al., 2012).  Volunteer tourism providers should also continuously evaluate and monitor the effectiveness of their projects to ensure overall satisfaction (TIES, 2012)

Volunteers should chose to work with permanent staff at orphanages, not the children, to teach and encourage proper care with individuals who are stable in their lives and orphanages should refuse visits (Pitrelli, 2012; Tuovinen, 2014). This will also reduce attachment, employment and control issues (Pitrelli, 2012). Further, if aiding children is an area of interest volunteering with community-based programmes that support families would be a more suitable option. This form of volunteering would then reduce the chance of children being sent to potentially damaging institutions (Pitrelli, 2012; Friends International, 2015).  Volunteers should also thoroughly research organisations, and understand their motivation for involvement, when deciding on a volunteer holiday. How much of the placement fee goes directly to the organisation, whether background checks are required and if the company is legally registered are just a few things to consider (Pitrelli, 2012).

                                                 ‘We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.’ (Goldenberg, 2007)

Volunteer tourism stems from good intentions (Conran, 2011; Sin, 2009) however; its rapid growth (Reas, 2013) has gained the attention of commercial providers who are now exploiting volunteer’s sincere intents in order to make a profit (Conran, 2011; Tourism Concern, 2016b). J.K. Rowling has exposed to a wide audience how negative volunteer tourism can be (Oppenheim, 2016). Supporting dependency, infringement of human rights and cultural changes (McGehee, 2012) are just a few of the consequences of participating in this form of tourism. Volunteering with children in orphanages encourages the separation of families and can have severe impacts on children (Oppenheim, 2016; Tuovinen, 2014).

However, research has produced mixed results concerning the impacts of volunteer tourism (McGehee, 2012) and not all forms are bad (Tourism Concern, 2016a). It can benefit local communities by improving education, economic prosperity and cultural awareness (Bargeman et al., 2016). Yet, with a range of organisations and programmes available (Go Abroad, 2016) it can be difficult to determine which are genuine (Lyons et al., 2012; Lupoli et al, 2014). With enough knowledge and awareness of this market, with the help of powerful voices, volunteers will be able to make educated choices concerning volunteer organisations and their projects, altering demand and supply (Tourism Concern, 2016a) and providing all parties involved with beneficial and magical experiences.


Photo by Tree Leaf Clover

About the author

Helen Jennings

Helen has studied at the Universities of Goldsmiths, Kent, Jyvaskyla (Finland) and The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø) where she obtained a MA in Indigenous Studies. She has travelled extensively and has lived and worked in Canada, Scandinavia, and South America. Helen is particularly interested in cultural, indigenous, and spiritual tourism, ideas behind sensible ‘regulation’ and is convinced of the value of ethical and sustainable tourism.

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