Over the last few years, the term “voluntourism” has come into the missions vernacular. It’s generally used as a derogatory term for people combining vacations, with serving, with a dash of poverty tourism thrown in. It’s a simple term, but it’s more complicated than the black and white way most people present it.
I’ve you’ve watched cable news or visited any social media website in the last few years you’ve seen a widening divide. Whether it’s Democrat vs. Republican, opinions on gun control, or any one of dozens of topics, the reasonable middle ground can be hard to find. The problem is, in most cases, that middle ground is where logical solutions are found. The calm voice of reason has been silenced by the shouting from both sides in too many discussions.
I, along with my team, host a LOT of short-term mission groups in Mexico every year. Are some of these trip more about tourism wrapped in projects? Sure, it happens, it’s actually a sliding scale with any group. Some people come for purely educational or recreational purposes, some come who only want to serve, most come with a mixed agenda and we’re OK with that. As long as the groups coming down are respectful of our home, and the people we serve in the community, we want the groups here. We want bigger groups, and we want them to tell their friends to come.
The term voluntourism paints all service trips with a broad negative brush. It claims that service trips are all about the people going on the trips, and those people looking good on social media. We’ve all seen the pictures of American teens surrounded by poor children. The thing is, for this current generation, everything is documented to social media. Whether it’s dining out, giving birth, or the Pinterest wedding, everything is now photographed for online publication. Is it odd that service trips are also so well photographed and shared? As long as the people being photographed have given permission, and the local culture is respected, is this a problem? Or does showing people the need in various areas of the world actually help to promote aid to those areas? Few would argue that’s it’s better to keep needs hidden. When these trips are healthy and respectful, everybody wins.
People attacking voluntourism without knowing the desires and goals of the people receiving the groups are actually showing incredible arrogance. “I know what’s better for them than they do.” This attitude of well-meaning American’s determining the wants and desires of people groups and cultures they know very little about is actually hugely condescending. Passing judgment on people without knowing them, their needs, and their wishes, is exactly the wrong thing to do. By going and visiting people where they are, talking to them, and getting to know them, real progress can be made. Call it voluntourism if you want to, but it’s a good thing.
Across the board, people in our area want more groups to come down. Even though some groups give just a half-hearted nod to a service project, they still bring huge benefits to our community. There is a reason every city in the US promotes tourism: people who visit buy food, supplies, and create jobs in the local community. Between the several ministries in our area, over 500 missions groups are hosted in our town of 4,000 people every year. These short-term mission teams and their projects are the economic engines that have brought our town from poverty to middle class in the last 15 years. Some groups have been less than great, but the overall effect has changed local lives for the better.
So how do you change the shape of voluntourism? Here are a few thoughts:
- Respect the people and culture of wherever you are visiting. Always remember that the people you’re visiting aren’t there for your entertainment, they are just like you but from a different culture and background. Get to know them, talk to them, ask before you take a picture (or don’t take a picture at all). Treat them as you would want to be treated.
- Work on real, productive projects. The best way to do this is to find on-the-ground organizations who you can partner with. There are people in any area who know the needs that need to be addressed and how best to focus your efforts and resources. If you’re working on a project, by partnering with local organizations, you’re much better prepared to help, and not cause unintentional damage.
- Be honest with your funders. If you call your trip “missions” and have raised money under that title, be honest with yourself and your donors. Is this really just about missions or is it about tourism? If it’s just about you taking a trip, get a job and pay for it yourself. If it’s really about serving others and meeting needs, let people know how they can help. Taking an educational and touristy trip is fine, just be honest about it.
It comes down to respect for the people in the countries being visited. Travel is a good thing, it breaks down walls, changes opinions, and works against racism. If we can learn more about our world, our fellow man, and help others while we’re at it, it’s a good thing. Voluntourism suddenly doesn’t sound so bad.
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