Every year millions of people leave their homes and travel to other countries, often in the Global South, to undertake voluntary activities relating to topics such as environmental conservation, healthcare, construction, education, agriculture, archaeology and historical preservation. Such action, colloquially referred to as ‘volunteer tourism’, is estimated to generate between £832 million and £1.3 billion for the global economy each year (Mostafanezhad, 2013). It is commonly thought that volunteer tourism trips are undertaken over extended periods by young, middle class ‘gap year’ students, however it should be noted that middle aged and retired individuals also participate and that trips often occur over shorter timescales (less than 3 weeks).
In theory, volunteer tourism should be beneficial to host communities – certain activities should help to improve education, economics, healthcare, the natural environment and the built environment. In reality, however, volunteer tourism can create diverse and complex outcomes, such as economic dependency, cultural erosion, environmental degradation, cultural tension and a decreased labour demand (Sin, 2009).
Owing to this, and the paucity of research pertaining to the impacts of volunteer tourism, I decided to study the impacts of volunteer tourism on local people in a small town called Palampur in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh, Northern India (Figure 1). Set within the Kangra valley, and surrounded by the Dhauladhar mountain range, the town is significant because it is visited by a large number of volunteer tourists every year. These individuals, most of whom work with Kaya Responsible Travel, a British for-profit social enterprise, and Idex, an Indian enterprise, undertake activities primarily relating to education, but also to construction, environmental conservation and healthcare (Figure 2).
To study the impacts of volunteer tourism in Palampur, I organised interviews and focus group discussions with local stakeholders (e.g. teachers, political leaders, parents of children attending educational projects etc.). This approach is significant because most academic research focuses upon the motivations and preferred activities of volunteers, rather than the perceptions and opinions of local people. This is discussed by Sin Harng Luh (2010: 984), an academic from the National University of Singapore, who writes: “a cursory glance at existing research… shows the obvious skew in works focusing on the experiences of volunteer tourists rather than of the host communities”. I analysed the results from the interactions with local people using inductive and deductive interview codes and related them to a conceptual framework created by Flora (2004) (Figure 3). This allowed the impacts of volunteer tourism to be assessed in relation to seven different forms of community capital: financial, human, built, natural, cultural, social and political.
Following qualitative analysis it became evident that volunteer tourism was providing significant benefits for human, built, financial, natural, cultural and social capital. In relation to human capital (“Human capital [relates to]… opportunities for professional, educational and skill building” – Zahra and McGehee, 2013: 35), for example, local teachers felt that tourists who volunteered in their schools provided high quality teaching. One teacher stated:
“The volunteers teach English well… they help the children with their explains [sic] and they develop [the children’s] personality”.
Another teacher said:
“The volunteers make the children feel good and they guide them properly through tasks”.
Parents with children attending these schools also felt that volunteers were helping their children to learn. One parent stated:
“My childrens [sic] learn lots of English. Before they are not talk with English. I don’t know about English, anything. But my children go to… class… and learn lots of English words and they are using them… I feel happy” (Interview translated with the help of an interpreter).
Comparatively, in relation to built capital (“Built capital includes the physical structures of a community” – McGehee et al., 210: 487) and financial capital (“Financial capital refers to the financial resources available to invest in community capacity building” – Emery and Flora, 2006: 21), local people reported that volunteer tourists provided them with much needed gifts and finance. A teacher from a special needs school discussed this, saying:
“One big benefit is that they give clothes and stationery. Some people offer to give money, but this is not as satisfying to them. We ask them to provide desks, tables, stationery and machines instead. This is more satisfying and we write them a thanks letter”.
Similarly, a teacher from a government funded school recounted how a volunteer had provided funding for a child with physical and mental disabilities to attend a specialist school, as opposed to his school:
“There is a volunteer from Germany… in 2008 she come here and at that time there is a handicapped student in our school. So it’s very difficult to teach that type of student because we are not trained… you know… [for] children with special needs. [For] that type of student there is a separate teacher… and there is a specialist school… So that student is handicapped… his legs are not good and he is not speaking and [the volunteer] help him, he goes to there [special school]. She meet with the parents and the parents are poor… but she says ‘I… teach this student’ and that she wants to pay for him… [to go to] special school. She provide an income”.
