Service-based tourism, mission trips, voluntourism, or volunteer adventures — whatever you call it, the combination of community service and travel has grown from a quiet trend in a remote corner of the tourism sector into a full-blown multi-billion dollar industry. It rakes in billions of dollars annually, millions of people take part, and billions are impacted (McGehee 2014). (If “billions are impacted” seems extreme, consider how every member of the community a voluntourist enters is affected by their arrival, and every member of the community they come from is affected by their choice to go and their return.)
But while it’s true that the practice of voluntourism—my preferred term—has ballooned in the 21st century, it’s not a modern phenomenon. The spring break trip to build houses in Guatemala that your sister took when she was in high school may not have been available 30 years ago, but voluntourism’s roots go back to long before the ecotourism boom of the 90s or even the commercial air travel revolution that followed World War II.
Missionary work—as distinguished from short-term mission trips—goes back to before the dark ages and the birth of Christianity (Culbertson). Voluntourism — short-term trips that would count as ‘tourism’ if they weren’t service-oriented or service-themed — finds it’s roots in the passions and prejudices of the Victorians.
During the Victorian era, a number of big things were happening, but there are three in particular that are most intimately linked with the origins of today’s voluntourism. First, the industrial revolution made travel more accessible, more affordable, and swifter than ever (Auerbach 1999). People have always moved for work, in response to crisis, or in fulfillment of religious obligations. Yet, the vast majority of people had not, however, been able to travel for pleasure. Vacations were something only truly available to the upper classes (think the Grand Tour) but with mechanized transport (think trains) all that changed. Suddenly, both Europe and the US were on the move.
With the Industrial Revolution came the second of our three Victorian innovations: the industrialization and mass urbanization of the workforce. Millions of people poured into the newly industrial cities, looking for work in the quickly multiplying factories. But cities lacked adequate housing or social services to support them, and so many soon came to live in urban slums, burdened by deep poverty.
This was poverty on as scale and, more notably, at a concentration, that was completely overwhelming, but what was largely unprecedented in world history was what else sprouted up in the growing cities—an upwardly mobile urban middle class. The middle class of the industrial revolution was unique because of its size, its economic power, and its proximity to the poor. Suddenly (or, at least, it felt that way), there was an economically powerful and physically mobile group of people who were able to afford luxuries, but who were not completely separated from the poor outside their doors (Ghose 1998).
This combination of affluence and proximity to poverty inspired a new philanthropic impulse of a fascinating form: the desire among a non-noble class to give to complete and utter strangers (Ghose 1998; Brendon 1991). The concept of ‘giving back’ is another thing that is old as civilization, but the philanthropic impulse is different. Before the Industrial Revolution, giving by people below the ultra-rich was social-group and religious-group centric. People gave to people they knew, or who they were connected to through social or religious ties, and it was a method of ensuring personal security. If something ever happened to you, they would support you as well.
The Victorian middle class was unique because they wanted to help strangers, and they wanted to do it in a hands-on way. They didn’t want to just put money in a dish at church—they wanted to help hand out sandwiches.
This desire to volunteer bled into the development of tourism and was further encouraged by the fact that, while the middle class could afford to travel, they knew their wallets could only go so far. Group trips were the most economical means of getting away, and many of these trips—most notably those arranged by Thomas Cook—incorporated opportunities to give, donate, or interact with the poor into their itineraries. Tourists visiting Iona, a small island off of the coast of Scotland, were asked to donate towards a community revitalization fund and travelers to the Middle East were visiting orphanages well before the turn of the century (Brendon 1991).
Why were these programs so (relatively) easy to start and quick to grow? Because colonialism was in full swing (Gilbert & Johnston 2002). The British (and other nations, though to a smaller extent) had built an empire that stretched around the world. With them, they’d brought afternoon tea, smooth carriage roads, and European-styled hotels along with them. A traveler to the Holy Land may spend their morning fending off beggars, but they could spend their night in a luxurious tent that looked more like a well-furnished hotel room in London than something a desert-dweller of the time would recognize (Smith 1875; Swinglehurst 1982).
You may be saying: “This is interesting, but what does this have to do with voluntourism today?”
The answer is everything. As the Empire’s colonies gained their freedom, the colonial governments that had run them slowly broke down. The tourists that had flowed through the imperial arteries, however, did not. They kept coming. They built bigger resorts and more roads to get to them. They traveled further and deeper, pushing their way into increasingly far-flung places. The voluntouristic spirit was consumed by the force of nature that is mass tourism, but it was never stamped out entirely because it’s animating spirit, the philanthropic impulse, was here to stay.
By the 1990’s a large enough number of people wanted to break out of resorts that ‘ecotourism’ boomed (Chen & Chen 2011). It should be said that ‘ecotourism’ is not the same as environmentally-sustainable tourism. While they frequently overlap, ‘ecotourism’ is a marketing term, not a tangible commitment to sustainability. This point may seem tangential, but clarifying it helps in explaining ‘voluntourism’ as a term because that’s what it is—a contemporary marketing term used to sell service-oriented experiences that have been curated for travelers for over a century.
Like many a Victorian hold-over, voluntourism is an antique and, as an antiquated practice, it deserves to be questioned. It is a result of adventurism and colonialism clashing together, plus a sprinkling of the philanthropic impulse. It is not novel, and the desire to take part fails to tell us anything new about ourselves. If anything, it shows how little we have changed since the colonial-era began.
We still want the world to be curated for us, to have places edited and neutered to fit our stifled sensibilities and to be met by the smiling faces of complete strangers and thanked for bringing them civilization in the form of a poorly thought out project that only fulfills our ideas of what progress looks like.
So what do we need to do? We need to look back at where we’ve come from and to question how we got here. We need to understand the past of voluntourism, and of all tourism, to know the present more fully and to redirect ourselves and the industry towards a better future.
Philippa (Pippa) Biddle is a New York-based writer. Her work has been published by Guernica, The Atlantic, Wired, BBC Travel, Refinery29, Nylon, GirlBoss, and more. She has been featured in numerous online and print media outletsincluding The New York Times, The Independent, Al Jazeera, and Forbes. She has written content for television in partnership with Bridge the Gap TV. Shows she has worked on have aired on major networks including PBS and National Geographic.
Pippa’s first book, Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power and The Paradox of Voluntourism, an exposé of service-based tourism as contemporary colonialism, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. It is scheduled for publication in 2020.
Auerbach, Jeffery A. (1999) The Great Exhibition of 1851: a nation on display, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Brendon, Piers. Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991. Print.
Chen, Li-Ju, and Joseph S. Chen. “The Motivations and Expectations of International Volunteer Tourists: A Case Study of ‘Chinese Village Traditions.’” Tourism Management, vol. 32, 2011, pp. 435–442. dx.doi.org.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/10.1016/j.tourman.2010.01.009.
Culbertson, Howard. “Missions time line.” https://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/line.htm Accessed: 1 Aug 2018
Ghose, Indira. Women Travellers in Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze. New Delhi: Oxford U, 1998. Print.
Gilbert, Helen, and Anna Johnston. "Introduction." In Transit: Travel, Text, Empire. Ed. Helen Gilbert and Anna Johnston. Vol. 4. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 1-19. Print. Travel Writing across the Disciplines.
McGehee, N.G. (2014) 'Volunteer tourism: evolution, issues and futures', Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 22(6): 847-54
Smith, A. Charles. (1873). Narrative of a modern pilgrimage through Palestine on horseback, and with tents. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
Swinglehurst, Edmund. (1982). Cook's Tours: The Story of Popular Travel. Poole; Dorset: Blanford Press.