The Impact of our Travels (Part 2)

This is Part II in MSL's first series piece. For Part I, click here.


"Voluntourism" isn't the only addition to the traveler's lexicon that's popped up in recent discussions. The phrase "Savior Complex" has also become the subject of heated debates on the appropriate role of travelers in the communities they visit and the consequences left in their wake. Critics of Voluntourism ask, rightly so, whether or not the short-term benefits of such visits will amount to much in the long run. Good intentions aside, is it all really worth the hype?

In assessing the true impact of voluntourism, these perceptions are an important factor for consideration. The work of volunteers is not wrought on a blank canvass. The ports we visit and sites we map out for our adventures are communities, homes, deserving of the same respect that we afford our own neighbors. Travelers absolutely owe their hosts a certain duty of care, but the importance of this fundamental kindness can be lost in the perspective of a traditional vacationer. It's a reality that became easily glossed over in a narrative wherein we once saw these places as something alientated in a mystical sense, removed from our world.

Travel is just as much a mindset as it is an activity. Previously, the aim of travel was individualistic. Vacations were an escape, the chance to get away and embrace a change of scenery. Even as we put distance between ourselves and the concerns of our lives "back home", our perspective remained rather introspective. Much of that self-focus remains ingrained in today's tourists. It's a difficult habit to break.

Social media has also fed this desire exponentially by enabling us to share every aspect of our travels from a very personal point of view―in real time, too! Consequently, the regular traveler's mindset may still sway toward the allure of individualism, seeking out the best photo op and instinctively framing their adventures to share the story just as they see it. It's an angle that doesn't always mesh with our perceptions of service and volunteering.

The selfie-framed emphasis on the individual traveler can come across as insincere. Even worse, there's a risk of misappropriating deeply personal and private aspects of another's life and culture for the benefit of nothing more than a few, "likes", "shares", and an ego boost. There's a thin line between truly being a part of someone else's story and using it as a prop in your own. How, then, can we bridge the individualistic drive that compels tourists to tell their stories with the altruistic nobility of our inner adventurer?

The answer may lie in the more nuanced components that have branched out from our general understanding of "Voluntourism". Sustainable tourism and social impact travel are just two layers to the overall movement that delve deeper in their efforts to make a difference. Here, the latter is particularly noteworthy.

Some social Impact travel opportunities, like those offered by Carnival Corporation's Fathom,  incorporate an educational component into their programs that help to shift the mindset of their participants from "tourist" to "traveler". The former observes while the latter engages, they teach us. It's a process of broadening perspectives that begins long before travelers set foot off of the ship. With an emphasis on empowerment and "alongsidedness", Fathom is illustrative of the proactive steps that members of the travel industry can take guiding the rising wave of progress in a positive direction, shifting the attention of travelers from their usual place behind the lens to play a more active part in what's unfolding in front of it.

There's a sincerity in the desire of modern travelers to know more about people they visit and the cultures they're welcomed into; they just need to be taught how to engage in this exchange responsibly. A tourist must always respect that their acceptance into a community does not come with additional privileges. If selflessness is truly the aim of a traveler's work, then it must be true for their motives for travel as well. Unlike their predecessor, modern travelers must accept that it is no longer an escape. And as travelers embrace mindfulness as another stage in their journeys, a second concern becomes all the more evident: Who, exactly, will be leading them through the murky waters of change?


Stay tuned to MSL this week for additional chapters on "Voluntourism" in our first week-long series!

Photos by Canva