Rebecca Chong 
Staff Writer

“Voluntourism — a way to travel the world and volunteer; service and sightseeing all rolled into one!”

This is the appeal underlying the travel trend of more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists, who in total spend around $2 billion a year to go abroad and offer their time and skills to underprivileged communities. The most  typical volunteer tourists are women between the ages of 20 to 25; the top three destinations are the Philippines, India and Thailand, according to a 2014 volunteer trends report.

The idea of service work abroad is hardly new. It can be traced to the efforts of faith-based organizations like the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, which aims to provide service opportunities rooted in faith. Though it was founded in 1963, the tradition has its roots in missionary work, a trend found throughout history. People of the church go out to various communities to teach faith, and also provide them with education and resources.

The more recent, secular approach to volunteer service culminated in John F. Kennedy’s creation of the United States Peace Corps in 1961. Its mission “to promote world peace and friendship” was established in the wake of the rise of postcolonial nations and growing distrust of American intervention in developing countries. The Corps currently serve 68 countries with about 7,000 volunteers, with a minimum time commitment of two years for the volunteers themselves.

Other areas that have seen an increase in volunteer-focused travel are study abroad programs with a service component, college-based organizations that do service trips during school breaks, and “gap-year-takers” who make volunteering a part of their experience.

This “new” trend of voluntourism has a distinctly different implication than many others of its kind — the potential for monetary profit. Many companies in the tourism industry have capitalized on the “market for meaningful travel”, one that has emerged from a resulting shift in the public conscience about America’s privileged position in the world. The increase in companies who offer volunteer travel packages that have already been organized and set up in the host country make it an easy, appealing choice for those who want to do good but do not have the time to research.

The fundamental question of voluntourism is, however — who is it really helping? On one hand, the community receives a steady stream of volunteers who are willing to dedicate their time, labor and skills towards a local issue. On the other hand, the the volunteer gets the experience of cultural immersion, volunteer experience and community interaction along with a nice resume boost.

It seems like a wonderful win-win for both the community and the volunteer. However, the unintentional effects of volunteering have long term ramifications for the community’s economy, education systems and more. This is seen when volunteers do not have the proper skills to fulfill the roles they sign up for, making their service less effective and sustainable.

A case study in one of the more popular forms of voluntourism demonstrates this. Teaching English, on the surface,  seems like a fairly neutral and altruistic act — English is ‘the language of commerce, of education and economic advancement’, so it naturally follows that people in developing countries would benefit from learning the language. There are two main issues with this however; how the teaching is done and if it is actually an effective tool for sustainable development.

Often times volunteers who go on these excursions are not trained in any formal manner; simply being a native speaker of English is enough of a qualification. It sets up a biased standard in which people of developing nations are not seen as worthy of class instruction that is as rigorous, standardized and competent as those in developed nations. Moreover, the lack of training and the stream of visiting ‘teachers’ means that students often get sub par lessons. The lack of continuity and constancy in their education through these different volunteers results in their learning to be stagnant and ineffective.

The question of how useful English language skills are in the context of socioeconomic improvement is complex in that it must take into account how these skills are being used and what the effect it places on the identities of communities being taught. The belief that English is necessary for finding a job is built upon the assumption that there already are jobs available and that many people simply aren’t qualified for them. This notion places the blame of unemployment squarely on the abilities of individuals rather than taking into account larger systemic forces such as economic policies and resource management.

This is one example of how volunteer service can be unthoughtful and unintentionally harmful — the volunteer may be taking the place of a more qualified local teacher, thus taking the job of a person who will more likely be a sustainable and more effective teacher because they understand the culture and are a part of the community.

Another big criticism of voluntourism is how it fosters dependency on foreign aid, thus leaving the local community barren of the basic infrastructure to create self-sustained growth and development.

A particularly salient example of this is the history of health camps in Nepal that have been dubbed ‘medical voluntourism’. These are short-term installations focused on specific health issues like dental health, reproductive care or even speech therapy. While care is given, the issues of cultural competence and sensitivity to the needs of the population are often swept under the rug. In the political context of the People’s War in Nepal, it became a gesture of support towards the Nepali people against the Maoists. The unintended consequences of these actions ripples across many domains of life, including politics, and resulted in social changes that have large effects on the country as a whole.

With all this in mind, how does one navigate the pitfalls of wanting to see the world, wanting to do good, but not quite knowing how? No one argues that the intent to help others is a bad one — altruism is a universally lauded ideal. For those who wish to dedicate time out of their lives to volunteer, being thoughtful and thorough about researching makes all the difference. That means beginning to understand the country and region, the non-profit you work with, and realistically assessing your own skills. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to see the world, but being mindful of your position in relation to the place you go is important in making your interactions with others more effective and reciprocal. Perhaps the biggest realization of all is seeing that you could make the biggest impact in a domestic, local community. That truly is the most mindful way to take the urge of altruism and service and make it more sustainable.

