An increasing number of foreigners are visiting Cambodia to mix vacation with charity, but experts question how much benefit they can bring to a community during a short visit
Tourists who want to contribute to the local community can also consume in a way that produces a sustainable income for the local economy. A tourist in Smateriaia in Phnom Penh.
EARLY this month World Expedition, a global adventure travel company, charged tourists A$1,790 (US$1,159) for a twelve-day tour of Cambodia, selling their tour product as a "community project", because four of the 12 days were spent repairing a schoolhouse in Siem Reap.
Is four day's work from unskilled labourers merely an expensive guilt trip for tourists and an onus for the local community, or can it make a real, lasting impact on both the participants and the community?
More travellers than ever before are including volunteer work on their vacation itineraries, but as the tourist volunteer sector merges with for-profit tourism, critics warn that do-gooders can be duped into doing more harm than good.
Tourism where one blends vacation time with charity work, dubbed voluntourism, has boomed in the last two years.
According to a poll from Travelocity, a popular travel website, the number of travellers planning to volunteer during their vacation jumped from six percent in 2006 to eleven percent in 2007, and a 2008 survey sponsored by msnbc.com and Conde Nast suggests even faster growth this year, with more than 55 percent of people expressing interest in taking a volunteer vacation.
David Clemmons, founder of US-based voluntourism.org, said, "The number of participants, as measured by at least15 voluntourism operators... is significantly higher than [in] 2007. Some organisations are experiencing more than 100 percent growth."
Voluntourism is nothing new, but traditionally the sector was run mainly by church groups and NGOs. Today as interest in voluntourism grows, large, for-profit travel companies are getting into the mix, and they have a different priority - the bottom line.
Short-term volunteering is very hard to translate into positive impact.
There is nothing inherently wrong with commercial organisations sending volunteers, but the needs and interests of local communities should be a concern, said Rachel Noble, the campaigns officer of UK-based industry watchdog Tourism Concern.
"It's vital that the projects are not determined by market demand and provide meaningful long-term benefits to local people. Fulfilling the 'feel good' factor for tourists should not be done at the expense of the developmental needs of local communities," Noble said.
Daniela Papi, the president of Siem Reap-based PEPY Tours, a for-profit tour company designed to fund a separate PEPY nonprofit organisation, is critical of many of the voluntourism opportunities in Cambodia. She stresses the need of volunteer tour operators to be involved in long-term projects.
"Short-term volunteering is very hard to translate into positive impac. You can't monitor the impact on the community if you only visit it three times a year," she said.
Papi criticised tour companies that do not give money to the community or insist that its customers do.
"There are very few situations where unskilled volunteers should come without funding to a project. You're probably just taking the director's time. Volunteers aren't free," Papi said. "If the companies are making money, they should give back."
PEPY tours integrates its product with its nonprofit organisation's long-term work and requires its tourists to bring in funding, Papi said, but she admits that her organisation is not perfect and stresses that volunteer tourism requires constant self-reflection.
"You have to admit you're going to make mistakes. You have to be willing to change. Too often, people are afraid to do that," Papi said.
One thing all voluntourism experts agree on is that people interested in volunteering while travelling need to be discerning.
"Travellers need to start demanding that it's done responsibly. They need to call out tour operators," Papi said.
There are a few things that customers should look for in a volunteer vacation to ensure that their trip is both productive and enjoyable.
First, Noble at Tourism Concern emphasised that volunteer work should take advantage of the particular skills of the tourists - language skills, for instance - so that they are not taking jobs away from locals.
A tourist in Smateriaia handicraft workshop in Phnom Penh tries on a hat made completely of recycled goods.
"It's important that projects don't take on volunteers to do work that could be done perfectly competently by and provide employment for local people. Our research has shown that volunteers are only too aware when their well-intended efforts are not providing any real benefit to local people, leading to unhappy locals and unhappy volunteers," she said.
Second, be wary of volunteer tours that advertise a long time ahead of the project and are inflexible about the charity work they will doing, Papi said.
These types of volunteer tours create an incentive not to fix the problem locally because they know tourists will come in at a later date to solve the problem for them.
Most importantly, a tourist interested in volunteering should ask the operator basic questions about the project, especially about where the money is going.
Tourism Concern recommends that a person "enquire about how they [tour operators] work with local communities, whether it's a long-term partnership, whether they contribute money directly in support of the project and how the project is appraised".
Despite the dangers of tour operators using communities as marketing ploys, Clemmons believes carefully planned voluntourism has the potential to change the very nature of travel.
"Voluntourism may... introduce us to unprecedented forms of social entrepreneurism ... and shake the roots of capitalism by making it conscious and intentional," he said.