KOCHI: Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, where visitors from foreign countries get involved with the local community, is gaining popularity in the city. However, local people in charitable organisations remain divided over whether it is actually effective.
Rainbow Voluntours, an organisation based in Fort Kochi which has adopted two schools - MASS and GHS, has registered over a 100-per cent rise in the number of voluntourists in Kochi. In 2013, it received 30-40 foreign tourists, while in 2014, it registered over 80 persons. Officials with the Tourism Department affirm that voluntourism is ‘certainly on the rise in the city’.
Richa Patel, the founder of Rainbow Voluntours, is positive about the rise of voluntourism at the organisation and also in the city. “It is an inevitable and increasing trend in the city. We have had numerous numerous positive experiences with volunteers from all over the world, especially from the UK and Australia,” she says.
Brinda Lakshmi Varadhan from Switzerland, of Indian origin, volunteered at Rainbow Voluntours when she was travelling in India. According to her, it is amazing to see the incredible potential in the children, but disheartening to learn that they lack the required platform. She terms her overall experience as ‘rewarding’.
Make a Difference (MAD), a national organisation, started its activities in 2005 at Kochi. MAD gets foreign volunteers and there has also been a slight increase in the number of foreign volunteers in Kochi. However, its PR director for India, Sneheel Biswal, reckons voluntourism might not be the best idea, considering that the work involves forming relationships with children.
“Voluntourism isn’t the best thing for us to have because spending brief amounts of time with kids who have already been abandoned once is not a good idea. It is super-critical for us to have a one-year commitment from the volunteers we hire. Voluntourism might work in other fields, but not in teaching,” Sneheel says.
Nishi, MAD’s team leader at Kochi, says there has been an over 80-per cent increase in the participation of foreign volunteers in activities other than teaching. “We do not even provide certificates without a one-year commitment, but still volunteers approach us,” she says.
However, not everyone is a fan of the concept of foreign tourists volunteering when local human resources can be utilised. Gopinath Parel, member of the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), is completely against voluntourism and terms the practice a “running mafia with manipulative expertise.”
On the problems regarding voluntourism, he says that when a tourist comes to India, whatever he spends reaches the economy. “When he comes to such organisations, however, not even 25 per cent of what he spends reaches the needy, and instead goes directly into the pockets of these so-called volunteer organisations.”
The website for Responsible Tourism, a concept developed by Kerala Tourism, describes it as an innovative and far-reaching concept to make the state one of the prime tourist destinations. However, State Coordinator of the body Rubesh Kumar says the department is yet to bring ‘voluntourism’ under the Responsible Tourism wing. “We have started discussions regarding this, but we have not promoted voluntourism in the state so far,” he adds.
What It's all about
Volunteer Tourism, or ‘Voluntourism’, is a growing trend where tourists add volunteering work, typically for a charity, to their itinerary while visiting a country. Volunteering includes activities from teaching children to women empowerment, from digging wells to painting a wall. In India, the concept pioneered in Kerala in 2007, and since then it has received both positive and negative responses.