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Even if you haven’t heard the term, you probably know about the industry combining volunteering with tourism that is now estimated to be worth over $2 billion

Here’s what you should know.

History of the industry

The Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the Peace Corps were two of the first voluntourism organizations, opening operations in 1958 and 1961, respectively. Both of these organizations place volunteers in skilled positions for extended periods, generally at least 6 months to 2 years, and assist with housing arrangements and provide a small living stipend. There are many other organizations that have similar arrangements for volunteers.

A decade later, Earthwatch began offering individuals the opportunity to pay to volunteer abroad for short trips, appealing to their desire to visit new places and to do good without long-time commitments. These trips can be anywhere around the world for various causes, such as conservering bees in Costa Rica for 7 days or studying whale behavior in Iceland for 12 days

The industry really took off in the early 2000’s after multiple natural disasters, including the Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. With a global audience at the ready, people from all around the world were encouraged to travel and assist communities in need.

The good and the bad sometimes go hand in hand

The biggest selling point of these voluntourism companies is that you can help a local community and economy. Habitat for Humanity has estimated that their volunteer trips alone bring in $6.9 million to local hotels, restaurants, and shops all around the world. Although these trips may help communities in need, parts of the industry have come under fire for doing more harm than good.

In her book, Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism, Pippa Biddle explains how the industry is too often fueled by unqualified volunteers and has turned poverty into a tourist attraction, exacerbating the very problems they were intended to address.

The biggest criticism of voluntourism is the way it has been shown to have contributed to the exploitation of children in some of the poorest countries. Orphanage tourism has created a demand for children to be placed in orphanages to keep a steady stream of funds flowing. This can lead to child trafficking, as some parents have even been coerced into giving up their children.

The future of the industry

The voluntourism industry may look quite different in the coming years. Last year, NPR published a story on how the pandemic changed voluntourism by opening up a whole slew of opportunities for individuals to volunteer their skills and expertise remotely. This allowed organizations to start recruiting individuals to remotely teach volunteers from the local community as well as focus on finding local volunteers rather than foreign ones.

Additionally, remote experiences encouraged foreign volunteers to fundraise in a way that helped them feel connected to the community they were assisting without actually traveling, through virtual experiences and meetings with local volunteers and community members.


  • Julianne Culey

    Julianne is the Assistant Director of the Reynolds Center with expertise in marketing and communications and holds a master's in Sociology from Arizona State University.

    View all posts

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