Volunteer Tourism and Coronavirus

As workplaces close around the world, we are beginning to question the repercussions for those who are losing their income as a result. But in few places could the impact be so detrimental as within the volunteer tourism sector.

We already know tourism and hospitality have been hit particularly hard, with holidaymakers cancelling their hotel bookings and rushing to get refunds on their flights. But in volunteer tourism, the recipients of this lost income range from: school children, orphans, and patients of medical tourism to endangered animal species.

Volunteer tourism is often criticised for its colonial and exploitative practice. However, the majority of projects are 100% reliant upon the fundraising of volunteer tourists who pay extensive fees in order to travel the world and provide support. This money directly funds the things that ensures beneficiaries receive assistance.

Already we are hearing of billions lost in fundraising revenue. Animal conservation parks are unable to afford food or medicine for animals. And while schools are closed globally, who will pay for local teachers in countries with less substantial furlough schemes than our own? And where will children get their meals they had previously received at school through feeding programmes?

What will happen?
Volunteer tourism is more reliant upon their loyal supports than ever before. Donations may provide some short-term assistance but what about the longer term?

Charitable organisations were quick to jump on the 2.6 challenge. This London marathon inspired social media challenge sought to replace the money gained from the world’s largest fundraising event with [socially distanced] sport fundraising activities on the 26th of April.

This may provide some relief to volunteer tourism. But in times of crises we are more likely to look closer to home. Over the next 6 months, it will be the job of marketers to see if they can keep fundraising levels high. The question is whether donors will contribute when they do not receive any experiential reward or a packaged trip in exchange for their support? Research tells us, the answer is no.

So, we may be left with a volunteer tourism industry that looks remarkably different from what exists today. There will almost certainly be projects that fall casualty to the failing tourism economy. However, those that are able to endure may find opportunity in an organisational model that is not solely dependent upon volunteer tourists’ income.

The ability to accrue financial capital from other sources and build a sustainable project may leave the sector feeling less subject to the will of travellers from the West and better equipped in the future to deal with a lack of volunteer tourists.

The stakes are high, but like all organisations, those that survive may be stronger as a result.

Jamie Thompson, Lecturer

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