With borders closed and airlines grounded for almost six months, COVID-19 effectively shut down the global tourism industry at a scale never witnessed before.
Besides leisure travel, restriction of movement threatened to destroy volunteer tourism businesses and NGOs (non-governmental organisations), devastating the projects that depend on them for support. The pandemic has especially hit hard the recruitment of volunteer tourists, with some volunteer-sending organisations already forced to take measures to survive.
Our work explores many aspects of volunteer tourism. Given the impact of COVID-19 on tourism in general, we wanted to understand how the pandemic has particularly affected this sector. For our study we interviewed Peter Slowe, founder and director of Projects Abroad – a UK outfit that sends paying volunteers to work on projects in developing countries – to gauge how such organisations are dealing with, and recovering from, the effects of the pandemic.
In February and March, Projects Abroad reported that volunteers were down by 78% and then in April by 98%, which led to “unavoidable cuts” in its global workforce. Slowe says that some project types are faring better than others. Schools and day-care centres will generally survive, but still suffer from the lack of volunteers and the funding that comes with them. On the other hand, some conservation projects that are normally supported by volunteers may not.
A ripple effect is occurring throughout the sector, with those who indirectly rely on the spend of project volunteers turning to more traditional ways of securing their income. There is evidence that poaching and logging are on the increase again.
Slowe is also worried about the future of human-rights projects which simply can’t continue without support:
We don’t have the volunteers, and there’s nothing we can do if Projects Abroad itself, with its mission to support the disadvantaged in the poorest countries, is not to survive … Without it there can be no rebuilding.
With projects effectively halted, even as lockdown eases, priorities on the ground may change, jeopardising the foundations and philosophies of projects built up over many years. Everything these organisations and local NGOs have worked so hard to build is threatened, but there is very little they can do to stop it.
Dark clouds and silver linings
In this difficult terrain, many people are taking a wait-and-see approach. Even though travel restrictions are gradually being lifted, it is unclear how quickly – or fearfully – young volunteers will react to any opening up.
Despite the dark clouds, Slowe believes that there is a silver lining. He accepts that the volunteer tourism industry has faced a litany of criticism, including doing more harm than good, being self-congratulatory and disingenuous, boosting CVs rather than alleviating poverty and suffering, undermining local labour economies, and allowing foreigners to do jobs they would not be qualified to do back home.
So perhaps this crisis may have a Darwinian effect, and only the better organisations will survive. Slowe suggests that as a well-run for-profit organisation, Projects Abroad has been better equipped “with financial reserves” to cope with the pandemic than others.
Perhaps COVID-19 presents the survivors of the sector with an opportunity to rebuild – armed with hindsight – a volunteer tourism 2.0. Yes, it has brought the whole tourist industry to its knees, but the need for organisations to use volunteers to meet real needs will persist.
There will be a new environment in which wealthy countries that have over-borrowed will cut international aid and charity budgets will become smaller. So volunteer tourism will have to get more serious with more meaningful projects, better-prepared volunteers and interns to fill some of the gap left by governments and charities.
Given the controversial nature and commercialisation of the volunteer tourism sector, and accusations that some projects are superficial and not linked to existing needs, there may be a need to reduce the number of projects and streamline operations. And this will have to be organised by economically viable businesses with substantial reserves to help weather future storms.
This will take time and careful planning. Slowe believes that the sector will bounce back eventually:
I have no doubt that young people especially will want to travel again and … do something useful. And I think that our model, which combines philanthropy and sound business, will work very well, provided we don’t have too many expectations of rebuilding quickly. We need to take some lessons from this … We have let down people who rely on us because there was no alternative. We will rebuild through carefully constructing new communities of equal respect between our company, local partners and volunteers.
But will that be enough? In many ways, COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for the volunteer tourism sector. Everyone involved understands that it cannot just be business as usual, including Slowe:
We cannot just repeat … We will do things differently and better in a new world that needs us more. Understanding what was right and what was wrong and building for a future where volunteer tourism is more relevant than ever is the way the sector has to go if it is to serve all of its stakeholders well.
It is clear that COVID-19 is forcing organisations to examine past practice, their role and their impact. With solid reflection, there is potential for the industry to reshape, redesign and reconfigure their operations in line with the principles of sustainability. If that leads to accepting the need to change, this could be the first step to recovery.