Ethical traveller: Blurred lines of voluntourism

G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip talks to Thomas Bywater about the blurred lines of voluntourism and the wrong side of Pamplona.

Bruce Poon Tip’s G Adventures is world-renowned for its forward-thinking approach to tourism.

Over the past 28 years they’ve grown from a Canadian start-up to a global giant with more than 2000 employees in 100 countries.

But speaking to Poon Tip about his latest holiday, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was still the same backpacker who’d just maxed out his student credit cards to start the company.

“I’ve had two great holidays in the past two months — which is highly unusual for me — but our local living in Italy was an eye-opener,” he says of a recent trip to Amalfi as part of a G-Adventures Local Living programme.

I hadn’t expected to be discussing limoncello recipes in a conversation about child welfare but it’s hard to separate the sublime from the serious in an industry like travel. All things connect.

Poon Tip’s company has been at the forefront of recognising the challenges tourism poses to the places it visits.

G Adventures has partnered with Friends International’s ChildSafe movement, adhering to a set of guidelines specifically tailored to the tourism industry and the new initiative hopes to address growing concerns around the latest developments in tourism and volunteering.

“As travel pushes more into a community level, issues of child welfare become more prominent,” says Poon Tip.

These are issues that he has been made all too aware of through his company’s work in communities around the world.

Until recently one of the tours offered by G Adventures involved drop-in volunteering in Peru with “Cusco Kids”.

One of the highlights was the chance for tourists to involve themselves in “a project that provides children from poor families with a place to get guidance and support”.

However, it wasn’t long before the flaws in this model were becoming obvious and “uncomfortable for us as an organisation,” Poon Tip said.

“At the same time as our groups were visiting, we started to develop concerns about what this was doing for the community.”

G Adventures had bought the buildings for the local project as a way of getting “kids off the street and into schools in Cusco”.

“We wanted to use it to showcase all the good work we were doing and groups wanted to come,” he said, but there were many unintended consequences. “Not being able to have control of gifts that tourists were giving . . . so many different aspects of it. And so we stopped it completely.”

It was a hard lesson for Poon Tip and his company, but it would help inform the Child Welfare guidelines.

Voluntourism is a merging of what used to be two separate entities in travel.

Luxury liners used to be a long way removed from social outreach programmes, but today it’s not uncommon for volunteering in community projects to be offered as part of a cruise itinerary.

It’s this blurring of lines that has Poon Tip worried.

“People want to do good,” he says. “There’s a danger that the lines are blurring between meaningful volunteering and those tour experiences merely designed to deliver the sense of contributing.”

However, when there are so many problems raised by social initiatives, no matter how well-meaning, you wonder whethere the guidelines should warn away from volunteering completely. Can you ever run community tourism ethically?

“Yes you can,” Poon Tip insists. “But that’s why we need the Child Safe guidelines. Any time a foreigner comes into contact with a culture and is influencing the environment for children. We need guidelines on what is acceptable.

He believes there is still plenty of value to be gained from volunteering, but it’s impossible to manage on a case-by-case basis in the worldwide industry that is tourism.

“There might be varying motivations as to why [travellers] want to give their time — and some might be more disingenuous than others — but volunteering is an important part of social giving.”

Running programmes out of these initiatives can be a rewarding experience and a valuable source of revenue for communities — often more valuable than other local enterprises. But when there is a financial incentive to keep children in these institutions, as opposed to, say, in a school, it can cause huge problems.

Orphanages are just the latest flashpoint for ethical tourism.

The ChildSafe guidelines are there to educate tour operators as much as tourists.

Activities such as elephant riding which many operators — including G Adventures — once offered, have become the shame of today’s tourism industry. It’s possible some volun-tourism activities will be seen in years to come in the same light as elephant riding or dolphin encounters.

“When applying these guidelines, I found things that I was horrified we were doing,” says Poon Tip. “But we never would have known if we weren’t trying to run these standards against our organisation.”

It’s never a clear-cut process.

The guidelines for animal welfare for example caused huge conflicts within G Adventures, which used to run a successful tour to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.

“I actually did the running of the bulls at one point. I was clearly in the camp willing to defend it as part of Spain’s history and culture.”

His camp eventually lost, and G Adventures no longer leads expeditions to run with the bulls.

The guidelines are there to have some flexibility. A “living document” is the term Poon Tip uses; something that has enough flexibility to help guide through the issues facing today’s tourism and adapt.

It’s certain that child welfare issues are nothing new. For a company running as long as G Adventures has been, you wonder why they’ve waited until now to come up with a set of guidelines.

“It wasn’t necessarily the most difficult but it was the most delicate,” says Poon Tip. “It’s also really disruptive for the volunteer movement.”

It creates headaches for the people who want to do good, and those like G Adventures, running tours into indigenous communities and ever more remote places.

But that’s not the purpose of these guidelines.

“This stuff is quite groundbreaking, to have standards that work for the whole [travel] industry. It’s not just for us as a tour guide.

“We’ve had people from cruise companies and hotel chains talk with us about using the guidelines and how to adopt them.”

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