Illustration: Michael Mucci.
Could the surge in volunteer tourism be doing more harm than good?
VOLUNTEER-related travel has been one of the biggest trends in tourism in the past decade but who is measuring how much good it is doing?
With "voluntourism" now a mainstream commodity, many are questioning to what extent the good-natured intentions of travellers are being matched by benefits to communities.
"With the growth in the area, there's a real concern about why people are doing projects and whether it is just to make them feel good," says a Sydney-based expert in responsible tourism, Stephen Wearing.
"It has been commoditised by mainstream tourism and they [tourism operators] have realised they can turn a profit out of it.
"I think there can be a profit made but I would really like to see more transparency in where the money is going," Dr Wearing says.
Concerns about the contradictory nature of some voluntourism programs have prompted the International Ecotourism Society and Planeterra - a non-profit foundation created by adventure tourism operator G Adventures - to commit to developing a set of guidelines for the sector.
The organisations say the guidelines, which will be released in coming weeks, will help operators plan and manage their programs in a sustainable way and help travellers make "smart decisions" about which programs to support.
Wearing, who is an associate professor in leisure and tourism at the University of Technology, Sydney and is on the panel developing the guidelines, says there are widespread concerns about some volunteer programs.
There have been efforts to induce the Australian government to fund "proper research" into the outcomes of voluntourism but this has not occurred.
Wearing says the most contentious issue is short-term volunteers working with orphans, who can suffer separation issues when the volunteers leave (although Wearing says short-term interaction might still be better than no interaction, depending on the circumstances).
There can also be situations in which volunteers deprive locals of paid work.
Wearing has also seen cases where infrastructure or machinery has gone to ruin because the locals do not have the expertise or parts to maintain it and places where state-of-the-art facilities are not being used because they are not suited to the local culture.
"A lot of these programs are not being evaluated at all," Wearing says. "I think it is essential, because you need to find out what happened and make changes where they are needed.
"My suggestion has always been that there is long-term contact with that community - that it's not a one-off [project]."
The London-based division leader for adventure, youth and independent travel for Flight Centre, Carl Cross, also has concerns about some voluntourism programs in the market, particularly involving work with orphans and abandoned children.
"A foreign volunteer can seem like a great way to entertain the kids and keep them busy ... the risk here is that it doesn't take long for these children to establish unusually strong bonds with the volunteers," Cross says.
"I believe as an industry we need to think about our responsibilities and the impact we have on individuals when we leave them and go back to our normal life."
Cross says that although the majority of voluntourism projects are "incredibly beneficial", the sector lacks a global ethical standards or accreditation body, leaving it open to rogue operators.
The Flight Centre-owned gapyear.com is working on its own resource for the voluntourism sector, for publication on the website this year.
Cross says the information will help the travel industry and travellers assess the short, medium and long-term impacts of volunteer projects on communities
"We hope to be able to provide a quality, relevant and up-to-date guide to which projects are benefiting communities and which are draining their already limited resources," he says.
Cross believes there is room for profit-making organisations to sell volunteering placements if they are donating a percentage of the money to the local community, providing infrastructure for volunteers and providing jobs for locals.
Potential volunteers should research projects, seek opinion and ensure they book with an operator that takes a responsible approach.
Cross believes social media is playing an important role in the regulation of the industry.
"If a project is not well managed or a group of volunteers feel that the community is being exploited, it doesn't take long for this to enter the public domain."
Travellers choosing a volunteer program should focus on the long-term commitment to the community involved, Stephen Wearing says.
The volunteer's time might represent a relatively small benefit and travellers should ask questions, such as how much of their program fee will go to the community.
"Ask what the program provides outside of your volunteering time," he says.
While programs run by non-profit organisations tend to be more expensive, Wearing believes they tend to provide more benefit.
"If I was picking, I'd pick a not-for-profit," Dr Wearing says.