In the 2014 UNWTO Global Report on Adventure Tourism, ATTA president Shannon Stowell identifies the top four trends in adventure tourism: The softening of adventure travel, customization of trip experiences, multi-generational groups, and cultural experiences. Stowell also points out that “the global community is facing many significant challenges including but not limited to climate change, environmental degradation, habitat loss, language and cultural erosion and loss, and social justice issues and poverty” (UNWTO, 2014, p.82), and he challenges the tourism industry to do something about it.
With the rise of the global issues mentioned above, adventure tourism operators began to include volunteer projects into their portfolios, giving tourists the opportunity ‘to give back’ to the communities they visit. These programs that usually offer community-based activities serving ecological or humanitarian purposes have become very popular among adventure tourists, with classics such as teaching children in an orphanage in India, raising monkeys in a sanctuary in Ecuador or helping sea turtles to hatch in a conservation camp in Costa Rica. According to Nancy Gard McGehee (Popham, 2015), “as many as 10 million volunteers a year are spending up to $2 billion on the opportunity to travel with a purpose”, and the participation has been rising exponentially over the past 20 years (Elliott, 2008, cited in Wearing and McGehee, 2013).
A study conducted by Xola Consulting and the George Washington University explores how volunteer programs can “operate effectively at the intersection between offering quality, purposeful vacation experiences that are not intrusive, exploitative and/or disruptive to local destinations” (McGehee, 2008). The study finds that travel combined with a volunteer experience does even attract people who would not typically volunteer in their home country, while “NGOs are able to attract funding more easily when people can experience in-country the benefits of their donation” (McGehee, 2008). Heyniger and Lamoureux (2007) identified several good practices that emerged from the study. According to their research, adventure tourism operators and NGOs should
- Conduct a needs assessment:
a) Quantify with hard data the needs in the area.
b) Engage communities to learn their perceptions of need and whether they want assistance from the outside.
c) Evaluate community needs for alignment with tour company’s capacities (volunteer service, time, and money).
- Create a shared investment – communities and the traveler-volunteers must both contribute in some way: Community involvement and contribution are essential; otherwise the program cannot be sustainable over the long term and will not reach its potential.
- Identify organizations with a history in the region before launching new programs that may be duplicative; seek partners.
- Follow up; maintain a presence in the visited regions.
The following paragraph will highlight a few examples of adventure tour operators from the study who successfully managed to blend volunteer work into their products.
Since 2004, Relief Riders International, a humanitarian-based adventure travel company, has been offering horseback journeys and camel caravans throughout India providing medical care and humanitarian aid to local communities in remote regions. Relief Riders International does not request any special skills from their riders. “Guests help organize and load the camel carts with supplies. At schools, guests help the schoolchildren take medicine and distribute educational supplies such as notebooks and pencils. In the general medical camps and the mobile eye surgery camp, guests operate the registration desk with the help of an interpreter, guide villagers to the appropriate doctor and help distribute medicines” (Relief Riders International, n.d.). Their journeys last about 15 days and include a maximum of 12 riders. Relief Riders International has two divisions: a for-profit division to market and manage the logistical travel aspects of their trips, and a non-profit division that allows them to fundraise for their relief mission programs.
Explorandes is an adventure travel company based in Peru that was established in 1975. Their cultural and nature explorations along the Inca trail lead them through extremely poor and remote areas. The management wanted to help the rural communities and started modest social initiatives such as delivering school supplies or supporting the community to raise money for a new roof. According to Heyniger and Lamoureux (2007), these programs continued for years without the involvement of tourists nor publicity; Explorandes considered these activities to be part of their social responsibility to the communities. Then, demand changed their business. Tourists became increasingly interested in volunteering activities, and the company realized it had an opportunity to create a new type of product that would benefit both travelers and the rural communities (Heyniger and Lamoureux, 2007). Today, the company supports aid programs in 10 Peruvian communities with up to 15% of the trips involving community aid work – either donations or financial contributions combined with physical work (Heyniger and Lamoureux, 2007).
Global Sojourns provides customized adventure tours for small groups, with a special focus on Africa. In 2007 Global Sojourns founded a non-profit organization called the Giving Circle: “Travelers joining Giving Circle learn about international philanthropy and participate in the identification and vetting of projects suitable for their future financial donations and possibly hands-on volunteer labor” (Heyniger and Lamoureux, 2007). Their commitment is directed “to the education and empowerment of Africa’s most vulnerable and orphaned children, primarily girls” (Global Sojourn, n.d.). The Global Sojourn Giving Circle first locates and forges partnerships with African social entrepreneurs and community based organizations, and then provides them with financial and capacity-building support. “Global Sojourns views Giving Circle projects as a key component for inclusion in customized trip offerings, providing an unusual opportunity for travelers to educate themselves about a region’s challenges and issues, support worthwhile aid programs, and experience a truly one-of-a-kind integrated travel experience” (Heyniger and Lamoureux, 2007).
The merging of adventure tourism and volunteering can be initiated from both sides; many adventure operators decide to tap into volunteering but there are also NGOs who begin to offer travel opportunities. Los Niños, Inc. is a non-profit organization that has been working with Mexican communities in poverty over the past 30 years. Their focus on addressing the needs of malnourished children eventually evolved to a participatory development approach. “In 2003 Los Niños launched a different kind of social venture, VolunTours™, a marketing and membership building social enterprise supporting the sale of volunteer vacations, team building events and additional service learning opportunities. Income generated benefits Los Niños’ core community-driven development programs while offering participants new awareness, education and volunteer opportunities.” (Heyniger and Lamoureux, 2007).
