KATHERINE DOUGLAS WRITES — What is voluntourism? A trip abroad that entails community service work as well as a way to give back to communities around the world. Sounds good, but many people neglect to research the organizations they have decided to help. And this can be a serious problem.
As with any trip, planning is essential. Although Yelp reviews give helpful advice about restaurants or hotels, it is less helpful with tourism. For example, the economy in Cambodia relies heavily on tourism. The country is chockablock with historic masterpieces and rich culture. Unfortunately, when an economy developing as rapidly as Cambodia’s relies too heavily on tourism and volunteers, the locals may suffer.
When I went to Cambodia a few years ago, I did a sizeable amount of research about the group I wanted to volunteer and travel with. I specifically chose to work with an NGO because I knew exactly how my efforts would benefit the community. When the group went to Angor Wat, we were explicitly told not to give the children selling items any money. At first, I was confused, but our leader explained that when the children successfully make money off of tourists, their parents normally take them out of school for more profit.
Yet there they were, volunteer groups buying as many souvenirs as possible. That was when I realized the danger of unknowingly helping to exploit the local children.
Older locals, in fact, have begun to open orphanages, with the intention of attracting voluntourists and their donations. In return, the tourists play with the children all day but have no idea whether their donations are directly benefitting the children.
A now-grownup Cambodian local, Kong Thy reflected on his time growing up in an orphanage in Cambodia saying that “they [directors of the orphanage] didn’t care about us because we weren’t their real children. They got donations from other countries for each of us orphans and it was a lot of money. But they treated us really badly, no respect and hit us all the time.”
Obviously, no good-hearted tourist imagines this outcome. It is important for us all to look before we leap off that bus and into who knows what. I had a good experience, but you may not.