A Meaningful Alternative To Voluntourism

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

Our Way Forward

We are travelers who have found ourselves at a crossroads.

For us, traveling is not about seeing the sights, but connecting with the people that live differently than we do. We understand the power of educational travel experiences and how it can (but does not always) uniquely supercharge a person’s personal growth.

We have come to realize that much of the travel industry, of which we are a part, continues to contribute to systems of oppression that exist around the world. Education abroad should be the arena from which we can combat racism, colonialism and white supremacy. Instead, it often perpetuates the global power dynamics which cause harm to the peoples who we are so keen to meet.

Our way forward is to design educational travel experiences that are truly co-created with the communities we intend to visit. We seek out, listen to, and honor different cultures’ voices, struggles and successes. The focus of our travel learnings is on the work of individuals and organizations that are solving chronic social or environmental problems in their own communities. Discussions on identity, belonging, racism, classism, and colonialism have become an important part of our programs.  

We want to… 

  • use the power of enterprise and community building to make the world more equitable
  • improve global power dynamics between those who travel and those who host
  • create powerful environments where other travelers can learn how to do better, too
  • create travel experiences that truly live up to the positive, transformative expectations

Education abroad should always be rooted in equity, mutual respect and partnership between people from different cultures. Now that we’ve recognized we weren’t doing our best, it is our responsibility to take action.

Image by Gaelle Marcel