Winnipeg Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti examibnes the impact voluntourism has on communities, lives.
'Voluntourism' opens eyes, improves lives
Volunteer tourism -- or the more buzzy "voluntourism" -- has been at the centre of much debate over the past couple of years.
Once a niche in the travel industry, volunteer tourism is an area that has seen real growth as more and more Canadians are eschewing luxury resort vacations or European backpacking trips to build schools or teach English in developing countries. The profile of a voluntourist is usually young, middle- to upper-class and educated. Many of them are "gap year" students, taking a year off to go learn about the world.
On the face of it, it seems like a righteous act. What could possibly be bad about wanting to learn something about your global community and maybe help someone in the process? But, as travel websites of varying degrees of sketchiness offering "luxury voluntourism" -- or, ugh, 'honeyteering' -- proliferate, many critics of voluntourism are left questioning who this is really for. Do altruistic acts of voluntourism really help people who need it? Or are privileged people just doing it to pad their CVs/make themselves feel good? And are those things mutually exclusive?
Those questions were circling around in my head when I connected with Sarah Cullihall via Skype. Sarah is a 21-year-old University of Winnipeg business student who just concluded a months-long internship with Maya Traditions Foundation in Panajachel, Guatemala, and got in touch with me about the very cool work she's been doing there. She doesn't quite fit the profile of a voluntourist -- she was doing an internship and she was there for more than a two-week vacation -- but she, too, has thought about the voluntourism debate.
"One of my friends is a huge activist and we would argue about it all the time -- is it good, is it bad," she tells me, amid a cacophony of birds. "But I think with everything, there's positives and negatives. But with (Maya Traditions), it's so much more about support. When we look at other volunteer roles, it's not like that. You're in the 'saviour' role; you're the North American that knows how to do things -- and I think that's so backwards. I also think it depends on why you're doing it."
Cullihall's motivation was pretty pure. She fell in love with Guatemala during a trip last July, but was alarmed to learn more than half its population lives below the poverty line. Interested in exploring the ways in which business can be used to foster social change, she wanted to link up with an organization that shared those goals.
Founded in 1980, Maya Traditions Foundation is a fair trade social enterprise that supports skilled indigenous female artisans by connecting them to the international market and providing them with health and education services. The foundation now works in partnership with more than 120 artisans, composing eight self-governed artisan co-operatives in six rural villages. These women practise a variety of traditional techniques that have been carried down through generations, including backstrap weaving -- a method used to create all manner of textiles -- basket weaving and natural dyeing. With the support of the foundation, they are able to earn an income. And an income means independence -- no small thing in a country plagued by domestic violence.
The women Cullihall met left an impression -- women such as Mara Mendoza who, in addition to raising four small children on her own, is the president of one of Maya Traditions' partnering artisan co-ops. Her role as president is to make sure her fellow artisans have enough work, their families are doing well and they are being fairly compensated for their labour.
"She, to me, is a depiction of a strong Guatemalan woman," Cullihall says. Mendoza, like too many other Guatemalan women, was a victim of domestic abuse. Maya Traditions empowered her to leave her husband and take back her life. And now she's helping others do the same.
For her part, Cullihall is returning to the U of W to finish her degree, and her experience in Guatemala has left her changed. She now wants to work with women and children in Latin America as part of a social enterprise.
While the average voluntourist won't necessarily translate their experience into a career path, they will have their eyes opened to the issues faced by people who share their planet -- and hopefully, they will be more empathetic people for it. If it's done right with the right organization, a young person won't just come out of it with a line for the resumé. They will come out of it a better person.