Volunteer Tourism: Social Media and its influence on consumer behaviour

Lately, I have been seeing left, right and center, Facebook and Instagram friends becoming volunteer crusaders! It is a fantastic thing to think that a lot of my friends are kind enough to take a month out of their lives to help those less fortunate. UOW are reinforcing such kindness by giving students attending 40K, 6 credit points for completing a month project in India. Also there are plentiful scholarships to go along side this. 40K on campus as well as a lot of my friends have been spreading their good word on social media to either help raise funds, or to influence others to join in.


Source: http://www.vu.edu.au/news-events/news/40k-globe-scholarship-internship-opportunity

According to Malcolm Gladwell, for word of mouth ‘epidemics, the messenger matters: messengers are what make something spread. The message also needs to be successful for it to stick’ (Gladwell, M. 2000. pp.92). It is through word of mouth on Social Media that I am hearing and seeing all of the great volunteer efforts, especially 40K India. Volunteer Tourism, a concept that upon first research, seems incredible. Australians are very privileged in terms of education, nutrition, health, and safety all of which are fundamental human needs – Maslow’s Hierarchy confirms this (Schiffman, L et.al. 2014. pp.90). So it seems fair that Australians should then ‘share the love a little’ and help out those less fortunate. Whilst the initial intentions may be sincere, once you begin some research, it is clear that there are some potential negatives when it comes to volunteer tourism and the way it is marketed to society.


Source: Creative Commons – Globe

On mainstream media, the Australian society is continuously exposed to advertisements from organisations – both domestic and international – to make donations or volunteer time to help others, I have seen this personally as mentioned above. “’Voluntourism’, is the fastest growing sector of one of the fastest growing industries on the planet” (Birrell, I, 2010). Tourism is an industry that is always looking for new ways to differentiate itself in the market, with sectors like eco-tourism, adventure-tourism or in this case voluntourism

On the outside this seems perfectly ok, there is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about another person over you, and to help them out. However it is important to mention the consequences of hundreds of Australians being sold on the idea of three-week stints in India to build a school, a month in Borneo to save the Orangutans or trips to Northern Africa to build homes. Organisations like Red Cross, volunteergapyear or goabroad all have advertised to Australians to appeal to ones social conscious.


Source: http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/

These volunteer trips are being marketed as “a holiday of a lifetime” (Birrell I, 2010). Marketers are using ‘emotional advertising appeals’ (Schiffman, L et.al, pp. 306). They use images of children starving and families with no homes, which create feelings such as guilt. Or in the case of 40K, they are using images of students having a fun time working in rural India, which as a result is convincing us that is going to a raw and ethical adventure. The program is an enriching one, however it is just important to remember the real reason of going…to help.

Furthermore, the ABC claims how “now, it’s almost expected that Australian Gen Y’s will take time off from their studies to spend some time working with children or helping to a school in the developing world”. How much can a 17 year old really do? Is it really about helping children learn English? Studies are showing it is more about enhancing “experiences of the volunteer” (Stewart K, 2014). Save the Children in 2010 released a research paper stating that such humanitarian work is now coming off as “misguided kindness”. People are headed overseas to work on projects that include ‘skills that one might not even be equipped’ (Coldwell, W. 2014) to do in Australia let alone in a developing country where resources are scarce.
Moreover, in the developing world where ‘voluntourism’ is a prominent issue, locals have further issues to deal with. “ Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer. Hard-pressed institution waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase trauma by disappearing back home.”(Birrell, I. 2010). Such emotional/social marketing has become especially dangerous in areas such as Cambodia. Orphanage donations are now a ‘booming business, with a large number or orphanages being set up, hiring children to act for the gullible cashed up tourists whom give in to guilt’ (Birrell, I, 2010).

I am not at all criticising those who go overseas to volunteer. I would just like to point out how such volunteer trips are marketed to society. Word of mouth via Social media is one of the most powerful tools for these organisations. When we see our friends on Facebook on a trip like the above mentioned, try not to see it as how cool that person is for being in India and taking pictures with children, we need to remember that this is about bettering the lives of others, not just our own. Those thinking about embarking on a volunteer trip need to go one step further in investigating how this will benefit others, and not just how it will further themselves socially. When looking in to these trips, think about what skills you have here in Australia that you could potentially use overseas. Look in to past “volunteer efforts and the effect their work” (Coldwell, W. 2014) had on the same or similar projects and finally think about the difference you can make to that community and not just solely about the beautiful Instagram photos you will have at the end of it.



Birrell, I. 2010. ‘Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do’. The Guardian. Australia. Retrieved from < http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna>

Coldwell, Will. 2014. Volunteer Holidays: How to find an ethical project. The Guardian. Australia. Retrieved from < http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/feb/17/volunteer-holidays-how-to-find-right-project >

UNICEF. 2015. ‘Children are not tourist attractions’. Retrieved from <http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/>

Stewart, Kerry. 2014. Is ‘Voluntourism’ the new Colonialism?’ ABC. Australia. Retrieved from <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/5341384>

Schiffman, L, et.al. 2014. ‘Consumer behaviour: 6th edn’. Pearson Australia.


1 thought on “Volunteer Tourism: Social Media and its influence on consumer behaviour”

  1. An important message here Abbey – You have constructed it well. There is obviously a need for those who care to be certain that their kind actions are really in the best interest for those in need, particularly children.

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