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Interview: David Clemmons, Visionary Founder of VolunTourism.org, Part One

David Clemmons, Founder of Voluntourism.org

Image source: David Clemmons

David Clemmons is passionate about VolunTourism. He is the founder of VolunTourism.org, a rich online resource for people on all sides of the voluntourism industry: travelers, voluntour organizations, host communities, educators, and academics. VolunTourism.org is a public service, offering a multiplicity of perspectives in a space that has traditionally lacked comprehensive and thoughtful information. As the industry grows, Voluntourism.org continues to explore the intersection between volunteerism and tourism: successes, failures, and implications. Mr. Clemmons was kind enough to speak with us here at Journeys, to share his unique perspective on this vast and swiftly evolving industry.

This is part one of a two-part interview. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow.

What inspired you to start Voluntourism.org?

The story is a rather lengthy one, but the shorter version has me coming to a point of awareness whereby I realize voluntourism will not become what it can possibly become if someone doesn’t take the time to educate and inform those who know nothing about it, as to what its potential may be. And for those who know something of it, providing a different perspective as to why it is important to emphasize the combination of voluntary service and travel & tourism – to fully understand the scope of socio/environmental-economic impact that can accrue from voluntourism when it is consciously coordinated and executed.

 

I share your fascination with this relatively new intersection between the world’s largest commercial employer (tourism) and the world’s largest social service endeavor (volunteerism). What do you see as some of the primary challenges both industries face when working together?

One of the biggest challenges is the general perception that self-indulgence and voluntary service are incompatible. Beyond this, there are long-standing traditions of marketing tourism and volunteering in certain ways. From the tourism side, for example, there is concern about associating sand, sun, and fun with socio-environmental challenges. It seems that glossy brochures portraying the idealistic side of a destination cringe at the anti-veneer of environmental degradation and societal dysfunction. On the social sector side, there are those who contend that the tourism sector creates negative socio-environmental impacts in destinations and, therefore, voluntourism is nothing more than an illusionary tactic designed to momentarily draw attention away from unsustainable business practices and tourism leakages.

Skepticism as it pertains to the corporate world, particularly in the aftermath of the Global Economic Meltdown, is wholly understandable. Voluntourism will continually be bombarded with questions of its authenticity and its potential to exploit local communities. Questions regarding professionalism, delivery, and lack of training in hospitality and customer service will routinely haunt the social sector.

The greatest challenge for both sectors, however, may very well be the lack of data. We have no data to demonstrate what is being done, how much money is changing hands, where the money is being spent, etc. For example, many “voluntourists” enter a country using a tourist visa; thus, by sidestepping public policies in some destinations, we have no means of measuring the number of voluntourists entering a country. What’s more, we have no indication as to the economic footprint they create outside of their voluntary service because it is comingled with tourist data.

 

I love how you provide information for everyone from the individual traveler to host communities to corporations. As an information hub for so many aspects of the industry, how do you keep on top of emerging trends and developments?

I am not sure that we, in fact, do accomplish this task anymore. In 2003 when VolunTourism.org was launched, it was infinitely easier to keep track of a movement that was still very much in its infancy. Today’s 24/7 worldwide news cycle has made this task a virtual unreality. What little we can do, we do, knowing full well that the growth of voluntourism has achieved global status. More and more we see information on voluntourism appearing in languages other than English – Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Dutch, German, Russian, Japanese, as examples – the list is getting longer and

longer with each passing year, further complicating the process.

Social media has helped in bringing items to our attention. Twitter serves a great function in this regard. Key word online searches have also expanded our capacity to keep track of developments. Likewise, the increasing body of literature from the worldwide academic community has assisted in identifying items of interest. Students across the planet are conducting research and inking term papers, theses, and dissertations on voluntourism, helping us to discover heretofore unexplored aspects of voluntourism whilst simultaneously gaining insights into the perceptions of young people as to what they truly think of voluntourism.

Of course, and I offer this in all humility, the reputation of VolunTourism.org plays an important role in allowing us to discover the undiscovered where voluntourism is concerned. Featuring the world’s only publications dedicated to this subject – The VolunTourist Newsletter and The VolunTourist Weekly Review – we are privileged to hear about many aspects of voluntourism in advance of what might appear in the media or elsewhere.

 

How has the voluntour arena changed over the past few years? In what ways do you think it’s moving in a positive direction?

Although it has not been overtly stated, certainly not in the academic community at least, I believe that the world is starting to see the distinction between traveling to a place to volunteer and traveling to a place to tour and volunteer. The altruistic undertones of the former, albeit important and supportive of destinations, fail to emphasize the significant contribution that can be made by infusing direct economic benefits to communities through touristic engagement. VolunTourism, as we have called this over the years, demonstrates the conscious commitment to both and underscores the value of sightseeing and serving in the context of a given itinerary.

In addition, and in some ways, I think voluntourism is in alignment with the emerging studies from behavioral economists discussing such concepts as the “nudge theory.”  Who in their “right”, rational mind would pay to volunteer? By putting voluntourism in societies that value the benefits associated with being a “good” citizen or a “good” traveler, or those which stress

conformity in relation to the well-being of the overall society, we can see a rise in the level of uptake. Social media further “nudges” people to become voluntourists; when they see that their “friends” have done so; thus, they may be prompted to ask: “why not me?” Voluntourism proves to us that we will pay for something which we have previously not (volunteering), particularly if it is coupled with benefits to others and perceived benefits to us – seeing new sights, interacting with new people, learning new things, and “making a difference.”

As painful as the debates on voluntourism have been to observe, these have indicated to me that voluntourism is heading in a positive direction. The involvement of brands like the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, and its uberbrand – The Marriott – as well as Kuoni, Travelocity, Tauck World Discovery, and other travel industry giants is further testimony that the intersection of travel and service is journeying positively. The United Nations report on global volunteering, which was published in December 2011 and included information on voluntourism, provides yet another indication that voluntourism is receiving both the attention and the scrutiny that is necessary to ensure a long-term future for it.

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