Voluntourism: good, bad and ugly

(November 2015)

Hoi Yee Ding /// photo courtesy of Ms. Ding

A former lifeguard, weighed down by 30-50 lb. equipment, struggled while learning how to swim all over again along the Honduras Barrier Reef, scuba diving and collecting data for Reef Conservation International.


Hoi Yee Ding’s childhood dream lay under the sea, but the 30-year-old Toronto clerical worker left behind her passion, marine biology, back in university.

In 2014, years later, swimming around vivid parrot fish, queen conchs, dangerous sharks and invasive lionfish, rekindled what Disney’s The Little Mermaid first inspired in her life.

“You sometimes move away from passion and rediscover it when you have a chance,” Ding says. “That’s why I wanted to look for volunteer experience in marine life. The first few days (diving) is a little bit scary, it’s literally learning how to swim all over again.”

Changing her regular vacationer routine after travelling across North America, Europe and Asia, she searched for possibilities to give back to the world and planet Earth.

A research report by travel analyst Henry Harteveld, shows Ding is one of over 3.5 million people embarking on international volunteer trips each year. The multi-billion dollar volunteer tourism industry – also known as voluntourism – is the fastest growing sector in the travel space, according to CBC documentary Volunteers Unleashed.

It is also the most controversial, following instances where voluntourists take jobs beyond their training or ability while rushing to provide international aid.

“Medical students operating on people… the dangers of that,” says Jacob Taddy, founder and director of Onwards Inc. “Or I think teachers is the one that really hit home with me, we wouldn’t allow a random high schooler to walk into our elementary school and teach our kids, but it’s totally fine over there (in developing countries.)”

Onwards is a non-profit organization based in Milwaukee, seeking to eliminate poverty through tourism based micro-enterprise development and travel.

“We provide loans and training to those businesses and then two-fold service as a non-profit travel agency,” Taddy said. “We run trips to help support those businesses and sectors and provide the initial revenue base for those businesses.”

Onwards Board Member Pippa Biddle, 23, is a former voluntourist who experienced “some of the inefficacies and straight-up hypocrisy in volunteer travel” through other organizations, while participating in her high school’s trip to Tanzania.

During her stay at an orphanage, Biddle and her classmates were tasked with building a library. After mixing cement and laying bricks, she was surprised to discover local workmen undoing and rebuilding her daily progress overnight.

Their success was pragmatically unrealistic and set up for failure, she explains, having received approximately 20 minutes of instruction for laying bricks, a specialty trade requiring year-long training in most of the developed world.

“One of the key problems in volunteer travel is that it doesn’t allow for that area’s economic development,” Biddle said. “The labour is volunteer labour, rather than being hired local labour.”

Ding had a different experience in Belize.

ReefCI has research they’re trying to do and they depend on volunteers to help them cover more grounds, to produce more numbers,” she said. “Every day has a purpose… to assist and find information for the two main scientists on the island.”

ReefCI guests are lodged on Tom Owens Caye island. /// photo courtesy of Ms. Ding

The not-for-profit marine conservation organization started operating off the coast of Punta Gorda in 2004. Travellers are lodged on a 1½ acre island named Tom Owens Caye and referred to as guests instead of volunteers by staff, because they pay fees covering both their visit and ReefCI funding.


Contributing through “citizen science,” guests are responsible for data collection such as seasonal spawning rate statistics, juvenile and adult counts on commercial species including the queen conch, lobster and fin fish, as well as conducting general surveys on the health of corral reefs.

“I’d say the most prevalent program that we have right now is the lionfish program,” ReefCI founder and director Polly Alford said. “Our guests help us spear them and remove them and dissect them, collect data from them and remove fins that help make jewelry from them.”

Lionfish, initially released as former pets, are an invasive species with a voracious appetite  and fast reproduction rate. They endanger native fish populations and their venomous sting can leave divers paralyzed for days. According to Alford, lionfish are the biggest marine disaster in history.

ReefCI received the commended award Best for Responsible Wildlife Experiences during the 10th Responsible Tourism Awards in 2013. It received recognition for contributions toward conservation; quality of guest experiences; data quality; local economy through employment and local sourcing; including working with the department of Fisheries in Belize to help protect the marine life and sustain fish stock and fishing.

“We don’t take jobs from local people at all, we do the opposite,” Alford said. “The majority of our staff are Belizean; our marine biologist is Belizean; our cooks are Belizean, our caretakers are Belizean and our tour guides are Belizean – even our dive masters are Belizean.”

Guests receive scuba diving lessons and earn their PADI Open Water Diver certification once they demonstrate the required skills successfully.

“It’s a great place to learn about marine life, people come in and learn in-depth detail to help them write their Master of Theories and so-forth,” Ding said. “But if you’re just a regular person coming here to enjoy a vacation and learn about the ecosystem, they also have education materials to teach you.”

Overall, Biddle believes volunteer travel is generally a short term Band-Aid solution.

“We should be really looking at how to fix systems that are broken in the places that people want to travel to,” she said. “I’m not telling people to stop travelling, I think travelling is one of the best things you can ever do, but go fix a system, don’t just become part of a problem.”

Although her friends and family discouraged Ding from travelling alone out of safety concerns, she encourages other women to try it and experience independence.

“It makes you become a more confident person. It empowers you to do what you think is right, to think for yourself,” she said. “We still live in a world where people think it’s a man’s world or a woman’s place is in a family or a certain room of the house, but when you’re travelling it allows you to do things that put you in situations where nobody else can help you but yourself.”

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