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11 Feb, 2014

Volunteer tourism study: “High price no indicator of responsibility levels”


London, (Tourism Concern media release) Feb 10, 2014 – Volunteer tourism organisations that offer the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible, research from Leeds Metropolitan University has revealed.

The study, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, led by Victoria Smith and Dr Xavier Font, suggests that price and responsibility display an inverse relationship when considering comparable volunteer tourism products, on a price-per-day basis. The product or content that communicated the least how it was responsible tended to be the most expensive. In the study, the researchers also suggest that volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously especially in marketing their programs to potential volunteers.

The researchers sampled UK volunteer tourism websites and analysed their use of responsibility and price in their marketing to potential volunteer tourists. The researchers developed a web content analysis tool to understand how responsibility in volunteer tourism is demonstrated, and rated and compared the organisations’ content and price levels for comparable products.

Comparable products’ prices were demonstrated to vary widely from £48 per day for the overall most responsible organisation to £110 per day for the least overall responsible organisation in the study. Using the results, the researchers introduced the concept of ‘Responsibility Value’ as a bond of quality. As volunteers’ priority factor for choosing projects is price, if they focus on price per day comparisons this is good news for the more responsible organisations.

Volunteer tourism brings together international volunteering and tourism and is often promoted as a way to experience authenticity within alternative tourism and provide benefits to destinations, leading to expectations of a responsible tourism ethos.

Speaking about their findings, Dr Xavier Font, Reader at Leeds Metropolitan University, said: “It’s not entirely unsurprising that the most responsible organisations price responsibly, as they are transparent about their cost structure and income. The less responsible organisations tend to hide the origin of their costs, which can also hide excessive profit margins”.

“We found that companies choose to communicate not what are arguably the most important aspects of volunteer tourism but what is easiest and most attractive. Some organisations were good in responsible tourism policies and conservation projects but were poor in communicating issues such as responsibility in childcare and other projects requiring the most sensitivity.”

Speaking about how the organisations choose to market themselves, independent consultant and lead author of the study, Victoria Smith, added: “The status of an organisation is no guarantee of responsible practice – it cannot be assumed that a charity automatically demonstrates responsible practice better, or for-profit commercial business demonstrates responsible practice less well. The credibility that being an ethical business can bring in this market is strong, so organisations like to portray themselves that way, but it cannot be assumed they actually are.”

Offering recommendations to volunteer tourism organisations and potential volunteers, Victoria added: “Volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously. Just because a product is volunteer tourism, does not mean it has positive impacts. In fact, due to the community integration that they can offer, it can merely act to magnify mass tourism’s negative impacts. These organisations have a responsibility to ensure their programmes have positive and not negative impacts and should offer financial transparency. It should not be sold like a holiday: this is affecting host communities’ lives and livelihoods. This means proper needs assessments, appropriately recruited, matched and skilled volunteers working with locals, with clear objectives, sustainable programme management, reporting and lasting impact and respect.

“Online, volunteer tourism organisations must clearly demonstrate with evidence any claims they make, they must be transparent about their pricing structures and attribution and I urge them to review their web content regularly to ensure it is correctly communicating their level of responsibility, and is consistent across their web sites and congruent with their stated policies.”

Mark Watson, Executive Director at Tourism Concern stated, “Tourism Concern is campaigning for better and more ethical volunteering and welcomes this study which adds to growing research that many UK volunteers pay thousands of pounds, with most going to the tour operator, to undertake short volunteering placements overseas which, although well intentioned, can often do more harm than good. The desire to volunteer overseas is commendable – however it is debateable whether many volunteering opportunities bring real benefits to host communities and often exploit the good intentions of well-meaning volunteers, who often have unfulfilling and disappointing experiences.

“Tour companies market themselves to potential volunteers with slick websites and compelling imagery so it comes as no surprise that price and responsibility have an inverse relationship. Equally price is no guarantee that volunteers will have a rewarding experience  – many of the volunteering placements being offered by commercial operators are little more than expensive holidays.”

Mr Watson added: There are many opportunities for people to undertake meaningful volunteering in their own community, where they will receive proper training, support and supervision – without the need to pay a tour operator for the privilege. In the majority of cases people would be far better (and have a more rewarding experience) volunteering at home and spending their money on travelling and staying in places listed in our Ethical Travel Guide. However for those that do want to volunteer oversees we have just launched an Ethical Volunteering group of responsible volunteering organisations and will be distributing leaflets to potential volunteers later this month with guidance on how to choose ethical volunteering placements.”

Further information: http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/volunteer-tourism.html