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Why and how should the international volunteer tourism experience be improved?

Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes (WHATT)
Volume 7 Number 2, 2015

Why and how should the international volunteer tourism experience be improved?

Theme Editor Angela M Benson shares her reflections on the significance and outcomes of the theme issue with Managing Editor Richard Teare

– Profiles the WHATT theme issue ‘Why and how should the international volunteer tourism experience be improved?’ with reference to the experiences of the theme editor and the theme issue outcomes.
Approach – Uses structured questions to enable the theme editor to reflect on the rationale for the theme issue question, the starting-point, the selection of the writing team and material and the editorial process.
Findings – Examines underlying and current criticisms of volunteer tourism by drawing on a range of stakeholder perspectives and sources to identify common strands related to ‘why’ volunteer tourism needs to be improved.
Practical implications – Incorporates analysis of international projects in developing countries with case studies from Botswana, Nepal, Guatemala and Peru and a range of different types of project: wildlife and conservation, orphanages and both child and health-related volunteering.
Originality/value – Initiated at a conference on the topic, the issue blends research-based and viewpoint articles, academic analysis and practitioner insight to produce the most comprehensive and authoritative review to-date. The issue also addresses ‘how’ volunteer tourism could be improved and the extent to which mechanisms are, or could be, put in place to encourage the adoption of best practice.

Article type: Viewpoint

Key words: International Volunteer Tourism, Voluntourism, Quality, Best Practice, Certification.


Gap year volunteering has grown in popularity in recent years but how do young people (and other age groups) choose between the many organizations that provide international volunteer tourism opportunities? As far as we know, this is the first dedicated journal issue on the topic and specifically on the quality of provision in this sector with its wide spectrum of operators from commercial to charitable organizations. A list of the articles in this theme issue can be found in Appendix 1.

Why in your view, is your theme issue strategic question important?

International volunteer tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon, with rapid growth occuring since 2000. At the same time, the level of criticism voiced by academics, practitioners and the media has been building. Initially viewed as a ‘saving the world’ concept this notion has been overtaken by broad-based concern about the ethical status of international volunteer tourism. In view of this, the aim here is to examine why and how the international volunteer tourism experience could be improved for volunteers and the host communities they visit.

Thinking about your theme issue plan and approach, what worked well?

To investigate and respond to our strategic question: ‘Why and how should the international volunteer tourism experience be improved?’ we sought to blend research-based and viewpoint articles, academic analysis and practitioner insight.
First, we examined underlying and current criticisms of volunteer tourism by drawing on a range of stakeholder perspectives to identify common strands related to ‘why’ volunteer tourism needs to be improved. Our sources for this analysis also included academic literature, popular media-based material, volunteer travel books and social networks. After this, we considered ‘how’ volunteer tourism could be improved and the extent to which mechanisms are, or could be, put in place to encourage the adoption of best practice. To add breath and depth to our investigation of the ‘why’ and ‘how’, the issue incorporates analysis of case studies from Botswana, Nepal, Guatemala and Peru as well as different types of projects – wildlife and conservation, orphanages and both child and health-related volunteering. Although it was a challenging exercise to implement and manage, the theme issue plan and approach worked really well. In fact, our view is that it represents the single most comprehensive and authoritative review of the international volunteer tourism sector to-date.

How did you engage with different stakeholder groups?

To initiate an exploration of the challenges and rising criticism of the international volunteer tourism sector, an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Festival of Social Science funded event, entitled ‘Pursuing Quality in International Volunteering‘ was held at the University of Brighton in November 2013. Prior to this event, I had met one of Emerald’s Publishers at a conference and as we discussed Emerald’s portfolio of tourism and hospitality journals, it occurred to me that Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes offered an ideal format to extend and disseminate our discussions about the state of the volunteer tourism sector. I made contact with WHATT’s managing editor and we had an email discussion about my ideas for a theme issue. To capture these, he asked me to compile a theme issue plan based on a proforma consisting of a series of questions. This exercise helped me to see how the conference could easily dovetail with on-going discussion and analysis leading to the publication of a WHATT theme issue.

What were the highlights from stakeholder group interactions?

We knew that our conference would attract interest from academics but I was surprised and pleased by the number of practitioners that participated as both speakers and delegates. We even had industry sponsored events at the conference and over post-event drinks, the dialogue continued long after the formal presentations and plenary session. In summary, the event brought together academics and practitioners in a successful debate, and this enabled all of to recognize that this was the first step of a much longer journey. In this context, WHATT has been a perfect vehicle to extend and disseminate the discussion that took place and the articles draw on attendees at the ESRC event and the wider international volunteer tourism network of academics and practitioners.

What are the most significant outcomes of your theme issue in terms of the contributions to knowledge and/or professional practice?

As this is the first sector-wide analysis of the issues and challenges for international volunteering, there are many observations about the operation, organization and management of this sector. As I reflect on the sequence of articles, here are a few of the highlights:

(1) A regulatory framework – possibly based on certification of good practice would help to address many of the criticisms arising from the different commercial and non-commercial organizations operating in this sector.
(2) If it is to be valued, volunteer tourism must have an authentic purpose, be valued locally and not act as a replacement for local jobs.
(3) Volunteer tourism websites have been found to make misleading and/or inaccurate statements about the nature of the experience offered and a content-analysis based grading scheme is one way of encouraging organizations to appraise and where necessary, correct the information provided.
(4) Given the rapid growth in this sector, a consistent framework or tool is needed to guide gap year students and other groups seeking a tourism volunteering experience so that they can make choices that are appropriate to their aspirations.
(5) The voice of the local community is not sufficiently represented in the crafting of international volunteer tourism experiences and the impact of volunteers from developed countries on local values and traditions needs to be better understood and more carefully valued and preserved.
(6) International volunteering projects that involve working with children are especially open to criticism given that there are currently inconsistencies in the ways in which organization develop and implement rigorous child protections policies.

