What Is Voluntourism? Does It Help or Harm Communities?

Are tourists' good intentions misplaced or actually effective?

A volunteer teaches English in rural Cambodia
A volunteer teaches English in rural Cambodia. Owen Franken / Getty Images

Voluntourism is a type of tourism in which travelers participate in volunteer work, usually for a charity or a non-profit. While the term sometimes applies to domestic travel, a majority of voluntourism takes place abroad. Most often, voluntourists travel for the specific purpose of volunteering in an organized way for specific causes, but others simply include volunteer aspects to a traditional vacation experience.

According to Save the Children, a charity that provides humanitarian aid for children worldwide, about 1.6 million people volunteer overseas each year. Voluntourism is considered the fastest-growing travel trend, and tourists sometimes pay up to $2,000 per week to be a part of it. All in all, the industry itself is worth an estimated $2.6 billion per year.

Many voluntourism programs positively impact their communities and help fulfill a need that will continue to benefit the destination long after the volunteers have left. However, it's becoming clear that some of these organizations could be taking advantage of both their participants and their causes for the sake of financial gain.

How to Be a Responsible Volunteer Tourist

  • Before committing to an organization, reach out to past volunteers to hear their experience or read reviews.
  • If you have a special skill or expertise in a specific field, look for organizations that train and empower local staff. That way, you are making a lifelong impact for an entire community rather than a temporary one.
  • Research the organization's credentials.
  • Avoid organizations that encourage handling of animals when it is not veterinary, research, or conservation-related.
  • Highlight projects that are run or managed by the local community.
  • Seek out projects that are genuinely needed in the destinations where you want to volunteer. Ask yourself if the volunteer work provides a "band-aid" fix or a long-term solution to a local issue.

Voluntourism Definition

In brief, voluntourism is a joining of "volunteering" and "tourism." Many volunteers travel to areas where there’s the most need, whether it's for time, money, medical services, or training. Most companies will set a volunteer up with lodging (oftentimes a homestay with a local family), meals, and even help organize flight itineraries and information on visa requirements or travelers insurance.

Voluntourism seems like the perfect combination of traveling and giving back, but it must be done right in order to have a positive effect. Good intentions only get you so far, it’s all about keeping an open mind and doing the research to ensure that those good intentions produce sustainably beneficial results.

Types of Voluntourism

A doctor giving an injection to a boy in Kenya
A doctor giving an injection to a boy in Kenya. hadynyah / Getty Images

There are hundreds of voluntourism programs out there offering legitimate ways to contribute to poverty alleviation, environmental issues, social justice, and more.


One of the most popular forms of voluntourism, which can consist of teaching English or creating educational resources in poor communities. 

Child Care 

Working in orphanages, for example, or interacting with children to enhance their well-being and development. Also working with disadvantaged youth and refugees seeking temporary asylum.

Health Care

Those in the medical field can travel to underserved communities administering vaccines or educating about diseases and how to prevent them.


Projects can consist of both animal conservation and environmental conservation, where volunteers work at an animal sanctuary or conduct research in the field, for example, by tracking native species. Participants may also work on reforestation projects or trail maintenance to help support local ecosystems.

Community Support

Building homes, schools, libraries, or other types of infrastructure. This can also include women empowerment or working to reduce social inequalities within a specific community.

Pros and Cons

It’s safe to say that most of those who sign up to volunteer abroad do so with the best intentions; in most cases, it is the specific organization or the nature of the volunteer work that presents issues. But it begs the question, can altruism in tourism get in the way of actual impact? And if so, how can you tell if a voluntourism program is helping rather than hurting?

The media has exposed cases of orphanages in Nepal full of children who aren’t truly orphans or travelers who discover volunteer programs that exploit natural disasters for financial gain. Back in 2018, journalist Tina Rosenberg wrote a piece for the Guardian about a company in Guatemala that scouts mountain villages for sick infants, calling on volunteers to collect them instead of taking them directly to the hospital, which could purposely delay critical care.