Picture By: Mennonite Church USA Archives


By Rachel Ger
Contributing Writer

This is the fifth and final article in our 2015 Week of Photo Journals: Changing Perspectives. We hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s presentation of the beautiful photography and travel accounts of UC San Diego students. Click on the images in the article to view the photos up close.

Kolkata street scene

A snapshot of the juxtaposition of two different generations in the streets of Kolkata, India. The bright colors of the faded paint on the walls don’t do much to shroud the fact that these slums are backed wall-to-wall by tall, luxurious buildings where the rich live and play – with the impoverished right on their doorstep. But somehow, in this moment, all of that doesn’t matter. This grandfather and grandchild have far more important things to think about right now, such as “what game should we play right now?” and “what memories are we going to make today?”

“We’re All Just People” at Centre Pompidou in Paris, France

My favorite part of this museum of modern art wasn’t the exhibits themselves (although they were extraordinary); it was the people-watching I got to do on the escalators between floors and on the landings of each plexiglass surrounded level. Each person or couple was so absorbed in their own little world – napping, lunching, even people-watching themselves, with a pair of eyes, unbeknownst to them, observing from above. There’s a certain sense of peace that comes with being allowed to peek into someone else’s life, a stranger whose world only collides with yours in this encounter and then continues on, completely unrelated to you beyond a moment of accidental eye-contact or a brief “excuse me” or “where did you get your top?”

Nighttime in the City of Lights - Paris, France

Nighttime in the City of Lights – Paris, France

Our long walk back to our Airbnb after each adventure-packed day always became a little tedious. We were all tired, hungry, and not looking forward to returning to the slightly sketchy area we were staying in. Always too tired to engage in the nightlife, on this night the nightlife came to us – we were met with lovely street music, lively youths, bright lights; reviving and energizing us and reminding us of all the little treasures this beautiful city has to offer.

A peek down a nondescript alley met by wary eyes in Kolkata, India

A peek down a nondescript alley met by wary eyes in Kolkata, India

A day in Kolkata seems to stretch for hours on end, punctuated by the hottest, most humid climate I have ever experienced in my life. Night comes as a brief relief to the excruciating heat that causes sweat to pour down our bodies during the day and makes us drowsy and sluggish. Revived by the coolness of the night air, we went for a nighttime walk around the dusty, bustling streets, filled with the sounds of socializing and loud vehicle horns protesting the packed dirt streets. I stepped away from the group for a moment to see what lay behind this corner, and was surprised to find that I wasn’t alone – I seem to have intruded on this little boy’s preparation for a sneaky night of great adventure and excitement.

Beautiful coastal town of Amalfi

A winter day feels just like summer in the beautiful coastal town of Amalfi in Italy. After waking up at the crack of dawn to take the long train from Naples to Sorrento in order to make it on time to catch one of the last three buses running to Amalfi for that period of time (there had been floods because of the rain the week before, and part of the road had collapsed… just in time to complicate our travel plans!). Speeding around the craggy cliffs of the Italian Riviera stopping every which way to pick up locals and slowing down to allow vehicles coming from the other end of this one-lane road pass, we finally arrived at Amalfi hours after we set out from our hostel. But all the hours of travel and transportation complications were worth it when met by the sight of this beautiful little beach town and the warmth of the Italian locals. The Amalfi Coast in every bend and curve possesses the kind of unparalleled beauty that can’t be adequately captured on camera.

 Impending rainstorm on Christmas Eve

Impending rainstorm on Christmas Eve – adventure in rural Italy

Our nonexistent knowledge of the Italian language paired with our inability to navigate tiny provincial streets inevitably and unsurprisingly stopped our quest to find the route to the famous
Sentiero degli dei (the Path of the Gods) right in its tracks. Without a single shop open on Christmas Eve and dead silent streets, it took the sight of these orange-brown clay topped white houses to help us keep our cool. It all turned out fine in the end and we got to where we needed to
be perfectly on time – and now we’ll always have a story that’s one for the books.

All images by Rachel Ger, Prospect Contributing Writer


By Natasha Azevedo
Contributing Writer

This is the first article in our 2015 Week of Photo Journals: Changing Perspectives. Check back each day this week to see more beautiful photography and travel accounts from UC San Diego students. Click on the images in the article to view the photos up close.

One week after my arrival in Iceland, I had already: jumped off a 30-foot cliff into Iceland’s most dangerous river; rafted through the rapids of Hvíta; caught a geyser erupting near Þingvellir National Park; rode an Icelandic horse through lava fields; and photographed three separate waterfalls on the south coast. For two months I was fortunate enough to work as a photojournalist and marketing intern for Arctic Adventures, one of Iceland’s main tourism companies. I’m still quite confused on how I ended up there, but my penchant for hopping on planes alone gave me another summer of incredible solo adventures, making Iceland one of my favorite countries thus far.

