Voluntourism is problematic.

If this is news to you, I recommend you read some brilliantly written pieces on the subject by Teju Cole (from The Atlantic in 2012) and Tina Rosenberg (from The Guardian from 2018) or peruse any part of the (often triggering and sometimes controversial) No White Saviors Instagram feed.

I’m curious to consider – why do some of us seek out voluntourism in the first place? What drives us to ‘travel to help.’ Which needs of our own are we trying to meet, that perhaps we can find a better strategy for?

Connection. In a world of overtourism, many top destinations feel more like theme parks than places humans live. We want to develop connection across cultures. 

Growth. Intentionally inviting challenge, discomfort and unfamiliarity into our life can be deeply gratifying. If we aren’t growing, we are dying.

Impact. It is difficult to grapple with the inequity in our world and taking action makes us feel better. We want to make a positive difference.

So, how do we build relationships with people who live differently? What kind of experiences will help us become who we want to be? How do we truly use our privilege for global good?

We propose, that the answer lies not in traveling to help, but in traveling to learn.

This is a simple but radical shift in the typical mindset around meaningful travel. Instead of arriving as heroes, we come as students; ready to receive (and properly pay for) the wisdom that local experts, leaders and changemakers are willing to share. We can meet our needs for connection, growth and impact by handing over the symbolic power to our hosts and leaning in with openness and curiosity. 

Our presence in any environment makes a difference. What kind of difference do we want to make?

Image by Ray Sangga Kusuma