The risks of mindful tourism

We all assume that volunteering abroad, whether it be to help locals or the environment, is extremely beneficial to everyone involved. The tourist gains valuable experience, can travel at lower cost and the place benefits as projects can be completed and local people are often helped. However, often we don’t take into account the harm that can be done in attempt at being a ‘mindful’ tourist.

Every year thousands of Westerners venture out to places they have never been in an effort to ‘help’. However, sometimes, our ulterior motives can get in the way of actually giving aid. Would tourists actually travel out to these far- off places if they were not able to capture and upload these moments to Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, just to show they have done the project? In our individualistic society, most of what we all do, whether we like it or not, is to benefit ourselves, and sometimes (I am not saying always), this can limit the assistance tourists provide when they volunteer.   

People are flown out to many under- developed parts of the world, to, for example, assist in healthcare, to build schools, to farm and much more. Yet, the travellers being sent over are not necessarily skilled at all in the areas they are volunteering in. Someone who has never even thought of building a wall is suddenly on a task building a town hall. Someone doing a degree in English Literature may be working in a hospital. Of course, all these areas need support, but by providing unskilled work, in the long term we may be more of a hindrance than help.

Another issue is that there is always a possibility that Westerners (including a lot of us who already have part time or full time work / education) are threatening the availability of jobs for locals. A popular place to volunteer is Ghana in Africa. Many projects such as village by village, plan my gap year and original volunteer focus largely on work in Africa and especially Ghana. However, in a place where the unemployment rate is so high at 11.9% (over 1.2 million people), compared to England’s unemployment rate of 4.4% from a much larger pool of people [Ghana Statistical Service 2015 Report], surely some of the jobs we pay to do could be providing paid work for those who actually live in Ghana? This raises the question that if we didn’t go over as mindful tourists, perhaps the unemployment rate of these countries wouldn’t be so high.   

Strong bonds can be formed between tourists and locals. However, after the short duration of their stay is over and the project is completed, what is actually left behind once they have gone back home? Many countries wait for the next project to go ahead, and these bonds often have to be made all over again, so in fact little impact is made on people’s lives and on these communities. For example, if the volunteering project involves working in a hospital or in healthcare, once the volunteer leaves, so do the skillsets that they took with them, and so there is no real lasting benefit in the long term.

Having acknowledged the risks involved with ‘mindful’ tourism, of course we can recognise that there are also benefits for both the tourist and the community, if the volunteering is done in the correct way. For example, it should be done as a genuine effort to help others, rather than for person to wholly focus on their image and self-benefit.

A great way to ensure you are making an actual impact is to analyse your own skillsets and only volunteer for the jobs you feel you can make a real difference in. There is no point volunteering in something you are not passionate about at all– for example, why choose farming or construction if your skill sets are in language and teaching?

A great deal of focus should be placed on the community and on making a real impact in the long term rather than just in the short term. Many people are guilty of volunteering overseas, thinking of it as a ‘holiday’. It needs to be remembered that these are real people who trust us to help and respect them. Westerners cannot just enter into volunteer projects, cameras at the ready, waiting to snap pictures the whole time. A real difference will be made when we are dedicated to the cause.   

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