Heyniger and Lamoureux (2007) extract three emerging business models: The interwoven itinerary, adjusting the standard procedure to include tourists, and innovations to support donors in direct giving.
- The Interwoven Itinerary: Tour operators modify an existing adventure tourism itinerary such as a biking tour, horseback riding or a hiking/trekking trip by including volunteer visits to villages along the route (Explorandes, Relief Riders International)
- Adjust Standard Procedure to Include Tourists: NGOs and other aid or research-focused organizations invite tourists to participate in their work for short periods (Los Niños)
- Innovations to Support Donors in Direct Giving: People are willing to donate to small projects, but they want to know exactly where their money is going and how it is applied.
So-called “donor-brokers” who are focused on the adventure tourism sector help to establish aid projects or review existing projects (Global Sojourns’ Giving Circle).
Heyniger and Lamoureux (2007) summarize the benefits of voluntourism: “For tour operators the trend clearly presents unusual opportunities: To give back to the communities and environments that have supported them, to develop new products and approaches to marketing, and to attract and serve new consumer groups. For NGOs there are similar opportunities – to reach new donor groups, expand program initiatives and attract new partners to expand reach”.
While all the examples above show how adventure tourism and aid projects can mutually benefit when combined, the New Zealand based organization Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) is directly engaged in capacity building for the tourism sector in Vanuatu: “Ni-Vanuatu tourism ventures have been largely concentrated in tour operating and small accommodation. There is a need to provide additional business support and training to small and medium sized enterprises in the sector, particularly in terms of management, marketing and some operational areas such as tour guide services and food preparation and hygiene” (Johnston et al., 2012, p.17). Although VSA encourages its volunteers to “remain culturally objective and attempt not to impose their own ideas or values”, local tourism businesspeople are “eager to learn what ‘westerners’ want and how they can provide this” (Johnston et al., 2012, p.23). Product development was reported to be more effective after hearing the “white man view”. According to Johnston et al. (2013, p.23), “the perspective from an outside culture can be highly effective in providing a different point of view that will help local tourism providers construct their products successfully. Many tourism providers enjoy learning about other cultures (…)”.
However, in volunteer projects that don’t require the “white man view”, a “train-the-trainer” approach (vgl. Murphy et al., n.d.) should be considered to ensure long-term knowledge transfer and thus community empowerment. According to Marques D. Anderson, founder of the World Education Foundation, “this model proves to be very useful to exponentiate [the] pool of trainers and participants: [In the beginning, experts] transfer the knowledge and the model is then transported through the community through local mentorships. The community members feel empowered, and they can add their cultural solutions through the process. They can also form a committee, which gives voice and a narrative to the trainers” (Anderson, 2015). The UNDP (2007) lists capacity building “for increased resilience, risk management, and sustainable development” as one of their principles for post-disaster recovery.
Although the volunteer market has been growing exponentially (Elliott, 2008, cited in Wearing and McGehee, 2013), not everyone believes in volunteering. “Sending well-meaning but inexperienced westerners to work on short-term projects in developing countries has come under fire for doing more harm than good” (Jenking, 2015). Critics have been questioning the effectiveness of voluntourism, mainly because of its transitory nature. Good things take time, and it is important to notice that cross-cultural differences can slow down the development process. A VSA volunteer who had been working with Ni-Vanuatu reports that nothing should be expected for the first three to six months. “For volunteers to be successful they must first focus on relationship building, establishing rapport, and understanding the different motivations of those around them” (Johnston et al., 2012). Patience and consideration are seen as essential traits that often pay off. Therefore, capacity building should not be done by short-term volunteers who are only in the region for a couple of days or weeks. Additionally, gender issues can be challenging: Women might not be accepted as leaders. While “the simple presence of female volunteers has had an empowering impact on women involved in the tourism industry” (Johnston et al., 2012, p.27), it may be difficult for female volunteers to gain the respect of men, which can be a frustrating experience. Nevertheless, voluntourism can be rewarding and beneficial for both the volunteer and the host community when best practices are followed.
Adventure tourism can certainly improve the livelihoods of local communities in developing countries. This has already been proved in many developing nations worldwide. However, political instability and an increase of climate change induced disasters impose significant threats on these vulnerable destinations. But adventure tourism is resilient, because “adventure tourists are passionate and risk-taking” (UNWTO, 2014, p.10). The ATDI (2010, p.27) concludes: “Adventure tourism finds itself operating at a nexus of culture, environment, economy and politics, and it is increasingly relevant given the current events in global politics. How the industry is developed is influenced by world events, as well as local circumstances. Adventure tourism can be a tool to help rebuild after a political crisis or natural disaster”. According to the UNWTO (2014, p.10), ATTA’s AdventurePulse: USA Adventure Traveler Profiles indicates “interest in destinations that have previously suffered significant commercial tourism setbacks due to natural and political events, such as Haiti, Rwanda, and Japan. The Adventure Travel Trade Association reports that adventure tourism operators routinely create and offer itineraries in places such as Colombia, North Korea, Iran, Rwanda, and other destinations recovering from environmental and political stress, making these destinations accessible to travelers seeking off-the-beaten path and authentic travel experiences”.