Volunteer tourism as such is not new, neither is the combination of adventure tourism and volunteer purposes. New is, however, the extent to which adventure tour operators and adventure tourists alike engage in the recovery efforts and rebuilding processes of disaster areas. Until now, this has hardly been covered in the literature. As the case of Nepal shows, adventure tourists are interested to help the local communities and even demand tourism products that allow them to do so. However, it is important to mention that untrained recovery volunteers in a disaster area can actually hinder the rebuilding process, putting even more pressure on the scarce resources that are urgently needed to help the victims.
There are a couple of guidelines that need to be followed for the operation to be beneficial to the affected area. The following paragraphs cover lessons learned from the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (Volunteers of America, n.d.). Volunteers of America distinguish three post-disaster stages: The response phase, the relief or recovery phase, and the rebuilding phase.
The response phase begins immediately after a disaster. The main goal now is to preserve lives and property in a dangerous post-disaster environment. “As a result, the goal for organizations using spontaneous volunteers is to put their plans in place in conjunction with partner organizations, while staying out of the way of first-responders or trained volunteers” (Volunteers of America, n.d., p.11). Volunteers who work for the large aid organizations such as the Red Cross or Oxfam are required to go through two years of special training before they are allowed to participate in disaster relief actions. No untrained volunteer tourists should enter the disaster zone in the immediate wake of a catastrophe because it is too dangerous. Outside volunteers should therefore be asked to stay away.
This phase begins “when it is safe for volunteers to enter the affected area, when local infrastructure can handle these volunteers and when organizations are prepared to manage them” (Volunteers of America, n.d., p.15). Ideally, this is the first time spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers arrive in the disaster zone. Although large numbers of volunteers are needed to clean up after the disaster, their presence can overwhelm limited local resources as already mentioned above. Therefore, volunteers need to be self-sustaining, providing their own food and possibly shelter. To maximize the efficiency of a volunteer mission, their skills and the tasks should be matched. In the chaotic aftermath of a disaster, however, this is very difficult and sometimes even impossible. “Finally, when there is no way to assess a volunteer’s skills, mismatches occur. Someone with valuable construction experience could be placed in an office” (Volunteers of America, n.d., p.21). Communication about the required skills and the risks involved needs to be very clear.
The focus of this period is returning the disaster area to its pre-storm state. Adventure tourism operators who are planning to engage in recovery efforts by offering volunteer itineraries should consider this phase for their activities. They need to communicate clearly to make sure that volunteers have realistic expectations about the tasks that wait for them. “Rebuilding or repairing houses, businesses, and community spaces are common activities for volunteers and rebuild organizations” (Volunteers of America, n.d., p.23). Unskilled volunteers will mainly work on construction and beautification projects. “As more specific needs become apparent in the rebuilding phase, it makes sense to recruit skilled and professional volunteers in fields such as construction, medicine, business and legal” (Volunteers of America, n.d., p.23).
Adventure tourism generally involves an element of risk. This is especially true for activities executed in disaster areas. Therefore, adventure operators should follow Ralf Buckley’s (2011, p.52) advise on how to mitigate risk prior to trip embarkment: “One of the key issues for commercial adventure tourism operators is to screen clients to ensure they have adequate health, fitness, and skills to undertake the particular activity concerned. In addition, adventure tour operators are likely to be particularly concerned to ensure that clients carry their own comprehensive travel insurance, which includes both medical and medical evacuation cover”.
If you’d like to learn more about Disaster Related Volunteering, read this manual published by Volunteers of America.