Do travel philanthropists do more harm than good to the community

Do travel philanthropists do more harm than good to the community

The best of both worlds. It’s a great way to use their vacation time and give back to others who are less fortunate than they are. Travel philanthropy can be seen as the best form of direct assistance to those less fortunate than themselves.

As Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai said at a 2008 conference in Tanzania:

Travel philanthropy is a result of frustrations with ineffective philanthropic efforts and conventional aid. It’s a form of development assistance that flows directly from the travel industry to conservation projects, community projects, and charitable organizations.

It is a very attractive idea to think that you can “do well” by giving back while on vacation or traveling. The reality is we fail to understand our role when traveling into unfamiliar lands.


The rich and famous no longer have the exclusive right to philanthropy. Now, ordinary citizens are interested in giving back their modest wealth. Travel philanthropy has been a growing trend in recent years, largely due to the democratization and growth of international travel. How can we make sure that the good intentions of traveling to help others have a positive result?

The Gambia – P2P – Meeting the ALKALO in Tumanitenda community camp. Author’s collection. Author provided

My research on the different ways that travel philanthropy facilitates mutually beneficial exchanges of hosts and guests have revealed that this is a growing area within the larger field of philanthropy. In my research of 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, I found that travel philanthropy can be similar to social entrepreneurship, social justice, and strategic philanthropy. However, it can also have tonalities associated with traditional charity.

The main purpose of tourism can be to give time and money, as with conservation holidays. Traveling to areas with major health or environmental problems can have a similar effect. A tourist may be motivated to sponsor a place at a school or assist communities that are affected by HIV/AIDS or endangered species.

Geography of compassion

The tourism industry has become a channel for giving between those international visitors who believe they are more fortunate and those living in less secure conditions.

There are questions about whether the expansion of travel philanthropy has led to what Mary Mostafanezhad, from New Zealand’s University of Otago, calls a “geography of compassionate”. This is accompanied by problems of aid dependence, a worsened cycle of poverty, and providing ambiguous evidence as to its sustainability and impact.

Even the best-intentioned of travelers can do more harm than good.

When the motivations for giving and volunteering are blurred by the desire to gain personal benefit, social status, and altruism, there can be problems. Orphanage tourism has been criticized for encouraging voyeurism.

A hand up? OXLAEY.comCC BY

There’s a caution in the idea behind “voluntourism”. Since the 1980s, people with specific skills have been volunteering in developing countries. The idea of “voluntourism” has become so popular that it is now a separate commercial product worth around $2 billion per year. Tour operators are often forced to provide work for volunteers who come from Western countries.

Facebook fodder

It’s not just about adding a nice photo to your Facebook profile.

CharityBox. Marina Novelli is the Author.

I remember visiting newly constructed schools that were funded by well-intentioned donors who visited remote rural villages of Namibia, Tanzania, and Swaziland. The local government was unable to afford qualified teachers and relied on unqualified volunteers. Even worse, I watched schools being painted every 2 to 3 weeks when a new group of volunteers arrived.

According to such criticisms, it can be difficult, but not impossible, to identify and implement sustainable forms of travel philanthropy.

Amy Scarth is an expert on tourism and international development and the director of volunteer tourism company Big Beyond. She urges people to ignore “honorable” tourists and instead focus their criticisms on careless organizations. She says that volunteers are entitled to benefit from their experience and that this is not a crime. However, she calls for an emphasis on the “human impact,” which will reduce the need for short-term external funding.

The University of Brighton has been involved in projects like the peer-to-peer capacity building in tourism initiative of students in The Gambia, which aims to shift away from traditional philanthropy in order to make the process about equal exchange of information rather than the givers or recipients of largesse.

Local participants receive training in niche tourism product enhancement, business planning, and entrepreneurship development. Those visiting gain local knowledge that is essential for their final year project work at the university. The power relationship is shifted in this way so that those who “help” are no longer just the visitors but also those who are visited. This is a form of “trade plus aid” philanthropy, where participants give more than their fees for travel and accommodations and adhere to fair trade principles.

Travel philanthropy is a form of giving that can be unpredictable. Inappropriate practices and projects that are interrupted pose a clear risk. We have learned that in order to be of benefit to local communities, philanthropy should have a plan for the long term, which is agreed upon and implemented with local actors. It should also provide what the local community wants and needs, not just the donor. It should also be sustainable, regardless of whether the focus is on a single scholarship, a larger community, school or clinic infrastructure, or a combination.

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