Literature Review: Volunteer Tourism: A New Form of Development?

Volunteer tourism is a growing phenomenon in this globalizing world where travel and information is more accessible. Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, works by organizations connecting affluent volunteers to impoverished areas for the purpose of developing the site or host community. Volunteers provide free labor and skill sets that wouldn’t otherwise be available to these communities, but this can at times create negative relations between the locals and the volunteers as neo-colonial power dynamics reemerge. This relationship has sparked research in this area, mostly focused on the volunteer travelling from a First World or Global North country to a Third World or Global South site. The literature reviewed here is largely from the perspective of interpretive or small-n neo-positivist methodology, therefore creating a need for large-n neo-positivist work in this area. The research is categorized in terms of four different substantive focuses: the volunteers, the locals, the sending organizations, and the effects of the service or the development. The literature is drawing on experiences from all over the world including Rwanda, Colombia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and New Zealand. There is ample literature on the sending organizations and the volunteers, whereas literature on the effects of the service done and the opinion of the local peoples is rarely included and is commonly called for by authors in their conclusions. This gap presents a clear path for future research in whether or not volunteer tourism is a sustainable method of development and what cultural implications it could have – such as social reconciliation – most specifically in Colombia.


The Volunteers

            The volunteers that partake in voluntourism or service trips span over a diverse group of people of all ages, backgrounds, and intentions. Volunteers are the most researched aspect of voluntourism since they are generally accessible to researchers for pre-departure, in the field, and post-trip interviews and surveys. Volunteers are a valuable source, but they do represent a biased perspective on the experience and all data collected through the volunteers experience must be heavily contextualized, as called for in interpretive methodology. Whether or not volunteers create sustainable, lasting development individually or as a group has yet to be quantified, but the impact on them personally is clear in the literature.

Most commonly represented are young people between the ages of 18-25 participating in a gap year, college service trip, or alternative break.[1] Barbieri, Santos, and Katsube’s study of volunteers in Rwanda show that they are driven to travel by their interest in the alleviation of poverty and the improvement of social and environmental conditions, starkly different than the conventional tourist motivated by seeking a pleasant experience or an alternative to their daily lives.[2] But research conducted by Lyons, Hanley, Wearing and Neil argues otherwise: saying that volunteer tourists are driven by selfish reasons and pursue this experience as a way to bolster their “personality package” to appeal to future employers.[3] The intentions of the volunteers may determine the success of the development goals and the person-to-person connections the trip is designed to create.

Reconciliation and development have been achieved during voluntourism trips when volunteers are amply prepared, whether their interests are selfish or altruistic. During a student led service trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua, Crabtree documents the process of students pre-departure preparation, reactions to being in the field, and the impasses they faced as privileged, American students working with impoverished Salvadorans and Nicaraguans. Pre-departure education was the most important aspect to preparation for these students, as they had to overcome societal stereotypes by learning the history, culture, and language of their host community.[4]  While at the site the students had to adopt a dialogue-centered pedagogy with the locals and adapt their backgrounds in Medicine, Public Health, or Construction to local culture in order to successfully communicate their knowledge.[5]  This patience and willingness is what forms a lasting legacy of reconciliation and development and determines the success of the trip. What really sets the success of Crabtree’s group apart from the other volunteers is their preparation, which was entirely because of the organization that sent them.


The Sending Organization

The sending organization is the second most researched aspect of voluntourism for similar reasons to the volunteer: they are accessible to researchers. Sending organizations take many forms including universities, non-governmental organizations, and commercial companies. These organizations can vary from the highly structured, such as the Crabtree example, to less structured such as the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network. McIntosh and Bonneman take a small-n neo-positivist approach combining the analysis of quantitative membership records of the New Zealand WWOOF network and qualitative interview with 12 hosts and 22 visitors. Their results conclude that although the WWOOF network provides a very specific experience (organic farming) there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the expectations of the volunteer and the host which results in both parties feeling they have been taken advantage of.[6] This ambiguity will compromise the intent of the trip if the actual experience is unsuccessful due to it. The success of voluntourism and its efforts towards development is largely the responsibility of the sending organization and how much it invests in clarity and structure.

