The Impact of Our Travels (Part 5)
This is the conclusion to MSL's first series piece. For Part I, click here.
By now, it seems clear that "Voluntourism" is a weighted term. As an umbrella for concepts that we associate with doing good abroad, a very broad category indeed, it carries with it our very best and worst expectations. After all, when it comes to the value of good intentions, there are a number of quotes illustrating the harm that can be wrought by even those who mean well. The passion to make a difference, no matter how noble, is a raw and untapped energy with a power about as limitless as its potential. Lightning without the guidance of a proper channel can be utterly destructive but also serves, in the proper hands, as a source of illumination.
The human spirit can be viewed in much the same way. When we get it into our heads that our way is the right way of doing things, it can take a great deal of effort (and suffering) to steer us from our course. For much of our lives, we believed that travel was a means of escape and that our deepest desire was to "get away from it all". We are only just waking up to that folly.
There is some wisdom, then, behind the voices calling for us to tread carefully as we turn our attention toward a new horizon. Voluntourism represents yet another choice that we're faced with in the grand scheme of our life journey. Like every other decision we make, it carries consequences. It's also the case that the impact of our actions ripples forth in a number of ways, rather than the clear cut "A produces B" chain reaction that rarely exists outside of logic puzzles. There will be outcomes that are both good and bad alike, sometimes all at once.
But the risk for getting a bit of salt water up the nose should never deter us from racing into the cool embrace of the sea altogether. We just need to be sure to check that our dash into the blue is supervised by a lifeguard, someone experienced in the ways of the tide to call us back when we've run too deep, or pull us out when we're in over our heads. The drawbacks of Voluntourism eliciting criticism should, therefore, be viewed as opportunities, openings for pioneers eager to explore a bold new frontier to map out a vision and pave the way for the rest of us. In working together to overcome the challenges presented by the human element inherent in such causes and the economic factors lingering from traditional approaches in these new offerings, we can chart a better course forward. Some may look down on the mainstreamed version of Voluntourism emerging throughout the travel industry as "wading into the kiddie pool " of service abroad, but everyone has to learn to swim at their own pace. At least it's a risk born with a sincere interest in spreading a little good.
And, at the end of the day, that's what it's all about. As spirited as they may be, the folks diving into the areas of social impact travel and sustainable tourism recognize that their efforts will not change the world in the course of one visit, one year, or perhaps even one decade. The pursuit of purposeful travel starts with one traveler, one connection, one good act, one experience, and one change in perception at a time. That's how we shine a little light back into a well-meaning concept that's suffered a bit of a PR bruising. Because, for all the good and bad that flows in between, it's that one change taking place in every experience that is going to make all the difference in the world.
The steady drum of a ripple builds into a wave powerful enough to change the course of the tide altogether.