Abstract: Negative Effects of Volunteer Tourism

For the past semester, I have been investigating potential consequences of volunteer tourism. Research on volunteer tourism typically focuses on the participant’s perspective. However, members of the host communities are in the best position to discuss the long-term effects of short-term volunteer tourist projects. While I still need to further investigate the literature to narrow down my research question, there are a few aspects of volunteer tourism that have stood out to me.


Commercial Volunteer Tourism: Volunteer tourism has become increasingly commercialized in the past few years (Butler and Kostas 2009; Guttentag 2012). Concerns arise because commercial organizations will pull out of a community if volunteering there is no longer profitable. As a result, communities dependent on such aid can be negatively affected.

Medical Volunteer Tourism: Medical volunteer tourism is criticized for paternalism towards patients in developing countries (McLennan 2014). Health care providers sometimes confer treatment or services upon people without their consent, justifying it by the patient’s inability to make their own health care decisions. For example, an American health care brigade considered giving patients vitamins rather than medication as a placebo. While they did not follow through with the idea, it is unethical and would not have been contemplated in the U.S.

Moreover, medical volunteer is criticized for not working with local communities (Green et. al 2009). In a Guatemalan case study, the most commonly cited suggestion to improve short-term medical volunteer work was to work with and respect local healthcare providers and communities. For example, volunteers duplicated services that the Guatemalan community already provided because they did not communicate with local healthcare providers. In doing so, they were both wasteful and unhelpful.

Neocolonialism: Volunteer tourism provides participants with the feeling that their visit to a foreign country has been authentic and productive. However, it has been criticized for perpetuating inequitable power relations between rich and poor people (Griffin 2013).

Tom Griffin conducts interviews with 10 British students who took a “gap year” after college to volunteer in a foreign country. The gap year originated from the post-WWII goal of interaction among youths of different countries to increase compassion and cross-cultural understanding. Griffin views the gap year as questionable given Britain’s colonial past. The college students who interviewed demonstrated frustration with local communities for not accepting the benefits of the volunteers. Griffin links this frustration with mimicry, a colonial strategy that places expectations on the colonized to act more like the colonizers. Moreover, volunteers often view happiness abroad and thus legitimize the difficult conditions in developing countries. Volunteers struggle to acknowledge the general social issues that require broader political solutions, as they cannot see past the personal relationships they form with locals in the country. Griffin notices in the interviews that white participants have a hard time being “othered,” or stereotyped based on their race/nationality. However, they are quick to stereotype native peoples. He says that future research could build on the limited work on host community experiences and perceptions.

When examining the colonial relationship between volunteer tourist nations and their host nations, it is important to acknowledged the historical relationship between the two nations. For example, in a case study of Thai host attitudes toward Western volunteer tourists, the respondents “willingly accepted the superiority of Western volunteer tourists without having any negative feelings regarding their own inferiority” (Pronyrungroj 2015). Tourists expressed sentiments in statements such as “these people come from richer and more developed countries than ours” and “when they come to Thailand, they bring with them civilization and modernity to share with us” (120). Proyrungroj points out that this is because Thailand has never been colonized by Western nations, which means that Thai people do not maintain anti-Western feelings that many former colonies do. I find this point important to keep in mind when questioning whether volunteer tourism is a form of neocolonialism.

Personal Gain over Altruism (& Other Negative Consequences): Daniel Guttentag investigates the negative impacts of volunteer tourism (Guttentag 2009). Volunteers tend to be motivated by personal gain, often at the expense of locals’ desires. For example, volunteer tourists in Ecuador painted villagers’ houses without prior consent of the people living in those houses. Volunteer tourists may complete unsatisfactory work, compete with local labor and put locals out of jobs, and further promote conceptualizations of the “other” and poverty rationalizations.


I intend to investigate one or more of these aspects of volunteer tourism, focusing on the host community perspective. I am interested in the negative effects of development because understanding them is a step towards improving foreign aid programs. How can volunteer tourism become more effective? Do short-term medical brigades disrupt the medical infrastructure of communities? Is the relationship between hosts and volunteers one of unequal power relations reminiscent of colonialism?



Green, Tyler, Heidi Green, Jean Scandlyn, and Andrew Kestler. “Perceptions of Short-term Medical Volunteer Work: A Qualitative Study in Guatemala.” Globalization and Health 5.4 (2009).

Griffin, Tom. “Gap Year Volunteer Tourism Stories: Sharing More Than Memories.” Journal Of Hospitality Marketing & Management 22.8 (2013): 851-874. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

Guttentag, D. A. (2009), The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism. Int. J. Tourism Res., 11: 537–551. doi:10.1002/jtr.727

Daniel Guttentag (2012) Volunteer Tourism has Gone Commercial: The Reasons and the Implications, Tourism Recreation Research, 37:3, 273-275, DOI: 10.1080/02508281.2012.11081719

McLennan, Sharon. “Medical Voluntourism In Honduras: ‘Helping’ The Poor?.” Progress In Development Studies 14.2 (2014): 163-179. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Proyrungroj, Raweewan. “The Attitudes of Thai Hosts Towards Western Volunteer Tourists.” European Journal of Tourism Research, vol. 11, Sept. 2015, pp. 102-124. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hjh&AN=110679806&site=ehost-live.

Tomazos, Kostas and Richard Butler. “Volunteer Tourism: The New Ecotourism?.” Anatolia: An International Journal of Tourism & Hospitality Research, vol. 20, no. 1, June 2009, pp. 196-211. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=42309065&site=ehost-live.


I realize that the sources are not uniformly formatted. I will fix this in the future!