Despite the perceived positive impacts on human, built, financial, natural, cultural and social capital, the research also demonstrated that volunteer tourism was creating negative impacts and points of concern in relation to financial, natural and human capital. For example, it became evident that some volunteers who worked in a local school caused disruption to student behaviour and the school’s timetable. This was discussed by one of the teachers, who said:
“All the volunteers are good, but some of them, like five percent… they are not follow our instruction; they are doing as they want and if we say break time only 20 minutes, they goes 35 to 40 minutes. They spend more [time] and it disrupts our school discipline, our timetable… this is a problem”.
Such behaviour reduces the positive impacts that volunteers are having on human capital in the town. To compound this, in relation to financial capital, there appeared to be the emergence of a dependency culture, with schools and daycare centres frequently asking the volunteer tourism organisations for money and resources.
Alongside the heterogeneous impacts of volunteer tourism on the seven forms of capital, it also became evident that international volunteers were creating positive and negative impacts that did not fit into Flora’s community capital framework (Figure 3). For instance, in interviews with stakeholders from day care centres, afterschool clubs (‘bridge classes’) and schools it became evident that volunteers were having impacts on local people, particularly children, at an individual level; they were influencing confidence, self-esteem and happiness. Although such impacts were largely positive, one interesting finding was that children often became sad and unhappy when volunteers returned to their home countries. This was summarised by a teacher from a local school, who said:
“When they left the school, the student… sometimes they weep. Because the volunteers… they teach very kindly and they comes very close in one month. And when they left… they feel very sad. I think really too attachment with the volunteers and students, and teachers also [laughter]”.
This led me to question the long-term, psychological impacts of cyclical volunteer tourism. In addition to this, volunteers were also found to be positively influencing health and healthcare in the town through their participation in ‘health camps’ in conjunction with local doctors and dentists. Owing to this, similarly to Zahra and McGehee (2013), the author adapted Flora’s (Figure 3) model to incorporate two new types of community capital: individual and wellbeing capital (Figure 4).
Overall, following the analysis of interactions with local stakeholders, I deduced that volunteer tourism in Palampur has had heterogeneous and multifaceted impacts. Consequently, the binary classification of volunteer tourism as either a pariah or panacea should not be used, but rather its impacts can range along a spectrum from harmful to very productive.
Emery, M. and Flora, C. (2006). Spiraling-up: Mapping community transformation with community capitals framework. Community Development, 37(1), pp.19-35.
Flora, C. (2004). Community dynamics and social capital. In: D. Rickwel and C. Francis, eds., Agroecosystems analysis, 1st ed. Madison: American Society of Agronomy Inc.
McGehee, N., Lee, S., O’Bannon, T. and Perdue, R. (2010). Tourism-related social capital and its relationship with other forms of capital: An exploratory study. Journal of Travel Research, 49(4), pp.486-500.
Mostafanezhad, M. (2013). The geography of compassion in volunteer tourism. Tourism Geographies, 15(2), pp.318-337.
Sin, H. (2009). Volunteer tourism: “Involve me and I will learn?”. Annals of Tourism Research, 36(3), pp.480-501.
Sin, H. (2010). Who are we responsible to? Locals’ tales of volunteer tourism. Geoforum, 41(6), pp.983-992.
Zahra, A. and McGehee, N. (2013). Volunteer tourism: A host community capital perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 42, pp.22-45.
This post provides a summary of the research that Patrick Ransom (@patrickoransom) undertook as a part of his MSc in Practising Sustainable Development at Royal Holloway, University of London. The research was funded, in part, by Royal Holloway’s Irene Marshall Scholarship.