For-profit organizations are especially distrusted by academics because of their ambiguity of intent. Raymond and Hall vehemently discourage the support of voluntourism as it encourages organizations and companies to mass-market these trips by making “sweeping generalizations about destinations” and trivializing poverty through marketing.[7] Images such as malnourished, brown children or destitute mud-hut villages have flooded media and normalized these images for general audiences without any context provided. Wearing and McGehee attribute this to the irresponsible marketing of commercial companies whose mission is to turn a profit rather than create real sustainable development or positive cultural interaction.[8] Furthermore, this creates a schism in voluntourism because non-governmental organizations or university programs have the potential to create positive social change – such as defying stereotypes – but whose work is often undermined by commercial companies.[9] This tension gives voluntourism a bad reputation everywhere as the program itself is discounted and regarded as untrustworthy.

Commercial companies are not the only organizations with flaws. Sin discusses instances of NGO’s misunderstanding cultural context and local customs in his interview with a Cambodian respondent between the host-community and NGO:

Basic things like this group, they wanted me to get mattress for everyone of them. 29 mattresses. I said you know you bring mattress to the village, its so funny because they [Cambodians] all sleep on the straw mats… so I bought straw mats for them instead. They have to live like Cambodians if they want to stay in their homes.[10]


This example of blatant cultural misunderstanding and disinterest in cultural acclimation was the fault of the NGO, which was more concerned for the physical comfort of their volunteers than the social comfort of the locals. This simple act reinforces the inferiority complex many post-colonial states and communities are working to overcome, which is the first step in development and reconciliation at the local and state level.

The sending organizations wield so much power and influence that when abused, voluntourism can become a very negative and harmful act. Responsible research of the host community and cultural understanding are both necessary for an organization to properly design and execute voluntourism trips so they are more beneficial for the volunteer and more importantly, for reconciliation with local people and the development of the host-communities.


The Locals

The importance of creating meaningful connections with the local people through home stays and genuine connection is a commonality among all authors in this literature review. Sin focuses most on the locals and discusses how they can find this form of connection more genuine than simple donation because volunteer tourists “entered into the lives of the people here.”[11] Similarly, Crabtree notes that interviews with community members showed that locals telling stories about years of trauma and struggling to U.S. visitors was very therapeutic and built their confidence.[12] This person-to-person connection is an important step in reconciliation, but it does not always result in development. Raymond and Hall argue that voluntourism disrupts locals’ every day lives as they are asked to host volunteers and, in extreme cases, cause unemployment as volunteers are doing projects that could be completed by locals.[13] Whether or not the positive personal exchanges outweigh the potential economic offsets is yet to be researched and will call for more quantitative data.


The Effects of Development

Voluntourism is a very short and condensed experience for the volunteer and immediate developmental results are uncommon. Programs such as the Peace Corps are much clearer in their accomplishments as volunteers stay on-site for two years and are working in a specific community towards specific goals.[14] Downing’s non-scholarly autobiographical work writes about achieving goals in tandem with locals and argues that the work that the Peace Corps did created more of an impact than the $600 million President Kennedy gave to the Latin American Aid Program.[15] Not all volunteers can dedicate so much time, which is Leon and Fuertes biggest critique of voluntourism, saying longer trips create higher stability.[16] Education is a popular form of development because volunteers and organizations feel it is a self-sustaining way for people to pull themselves out of poverty.[17] This makes sense but because of the contemporariness of voluntourism quantitative data of development is still yet to be published and the effects of voluntourism as a tool of development is yet to be validated through hard data.



Volunteer Tourism is a heavily controversial topic, whose research is trying to keep up with the contemporariness of this trend and lacking in quantitative data. The volunteers and organizations are the most represented in the research and therefore the most controversial, as they balance on a rickety ledge of hurting vs. helping the host-communities in which they are serving. Volunteers embark on these trips for humanitarian or personal reasons and their success is highly subject to the structure and preparedness of the sending organization. Successful trips count on highly prepared yet flexible volunteers and culturally educated organizations. I am interested in the perspective of the volunteer and the organization, but what my question focuses on will be on the other side of the transaction. The locals and host-communities are less accessible to researchers and consequently less represented in the very research that revolves around them. This paradox is where my research will start. I want to build on the current research, which shows that locals can have either very positive or very negative reactions to voluntourism and this is mostly on a person-to-person basis. This micro-impact on the individual is highly relevant in my research question, but the larger developmental effects on the host-community are just as necessary, lacking, and interesting in this scholarly conversation. There is clearly a need for more research on the lasting effects of development and cultural reconciliation through the efforts of voluntourism, especially in Colombia and specifically using Neo-Positivist methods.



Barbieri, Carla, Carla Almeida Santos, and Yasuharu Katsube. “Volunteer Tourism: On-the-Ground Observations from Rwanda.” Tourism Management 33, no. 3 (June 2012): 509–16. Accessed October 9, 2015. http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2011.05.009.