There are even cases where travelers themselves volunteer for the wrong reasons, as demonstrated in the video below created by Radi-Aid, a Norwegian project that seeks to challenge perceptions around issues of poverty and development.

Pro: Experiencing New Cultures

Traveling helps us gain a new perspective on the world that can translate into other positives in our lives, and staying outside the typical tourist route can enhance that experience. Spending more time within a local community, for instance, will certainly provide a much more authentic experience than sitting in a resort sipping cocktails. The Center for Responsible Travel reported in 2019 that people who travel regularly are 35 times more likely to donate to nonprofits than non-travelers over their lifetimes.

Much like sustainable tourism as a whole, the legitimacy or success of a voluntourism program depends highly on how it is managed. When done the right way, it can help communities grow and truly provide benefits to a specific cause. But it’s up to the individual volunteer, too, who has the added responsibility of staying informed and setting their destinations up for success.

Pro: Some Organizations Are Honest and Effective

Volunteers set up a structure for medical services in Nepal
Volunteers set up a structure for medical services in Nepal. Craig Lovell / Getty Images

Voluntourism can absolutely be an effective tool for achieving positive changes in global communities that need help, but it sometimes comes down to the volunteers themselves to do the work in sorting out the good from the bad.

Ken Budd, author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist, argues that not all volunteer programs are created equal, and countless organizations around the world create lasting results. The writer’s experience speaks for itself (he’s volunteered in at least six countries), such as teaching English in a Costa Rican elementary school that relied on volunteers when they couldn't afford teachers, or a climate change program in Ecuador where scientists could run more research projects thanks to volunteer labor.

Con: Dishonesty Among Volunteer Companies

Perhaps one of the worst products of dishonest voluntourism comes from orphanage scams. Since they may receive additional funding with each child or rely on volunteer donations, there is an incentive to recruit more children into their system.

According to an investigation by Lumos, an NGO that fights against the institutionalization of children, total funding for orphanages in Haiti ranged upwards of $100 million per year; that’s enough to send 770,000 Haitian children to school or pay the Haitian child protection agency’s annual budget over 130 times.

The study also found that, of the 30,000 children living in the country's orphanages, an estimated 80% had at least one living parent. Lumos suggested diverting orphanage funds into programs that support families and enable them to appropriately care for their children — instead of promoting the orphanage business.

In a similar scenario, a 2015 study by UNICEF found that 79% of teenage children in Cambodian orphanages had at least one living parent.

Con: Tourists Could Take Work From Locals

A reporter for the New York Times wrote in 2016 about their experience with a group of missionaries building a school in Haiti:

“Watching those missionaries make concrete blocks that day in Port-au-Prince, I couldn’t help wondering if their good intentions were misplaced. These people knew nothing about how to construct a building. Collectively they had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly. Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves. Perhaps those Haitian masons could have found weeks of employment with a decent wage. Instead, at least for several days, they were out of a job.”

If an organization can get free labor from an unskilled volunteer, they’re not spending money hiring locals to do the same work for a fee. In a poverty-stricken economy where residents are already struggling to find jobs, funds that go towards digging a well or building a school will have more of an impact if they stay within the local economy.

Taking work from locals can also result in inferior products or prevent developing communities from self-establishment. Not to mention, volunteers who are untrained in whatever service they are providing can sometimes actually end up hindering progress. Pippa Biddle, who writes about her experiences with the global volunteer economy, has recounted building libraries in Tanzania and watching more skilled local workers come in each night to fix mistakes.

How to Identify a Legitimate Voluntourism Opportunity

  • Reputable voluntourism organizations usually provide training or use specific criteria to select volunteers.
  • Qualifications are required for certain roles, such as background checks if you plan to work with children or medical field experience for medical volunteer positions.
  • The organization provides guidance on travel insurance, flight information, visas, and other travel requirements.
  • The work doesn’t involve jobs that can take employment opportunities from residents, but instead finds ways to include or benefit them.