What are the implications for management action and applied research arising from your theme issue outcomes?

Given the success of the first Economic and Social Sciences Research Council (ESRC) event in 2013 and the opportunity that WHATT has facilitated to extend the discussion and analysis, a new series of ESRC funded seminars will take place in 2015-2016. The seminar series aims to broaden discussions on a number of topics related to the overall theme ‘Reconceptualizing International Volunteering’ in response to the growing number of quality-related issues surrounding international volunteering. In order to build on the analysis to-date, we may also seek to integrate the dialogue that takes place in these seminars with a follow-on theme issue.

Having served as WHATT theme editors what did you enjoy about the experience?

The opportunity to extend, shape and disseminate time-limited discussions between academics and practitioners at a conference event is truly invaluable. The effort needed to bring different stakeholders together and to facilitate a meaningful interchange about the issues that need to be addressed in the international volunteering sector is significant and without a forum to extend and capture the dialogue, it is difficult to establish a foundation on which to build. In this context, the opportunity to serve as a WHATT theme editor has been extremely fruitful and the journal’s flexible yet rigorous planning format has really challenged the contributing team to think deeply about our theme issue question – not only ‘why’ improvements are needed but ‘how’ they can be made. In this sense, WHATT is providing invaluable support to the generation of theoretical understanding with practical application. This is only possible when academics and practitioners work together and combine rigorous analysis with on-going dialogue about workable solutions. I commend WHATT for its pivotal role in enabling the generation of grounded theory that will help to bring about positive change.

About the Theme Editor

Angela M Benson PhD is a Principal Lecturer in Tourism at the School of Service Management, University of Brighton where she has worked since January 2004. Prior to this she was a Senior Lecturer at the Southampton SOLENT University and she also worked for 13 years in leisure and recreation, managing a range of facilities and events. Angela has published more than 40 articles and chapters in the areas of Volunteering, (Tourism and Mega Events) Best Value, Sustainability and Research Methods. She is the Founding Chair of the Association for Tourism and Leisure Education (ATLAS) Volunteer Tourism Research Group; Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Canberra; Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society with IBG and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes (WHATT) aims to make a practical and theoretical contribution to hospitality and tourism development and we seek to do this by using a key question to focus attention on an industry issue. If you would like to contribute to our work by serving as a WHATT theme editor, do please contact the Managing Editor, Dr Richard Teare email:

Appendix 1: Theme issue contents (Volume 7 Number 2, 2015)

Introduction: Why and how should the international volunteer tourism experience be improved?
Angela M Benson

Introduces key volunteer tourism stakeholders and explores whether their voices are heard on issues relating to quality. Introduces possible solutions as this is the first journal issue to focus on the challenges facing this sector.

Is certification the answer to creating a more sustainable volunteer tourism sector?
Jasveen K. Rattan

Provides background and insights on the use of ecolabels and certification in the tourism industry and their applicability to the volunteer tourism sector. Explores the extent to which a certification scheme would aid in alleviating current criticisms and help improve social responsibility in this sector.

Elephants, orphans and HIV/AIDS: Examining the voluntourist experience in Botswana
Kelly V Phelan

Reveals that international volunteering opportunities in Botswana are difficult to locate and have questionable impact. The difficulties include: the need to pay to participate, concerns about whether volunteers are depriving locals of employment and the lack of community ownership.

Online portrayals of volunteer tourism in Nepal: Exploring the communicated disparities between promotional and user-generated content
Siân Easton and Nicholas Wise

Provides insights as to how online platforms are being used in relation to volunteer tourism to Nepal. This study suggests that significant disparities exist between content communicated via promotional websites and user-generated content. This raises a number of implications for discussion and action.

Marketing and communication of responsibility in volunteer tourism
Victoria L Smith and Xavier Font

Aims to test whether volunteer tourism organizations are prepared to learn from feedback on the quality of their communications, and whether analysis and communication of the test results can influence market improvement.

Wildlife and conservation volunteering: which is the best wildlife and conservation organization to volunteer with? Peter Lynch

Outlines the stages involved in developing an audit to determine the best wildlife and conservation organization to volunteer with and profiles analysis and assessment of 53 organizations based on nine core criteria. Explains how the emergent framework could also be used to assess other organizations.

A Clash with volunteer tourists? An extreme case study in Guatemala
Ferdi R M Klaver

Uses a case study based in Guatemala to focus on the cultural differences between stakeholders so as to examine their relative influence on international volunteering. The article also introduces several new concepts (the hidden fact and awareness change) that need to be taken into account.

Finding the win-win: Providing supportive and enriching volunteer tourism experiences while promoting sustainable social change
Liz Wilson

Consider improvements that need to be made to international volunteer tourism with regard to risks to both service users and volunteers. Explores why these issues are so hard to resolve and recommends some next steps.

Conclusion: Why and how should the international volunteer tourism experience be improved?
Angela M Benson

Summarizes the contributions made in this theme issue and concludes why and how international volunteer tourism experience could be improved.