“But voluntourism isn’t all bad, is it?”

I am passionate about sharing my stories and the consequences of voluntourism. Some people get it. Some don’t. Most of the time, the people who don’t get it are the ones who participate in voluntourism on an ongoing basis.

I recently shared my journey with a club. The format of these short presentations is to speak about how I ended up in Cambodia, discovering that voluntourism was causing all sorts of issues, then doing everything in my power to rectify the issue by developing Human and Hope Association into a professional community centre that is entirely Cambodian run.

But then come the questions. 

And most recently, a man at this club pointed out that his church had participated in voluntourism every year for the past 10 years. He acknowledged it was voluntourism, with the church members spending tens of thousands of dollars in flights to visit Cambodia and build houses. However, he then finished with “but voluntourism isn’t all bad, is it?”

My answer was one that he didn’t want to hear.

Voluntourism is a short-term approach, no matter how many years his church kept going back. Why can’t local tradespeople be paid to build these houses? Who will be responsible for the maintenance houses they build after they are gone? What message is this sending to the local community members?

“Local people need to be empowered and valued. When local people are empowered to help their own community and their commitment and accomplishments are valued, it is an obvious evidence to prove to the other potential beneficiaries to trust and be inspired to transform their lives and not rely on foreigners. Foreigners are encouraged to help Cambodia, however, in terms of day-to-day operations, local staff should take responsibility.” – Loeum Salin, Education & Community Manager, HHA Cambodia

The voluntourism industry has continued to expand over the past few years, and the only thing that has halted it’s domination is the pandemic’s effects on international travel. 

It is frightening to see that unskilled 18 year olds are heading over to countries like Thailand and Nepal to teach vulnerable children, and that school groups that are building houses during their school holidays, and companies are painting orphanages as part of ‘team building’.

This church group that visits every year isn’t any different. Sure, they can argue that they are providing consistent support, but at what price does that support come?

Think about it – Cambodia is a country that (pre-pandemic) saw tens of thousands of voluntourists cross their borders each year. For the longest time, they have been sold the message that for Cambodia to develop, there needs to be hands-on assistance from foreign volunteers. This simply isn’t the case. Cambodians are incredible – they are resilient, resourceful and determined.

This church group is creating a system where they are putting themselves at the centre of the story, as the heroes. They are not the heroes; the heroes are the Cambodians who overcome the obstacles they face every single day.

One of my co-workers once said to me, “Wow Sally, you are a nationalist for Cambodia. You speak up so much for us.” Although my focus is on Cambodia, given my lived experience there, my message applies to all countries and communities that are deemed ‘developing’ or ‘low-income’.

My answer is yes, voluntourism is all bad.

Because it puts the wants of the voluntourists first. It is short-term. It can disempower local staff. It creates a dependence on hands-on foreign help. It sends a message that locals don’t have the ability to develop their own communities. It can create attachment issues with already vulnerable children. Locals aren’t invested in the process, so the chances of change being permanent is very low.

What’s the alternative?

Be an ethical traveller. Support wages for local staff. Raise awareness for issues in your home country. And if you decide to volunteer long-term, take a long, hard look at my long-term volunteering checklist.

Let’s be celebrating the fact that we don’t need to be voluntourists.