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Following Study, MU Researchers Provide Recommendations for Volunteer Tourists

March 05, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Christian Basi, BasiC@missouri.edu, 573-882-4430

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Volunteer tourism is an emerging trend in the travel industry. Tourists engage in typical vacation activities as well as volunteer in local communities; they might build schools or homes in developing countries and visit historic sites and nature reserves as part of their trips. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have studied this emerging trend and have advice for how trip organizers can improve travelers’ experiences and enhance the impact of their volunteer work.

Carla Barbieri, assistant professor in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, said volunteer tourism benefits the travelers and the communities that are served. The traveler gains intrinsic value of helping others while the community receives the economic benefits of tourism and the labor of the tourists. To better understand the experience of travelers and how to improve facilitating the volunteer tourism experience, former MU graduate student Yasuharu Katsube traveled to Rwanda on a volunteer tourism trip. After the trip, MU researchers collaborated with Carla Almeida Santos, an associate professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois, to determine if his first-hand experience agreed with previously published research on volunteer tourism.

“Volunteer tourism is a great way for travelers to help those in need,” Barbieri said. “Volunteer tourists travel alone or in groups; the trip is organized by a third party, usually a non-profit organization. These trip facilitators are key to ensuring a positive experience for the traveler and the community in need. Following his travels, we found that Yasuharu’s experience mirrored what was in the research, especially related to the intrinsic rewards he experienced helping Rwandan families and kids in need.”

Based on her research, Barbieri advises people considering volunteer tourism to:

  • Beware of scams: Barbieri said that travelers should protect themselves from fraudulent organizations. She recommends that people check references, contact staff members and research previously facilitated trips. For example, prior to Katsube’s trip, he researched the organization and found that school groups had positive experiences under the organization’s guidance on prior trips.
  • Understand exactly what the trip will entail: To ensure a high-quality experience, Barbieri recommends extensive communication with the facilitator prior to traveling. She recommends that travelers understand the trip’s lodging and volunteer and tourism activities. For example, Katsube understood that he would have the opportunity to immerse himself in the culture by staying with a host family rather than in a hotel.
  • Understand how the organization supports the community: Facilitators usually charge a fee for their services to invest in community development and needs. By understanding if the facilitator follows this practice, travelers can ensure that their money and time makes the greatest community impact.

Barbieri and Katsube found that volunteer tourism facilitators have room for improvement. She suggests that operators consider the volunteer tourists’ goals for the trip. Increased communication with tourists before and after the trip can enable tourists to be better utilized in community service and to have a more enjoyable experience.

In addition, Barbieri recommends that facilitators give tourists a choice of volunteer activities prior to departure. This would allow tourists to participate in activities more suitable to their skill sets. By having tourists choose their activities prior to traveling, facilitators can provide manuals to better prepare tourists for their volunteer tasks.

The study, “Volunteer tourism: On-the-ground observations from Rwanda,” was published in Tourism Management.

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