volunteerism, solidarity, and touristic desires

My research has dealt with volunteers and the numerous NGOs in the village for years, however I also take voluntourism itself as an object of study. The following is an article from The Anthropologies Project, that briefly discusses this phenomenon.

Arrivals, perceived and actual

Anthropologies Project, Issue 2: Anthropologies of Tourism

Ethnographies start with ethnographers. What classic, or contemporary for that matter, ethnography doesn't include an arrival story? Generally, it is some variation on a story about getting off the bus, waiting for the dust to clear, and then looking around and figuring out where to begin. These arrival stories are fresh in my mind, having spent the last five years or so reading ethnographies in graduate seminars. Sometimes topics seem to have their own arrival stories. This is the case with the anthropology of tourism. Many monographs about tourism at some point discuss the arrival of anthropology to tourism as a serious scholarly pursuit. In fact, most edited volumes on the topic dedicate much of the introduction to the telling and re-telling of this arrival. I suppose we call it “positioning,” but why the need to wax reflexive about an entire field of study?

Even while our arrival story is flying hot off the presses out into the growing market for literature on tourism, there is another arrival story brewing. As new forms of touring emerge and gain popularity, are those of us engaged in the anthropological study of tourism too busy talking about how we got here to discuss where we are going? The case in point here is that of volunteer tourism. Voluntourism is a growing niche market, especially among “gap year travelers,” or recent college graduates who choose to take a year off before entering the job market or continuing on to graduate school. In a manner similar to the way eco-tourism grew out of and along with the turn toward all things “green,” voluntourism is growing along with the increased turn toward volunteerism. Increasingly, “gap years” and other travelers leave home to spend time on some sort of volunteer initiative, to participate in solidarity tourism, or both.

Solidarity tourism arrived in the 1970s, when individuals began traveling to areas where liberation struggles were taking place. It is likened to sustainable tourism, but with the indication that the focus is on social or cultural sustainability rather than only ecological or economic. Political contexts employ the concept of solidarity as well. There are numerous travel options that provide an opportunity for the tourist to “stand in solidarity” with a political entity or with a group of people opposing a political entity. The Olive Harvest Campaign is an example of this form of solidarity. Finally, we find solidarity as way to describe the camaraderie that develops among individuals who are interested in similar travel options. A Facebook group, Traveller’s Solidarity, plays on the desire of many travelers to set themselves apart from tourism and, more importantly, from the oh-so-pedestrian tourist. The many forms of solidarity tourism provide travelers with lots of options, and volunteer initiatives are positioning themselves as forms of solidarity tourism. Given that the concepts surrounding solidarity and volunteer tourism mirror the stated goals of alternative tourism development, it is no surprise that they linking with community-based tourism projects.

In thinking further on the question of tourism ethnography and its arrival story, it seems that the need to distinguish ourselves from the tourist drives its proliferation. As I research the volunteer tourism phenomenon, I find that there are not as many anthropologists studying this as I had thought. The majority of work is coming out of tourism and hospitality studies. Yet it’s probable that, like tourists in general, anthropologists are encountering volunteers around their field sites. Perhaps we are again seeing a reluctance to examine this because of the similarity it bears to our own work. Many scholars have attributed the latent scholarly reaction to tourism among anthropologists to reluctance to explaining the difference between touring and fieldwork. Is the repetition of this latent reaction a departure from our arrival story or is it a new arrival all together?

Voluntourism offers yet another layer of difficulty, for who among ethnographers is not at some time also a volunteer? I certainly have been asked to help from time to time with tasks such as translating promotional documents and painting signs, or troubleshooting a computer problem. I hadn't thought of myself as a volunteer in the context of my research on a community-based tourism initiative until last summer when a community leader asked me how I would like to be introduced to a group visiting from a similar project. Volunteer? Teacher? Anthropologist? My first reaction, of course, was anthropologist. Mario questioned this and wondered if they would understand what my role was. He said, “volunteer, I think Sarah.” He said that he would tell them I worked on the nature trail project. When I quibbled that I didn’t really work on that project, he countered, “but they will like that, they'll understand it. Everybody has a project.” And with that he identified me as someone who was in solidarity with the community. Even though I may have felt solidarity in my role as an anthropologist dedicated to this field site, he knew that what mattered more was the solidarity that others perceived me to have. He knew that they would want to know my arrival story; how I got there. By categorizing me as a volunteer, he was essentially telling them “she's supposed to be here.” Perceptions in this context are crucial to him. To be perceived as Maya garners interest of tourists and federal development funds. To be perceived as poor/traditional/rural secures the desire of volunteers to come to help. Similarly, to be perceived as standing in solidarity with this community provides voluntourists with a clean conscience…they have acted as conscientious consumers, as conservationists, as activists. Plus, they have achieved solidarity with other like-minded travelers who anxiously wait to tell their own arrival stories. And so maybe the telling and re-telling of anthropology's arrival to tourism (or vice versa) is also about perceptions. By explaining how we got here, we too are stating that we are supposed to be here.

Sarah Taylor

April, 2011