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Volunteerism VS Voluntourism

I have long been familiar with the concept of volunteerism. In fact, I had been introduced to a plethora of volunteering opportunities since my secondary school days. There was no short of exposure, be it in the fields of education, environment, and even healthcare.

As an active St. John Ambulance member in high school, I was allowed on first aid duties (having passed tests to qualify as a certified first aider) at sports events and community outreach programmes that directly worked with people in need. My school also organised field trips that raised awareness on environmental conservation. One of the most significant memories I have from those days was a trip to the Tanjung Piai Wetlands in the south of Johor, where we learned about the roles of mangroves in maintaining biodiversity and even planted saplings in mud.


But what I'm new to, is the idea of voluntourism. A similar spelling with volunteerism, but note that it is coined with the concept of tourism. I imagine it as people touring somewhere with a designated programme that allows them to have a feel of volunteering work, while being on a trip. This is common at tourist attractions whose managements are smart with marketing: allow willing tourists to do some day-to-day maintenance tasks to have a feel of their job in the name of volunteering.


A pretty solid example would be my volunteering experience at Zoo Negara last December. I was arranged to do a few tasks like sweeping dried leaves off pavements, clearing elephants' dung and feeding deer to have an experience of the zookeepers' usual routine. It was a 4-hour programme and I was allowed to explore the zoo on my own afterwards. The volunteer fee was RM35, which was RM10 cheaper than the typical entrance fees. So, cheaper tickets, opportunity to interact with animals, not too intense physical work and plenty of free time for me to tour around the National Zoo of Malaysia. That's a very worthwhile package, in my opinion. Who wouldn’t want it? The answer could be any serious volunteers who actually want to make an impact.

I recall joining a week-long education/healthcare volunteer mission to rural Sabah with Malaysian Fellowship years ago. The group was full of Malaysian students studying Medicine in Russia, except for me who was just about to start my pre-university course. The planner had specially designed the programme to cater to the local medical and educational needs. As we based ourselves in a student hostel managed by an NGO named Starfish Foundation, the team turned the building into a healthcare hub that provided free medical checkups for the locals during the day when all the children were at school. When the kids returned, we hosted enrichment activities like sports and games, nutritional lessons and even a teeth-brushing session. These were followed by English and Mathematics tuition classes after dinner. Our schedules were fruitfully packed, and there was no one second which I felt unproductive. That was an intense volunteering experience, with specific purposes and measurable impactful outcome. That's why I believe people with the drive for the said kind of impact would despise the idea of voluntourism for its short, superficial, Instagram or LinkedIn-worthy nature. So, the question here is, what amount of touristy fun could we allow a volunteering field trip to have, before we label it as voluntourism? I think back on my other volunteering experiences since young and evaluated how much of those had been a potential case of voluntourism. I had been to several mangrove forests for saplings planting, and beaches and parks for rubbish pickups. These field trips had been designed to achieve important purposes but they were not packed and did not stop my friends and I from having fun and taking nice photos. The experiences had been impactful in the sense where we achieved the goals we set, and we learned about the environment with sufficient content to write essays that could raise public awareness. By becoming a medium for information and awareness to spread, I'm convinced that field trips that contain touristy elements could still create an impact for the greater good, just in different ways from what an intense volunteering mission could bring. The Zoo Negara volunteering model is amazing for raising awareness, especially for youths who have not been exposed much to extracurricular activities or voluntary work. The participants might not have a good idea of what intense volunteering is and perhaps are not ready for programmes that have a bigger share of 'work' than 'fun. It's a good nurturing ground like how the activities I joined when I was younger had been. Actual impactful volunteering often takes time. An internship with a gibbon conservation organisation could take days before a volunteer fully gain the necessary knowledge and experiences; then months if not weeks to see a sustainable impact. Note that, most of these wildlife programmes are also subject to the animals' relevant seasonal behaviours like breeding and hibernation. Voluntourism could be the best option for people lacking time. If I'm a working adult torn between spending my annual leave travelling or doing voluntary work, I could easily find a beautiful place that combines both aspects. For example, visit a national park and spare two hours picking up trash in the area; visit a fishing village and arrange a session to help local fishermen manage nets or process their catches. Many tour agencies design tour packages as such, and tourism websites of many locations do provide options to keen travellers to participate in those meaningful educational activities. In fact, some of those educational sessions steer towards raising awareness on local cultures, wildlife and history, rather than physical voluntary work. Did you know? Some fireflies cruise companies in Kuala Selangor and Kota Tinggi spend time to explain to their clients the behaviours of fireflies before the actual cruise session starts. They also educate their visitors the importance of habitat conservation and ways they can contribute to help them appreciate the insect further. It seems that voluntourism could be a great model as it takes the least commitment from a volunteer, raises awareness on important topics and encourages local economic activities. Having engaged with the Turtle Conservation Society in Kemaman, Teregganu, opened my eyes to the grandiose funding needed by non-profit organisations to survive their costs of operation. They heavily rely on donations, merchandise sales as well as voluntourism programme fees to raise sufficient funds to run their conservation work. Hence, in a way, voluntourism can be a key to supporting the operation of these bodies fighting for charitable impact in our world. Enthusiastic individuals keen on bringing long-term impact through intense volunteering work might not agree with the concept of voluntourism, but to be honest, it matters just as much that people want to contribute. Voluntourism might not be the best effort for serious impact, but it is always better than having no impact at all. For those who could and would want to do more, it's left to us to live up to how we believe could make the world a better place. By, Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23.



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