The terror of tourism

A report published by the Human Sciences Research Council puts an unpleasant spin on foreign visits driven by good intentions, otherwise known as “voluntourism.”

While many believe that travelling abroad marks an opportunity to do some good, the report indicates that organizations may be feeding a market which capitalizes on the poverty of others.

Some tour agencies allow travellers to visit orphanages or pay to distribute food, reducing the children to a spectacle to be observed and pitied. Orphanages will often allow tourists to work with children, a safety risk that most would never condone at home. In addition, some groups have indicated that these visits have serious emotional consequences for the children in question, who form attachments to foreign visitors very quickly. Little of the profit generated by tourist vists is spent feeding and sheltering the children, who are often abused into the bargain.

Other forms of volunteering come with invisible costs to less-fortunate populations. Paying to work abroad for a brief period of time robs local workers of viable sources of income, and the money spent is rarely directed to improving the local community. Similarly, the time and energy put into housing these visitors could be better spent elsewhere.

Sometimes a little bit of help is better than none, but that reasoning doesn’t seem to apply here. Charity isn’t charity when the money doesn’t help someone in need. This doesn’t mean that we should condemn volunteering abroad wholesale, but instead look for productive and effective ways to contribute our time and energy.

Individuals looking to volunteer should conduct critical research into the activities that they will be conducting. Not all organizations conducting charitable activities are actually charities.

It’s also important to make sure that you aren’t simply writing a cheque for a feel-good experience. Volunteering is about helping others, not about your self-concept. As well, would-be volunteers should make sure that they’re addressing a serious issue, not a hot-topic trumped up by a celebrity or the media.

Volunteers should take time to recognize the value of contributing time and energy at home, where one can see the positive effects of charitable contribution clearly, and be more directly engaged.

It’s important that money-making schemes don’t supplant legitimate cases of need.

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