Crabtree, Robbin D. “Mutual Empowerment in Cross‐cultural Participatory Development and Service Learning: Lessons in Communication and Social Justice from Projects in El Salvador and Nicaragua.” Journal of Applied Communication Research 26, no. 2 (May 1, 1998): 182–209. Accessed October 6, 2015. http://dx.doi:10.1080/00909889809365501.


Downing, Dave. Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love: Letters from a Peace Corpsman, 1961-1963. USA: Self-Published, 2009.


Lyons, Kevin, Joanne Hanley, Stephen Wearing, and John Neil. “Gap Year Volunteer Tourism.” Annals of Tourism Research 39, no. 1 (January 2012): 361–78. Accessed October 9, 2015. http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.annals.2011.04.016.


McIntosh, Alison, and Susanne Bonnemann. “Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF): The Alternative Farm Stay Experience?” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 14, no. 1 (January 15, 2006): 82–99. Accessed October 7, 2015. http://dx.doi:10.1080/09669580608668593.


Davila de Leon, Maria Celeste and Fernando Chacon Fuertes. “Prediction of Longevity of Volunteer Service: A Basic Alternative Proposal.” The Spanish Journal of Psychology 10, no. 1 (2007) 115-121. Accessed October 4, 2015. Proquest.


Raymond, Eliza Marguerite, and C. Michael Hall. “The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 16, no. 5 (December 1, 2008): 530–43. Accessed September 28, 2015. http://dx.doi:10.2167/jost796.0.


Sin, Harng Luh. “Who Are We Responsible to? Locals’ Tales of Volunteer Tourism.” Geoforum 41, no. 6 (November 2010): 983–92. Accessed October 7, 2015. http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2010.08.007.


Wearing, Stephen, and Nancy Gard McGehee. “Volunteer Tourism: A Review.” Tourism Management 38 (October 2013): 120–30. Accessed October 9, 2015. http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2013.03.002.

[1] Stephen Wearing and Nancy Gard McGehee, “Volunteer Tourism: A Review,” Tourism Management 38 (October 2013): 123, accessed October 9, 2015, http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2013.03.002.

[2] Carla Barbieri, Carla Almeida Santos and Yasuharu Katsube, “Volunteer Tourism: On-the-Ground Observations from Rwanda,” Tourism Management 33, no. 3 (June 2012): 509, accessed October 9, 2015,  http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2011.05.009.

[3] Kevin Lyons, Joanne Hanley, Stephen Wearing and John Neil, “Gap Year Volunteer Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 39, no. 1 (January 2012): 370, accessed October 9, 2015, http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.annals.2011.04.016.

[4] Robbin D. Crabtree, “Mutual Empowerment in Cross-cultural Participatory Development and Service Learning: Lessons in Communication and Social Justice from Projects in El Salvador and Nicaragua,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 26, no. 2 (May 1, 1998): 195, accessed October 6, 2015, http://dx.doi:10.1080/00909889809365501.

[5] Ibid., 199.

[6] Alison McIntosh and Susanne Bonnemann, “Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF): The Alternative Farm Stay Experience?” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 14, no. 1 (January 15, 2006): 85, accessed October 7, 2015, http://dx.doi:10.1080/09669580608668593.

[7] Raymond, Eliza Marguerite and C. Michael Hall, “The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism,” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 16, no. 5 (December 1, 2008): 532, accessed September 28, 2015, http://dx.doi:10.2167/jost796.0.

[8] Wearing and McGehee, “Volunteer Tourism,” 123.

[9] Ibid., 124.

[10] Harng Luh Sin, “Who Are We Responsible to? Locals’ Tales of Volunteer Tourism,” Geoforum 41, no. 6 (November 2010): 988, accessed October 7, 2015,  http://dx.doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2010.08.007.

[11] Ibid., 987.

[12] Crabtree, “Mutual Empowerment in Cross‐cultural Participatory Development and Service Learning,” 199.

[13] Raymond and Hall, “(Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism,” 540.

[14] Dave Downing, Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love: Letters from a Peace Corpsman, 1961-1963 (USA: Self-Published, 2009).

[15] Downing, Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.

[16] Maria Celeste Davila de Leon and Fernando Chacon Fuertes, “Prediction of Longevity of Volunteer Service: A Basic Alternative Proposal,” The Spanish Journal of Psychology 10, no. 1 (2007) 116. Accessed October 4, 2015. Proquest.

[17] Sin, “Who Are We Responsible To?,” 986.