Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

“Luxury” voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 26, 2010


An article on the CNN website features extended commentary by two individuals who come from quite different sides of the voluntourism spectrum.  One of the individuals involved is the founder of a UK-based for-profit luxury voluntourism operator called Hands Up Holidays.  The other comes from Azafady, a small London-based nonprofit with a shoestring budget.

I have stated previously my negative opinion of for-profit voluntourism operators, and I think Hands Up Holidays epitomizes just about everything about the for-profit side of this industry that I find objectionable.  If you go to their web page, they make no bones about the fact that they are a luxury travel outfit: “Luxury Travel With a Conscience,” they say.

When I see that word “luxury”, I am reminded of the information I was given when I went on my first voluntourism trip to Mexico.  An email from the group leader had this to say about what we should take with us on the trip:

Any electronics will need an adapter, but I recommend not bringing any if you can avoid it. Electricity in Cuetzalan is fairly reliable, but again, the less stuff the better. Please do not plan on bringing fancy toys into the village – you may want an Ipod for bus travel etc. but bringing cool stuff into the villages only points out the disparities.

In other words, on this trip we were to leave our luxuries behind.  We were going into an impoverished community, and for it to be a “luxury” vacation would be fundamentally inconsistent with much of what our trip sought to accomplish.

I am not saying that I think people should have to live in squalor when they go on volutourism trips.  On the contrary, I am certainly no fan of squalor.  But I also think that “luxury” is not really a word that goes well with the spirit and principles of voluntourism, and I think that organizations like Hands Up Holidays are really more about profiteering off of wealthy people’s guilty consciences than they are about true voluntourism.  Lest there is any doubt about who their target audience is, on their website I found a two-week trip to Guatemala that they offer, for the handsome sum of $4,750.

Given all of that, I liked what the representative of the UK non-profit had to say in the CNN article:

there’s so much “noise” out there in the form of big travel companies charging exorbitant amounts for volunteering holidays set up with only profit and entertainment in mind.

The profits involved have meant massive expansion in the industry. The basis of my cynicism is that many organizations produce little good and can even lead to skilled, well-motivated people turning away from international charity work altogether.

That would be a real shame because there are bona fide operators of trips like these that understand what voluntourism is, or at least should be, really about.

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One Response to ““Luxury” voluntourism”

  1. mumu said

    Azafady turned into a hypocritical organisation who pretends to care about the community, but they treat their own malagasy staff like pigs.. They just care about getting money from their volunteers and not about their work or skills. (Why else would you have to pay 2000 quid to go there) There are no negative reviews about it yet but people should know that they are the worst especially their english dragonlady boss!

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