Þórsmörk Valley

Þórsmörk Valley

As the company’s summer photographer, I primarily conducted my work across Iceland’s incredible landscapes, shooting out in the field about four times per week. This first photo was taken on a nine-hour hike through Þórsmörk, known as the Valley of Thor (as in Thor from Marvel’s Avengers). Rightfully named, there was nothing but thunder and hail for a six-hour vertical climb until the skies cleared for 10 magical minutes and this rainbow emerged.



One of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls for international tourists, Skogafoss is truly a sight to see. Iceland doesn’t believe in fencing off the wilderness, partly due to the constant shifts in the environment. You’ll catch glimpses of Icelanders and tourists alike swimming in nearby pools, or even jumping off the smaller waterfalls in the north.



Easily one of my favorite places in Iceland, Landmannalaugar is a jewel of the highlands. This photograph captures the natural hot springs that emerge in the region, where geothermal activity makes springs like these a Jacuzzi for hikers taking day trips.

Skaftafell Glacier Lagoon

Skaftafell Glacier Beach

Skaftafell Glacier Lagoon and Beach

Skaftafell is a key location for volcanic activity in Iceland, largely situated near Vatnajökull Glacier. After hiking Skaftafell’s glaciers for a few hours with a group of Japanese tourists, I accompanied a guide to the famous glacier lagoon. As glacier chunks melt, a small river carries the pieces to a beach on the opposite side of the lagoon. With only 20 minutes left before I had to board a ship, I sprinted over to the beach to capture the beautiful simplicity of these giant glacier pieces.

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

Laugavegur Trail

One week of my stay was dedicated to embarking on one of National Geographic’s Dream Treks: the Laugavegur trail. The 36-mile trek was brutally breathtaking: my legs turned orange and green from crossing glacial rivers on foot, several hours were characterized by thick fog and hail, and the ground constantly changed from snow to ice to mud. While the trek transported me into a different world, where herds of horses galloped by and picturesque valleys emerged at every turn, travelers should be cautioned to take a guide, as memorials dot the landscape to remember solo nature enthusiasts who could not prevail against the harsh weather conditions.

Gulfoss Flows

Gulfoss Flows

Day trips to famous waterfalls were some of my favorite days throughout the summer, when I could stare at beautiful falls such as Gulfoss. Gulfoss is the iconic destination in Iceland’s Golden Circle, the most popular area for tourists each summer.



If you’ve ever searched “Iceland” on Google Images, Seljalandsfoss will be the first waterfall to appear. One can walk all the way around the waterfall, as a cave lets you go beneath the falls. Icelandic parents often tell their young children that trolls are in the cave in order to deter them from getting too close; mythical legends of trolls and fairies are fun tales that Icelanders enjoy. Seljalandsfoss is one of hundreds of waterfalls that scatter the south coast. As you drive along the main highway, one can easily observe six waterfalls cascading from the cliffs along the road in merely 10 minutes.

Skaftafell’s Glacier

Throughout my internship, I was able to photograph and pursue a myriad of activities including cliff jumping, ATV-ing, snowmobiling, whale watching, kayaking, snorkeling, and one of my ultimate favorites: glacier climbing. I spent four hours on this particular glacier, yet had the opportunity to get comfortable in crampons on a few other glaciers across the country. Towards the end of my stay, I helped photograph a music video for the Icelandic band Árstíðir on top of Langjökull, making some of my favorite memories of Iceland on glaciers.

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir is an almost reverent spot for many Icelanders, as the first parliament was established here. One can also find Silfra in the park, a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates where I snorkeled in melted glacial water. Very cold.



I spent an inordinate amount of time in Iceland’s wilderness, feeling kind of like the female version of the film “Into the Wild”. It can get pretty lonely in lava fields and volcanic valleys, so occasionally checking in with civilization was nice. Because my apartment was based in Reykjavik, I spent a few evenings per week exploring the city. One of my favorite locations? Harpa, the famous concert hall along the shore. The building is a bit controversial as the government used taxpayer’s money to finish the hall during the recession, but the staff at Harpa is wonderful: you can roam the hallways in a wedding gown or muddy boots and a filthy jacket… all visitors are welcome.

Guido Van Helten's Graffiti

Guido Van Helten’s Graffiti

One of the best aspects of Reykjavik, besides its eclectic collection of cafes, colorful rooftops, or constant music festivals, is the way in which you can stumble upon beautiful street art at any corner. This particular photo captures the graffiti of Guido Van Helten, an Australian artist who was constantly arrested for tagging in Melbourne before pursuing a visual arts degree in Brisbane and re-defining graffiti through commissioned works throughout the world.

All images by Natasha Azevedo, Prospect Contributing Writer