Vacation or Voluntourism?

The problem with your service trip.


By Nike Adejumobi

At the beginning of the school year, I walked from my video production class to enter the gymnasium, shuffling alongside curious classmates into the club fair. 

One of the clubs advertising at the event was buildOn. Trek is a buildOn program where participants travel to countries such as Haiti, Guatemala, and Senegal to build a school after raising the necessary (and hefty) $30,000 as a team. 

A few months later, I listened to a presentation on the program Amigos De Las Americas, an organization providing cultural immersion and service opportunities for youth. buildOns website says “Trek is not a vacation”, and it shouldn’t be. But their other slogan, “Start Your Global Service Adventure” incriminates buildOn’s intention. Community service is no longer branded as purely helping others, but rather as the fun and self-serving benefits of traveling to a foreign country masquerading as “service”: also known as voluntourism. 

Voluntourism is the combination of volunteering and a vacation; the vacation often being something only the wealthy can afford. Organizations running on voluntourism use donations to outsource labor to unskilled volunteers instead of fairly compensating residents. It’s promoted by centering the volunteers’ entertainment instead of the communities’ needs, a message clearly displayed in ads featuring sweeping tropical views and giggling participants. 

The short-term commitment of voluntourism begets a short-term solution. When volunteers are done “fixing” a community’s problem – in this case, a school building (or lack thereof) – they return to the affluent conditions of their developed country. It is there that they benefit from the recognition of their “charity” on resumes and college applications, like buildOn’s founder, Jim Ziolkowski himself. The New York Times bestselling author and motivational speaker for numerous organizations has gained this status by centering himself as one of few “influential leaders”. In contrast, the communities he has “served” constantly remain in need of resources, and so, voluntourists constantly flock to the Southern Hemisphere, repeating the cycle. The U.N estimates that there are around 109 million full-time volunteers in the world. According to NPR, about 1.6 million voluntourists spend almost $2 billion annually, and voluntourism is currently a $3 billion industry. 

These voluntourists are ignorant of their participation in a microcosm of a macroscopic issue. After only a few days in a foreign location, these people emerge thinking they fully understand another nation’s political structure and systems of poverty better than the actual residents. But, people from within a community will always know more than those outside of the community. It is saviorist to say otherwise. 

Despite this, some may believe that voluntourism can have benefits. Because of voluntourists, there now lies a school in any of the eight countries buildOn travels to. However, the harm of voluntourism negates the perceived benefits. Treating marginalized communities as tourist attractions is wrong. Laying bricks into a structure also does not solve that area’s lack of education infrastructure. 

Learning about other cultures is undoubtedly important, but to do so in an unequal power structure is to replicate colonialism in the present. And colonialism is what the University of Strathclyde’s international tourism senior lecturer Konstantinos Tomazos says is “the main criticism of the sector that plays into the idea of the white messiah”.