GoVoluntouring founder Aaron Smith standing in a big hole
Like eco-tourism, voluntourism is not always all it’s cracked up to be.
Just as ecotourism is, at its best, an effort to slightly reduce the impact of the inherently ecologically harmful act of moving around the world recreationally, voluntourism would seem largely to be more about the tourist than whatever volunteer labour the trip’s ostensibly about. And at its worst, it builds things that aren’t needed or can’t be used, and even displaces local labour in favour of the unpaid and unskilled labour of the well-meaning but essentially frivolous traveller. Building schools sounds lovely, for instance, but without an infrastructure to train teachers and, more importantly, a fund to pay them, these structures sometimes end up being nothing more than elaborate squats.
So when I heard that Flight Centre had bought a Canadian voluntourism startup called Go Voluntouring last year, I figured it might be a good opportunity to find out a little about the business from the inside. I emailed the founder, Aaron Smith, to see if he might like to meet for a drink next time he was in town. He did, and over rather more drinks than we had anticipated at the Royal York, he gave me the goods.
He told me he’d come up with the idea for a clearing house and booking gateway for voluntourism projects around the world as part of his master’s degree at Royal Roads University just outside Victoria, and though he’d been working on it for two years, Flight Centre bought it within months of it going live, hiring Smith as president.
It turns out, he was as suspicious of voluntourism as I was.
“I think bad voluntourism really preys on what I’ll call the white man’s burden,” he said, “not solving the tangible needs. They use Canadians, Americans or Brits as project leads, they don’t use locals to run these and they miss an important employment opportunity which can turn into an empowerment opportunity.”
Sometimes, it’s even worse than that. He told me about one voluntourism operation they had listed on the site early on. It gave travellers the opportunity to help raise orphaned baby lions. It sounded like just the thing voluntourists would flock to, until he got a report that the lions were actually being raised as game for high-flying hunters.
After that, he put in a what-to-ask tab on his site so even if something like that slips between the cracks again, prospective voluntourists can do a little vetting of their own before they book.
Our conversation soon turned to one particular program, called Project Somos, out of Vancouver. They were building a little village for orphans and abandoned children in the mountains. Smith figured it was an example of what voluntourism should be, avoiding all the pitfalls and hitting all the sweet spots. He made a good case, but everything I’d learned about any sort of foreign aid told me things got endlessly complicated when you parachute into a country good intentions and a little cash. I had read about orphanages built in Haiti that provided a quality of life far enough above the norm that parents were abandoning their children so they could have a better life in the luxe orphanage.
I decided the only way to figure it out would be to go down to Guatemala. Smith agreed, and got Flight Centre to fund a quick trip down. I think I’m a little closer to getting voluntourism now. Next week, I’ll tell you what I found, what to watch out for and how, sometimes, good intentions can pave the way to another destination entirely.