Social Impact of Voluntourism explored in Asia Society Conversations

The fourth installment of Asia Society Conversations, tackled Voluntourism through a collaborative effort between the inquisitive audience and the well-versed speakers: Tom Graham, the Co-Founder of Make A Difference (MAD) Travel, Hali Navarro, one half of volunteerism blog, Tara Lets Anywhere, and Anton Diaz, founder of Our Awesome Planet. Moderating and weaving the multifaceted set of stories was Zak Yuzon (formerly of Rappler). Held in coworking space Acceler8, last 23 August 2017, the busy night started with an introduction by the venue’s own Events Manager, Rani Salvadora. She spoke of the diversity brought on to the coworkring space by Asia Society and its Conversations. With the company’s target for its clients to connect and collaborate, events like this help foster such objectives. The Executive Director of Asia Society Philippines, Suyin Liu Lee, then followed by sharing the history of the foundation with the audience, along with its continuing development as an organization that aims to cater its mission statement more closely to the Philippines, as it is the only center in Southeast Asia out of twelve worldwide locations. She remarked that voluntourism, as a movement, has many aspirations but one of it is to uplift the youth — an ambition that Asia Society Philippines also has.


With such a wide topic to unpack, the speakers jumped straight into it by sharing how they got into the field and why they remain passionate and committed to the cause. Tom Graham regarded Gawad Kalinga as inspiration for his campaign with the Filipino spirit of community and hospitality. Such motivations prove to be strong, as he has left his native England to settle in the Philippines and set up MAD Travel. Hali Navarro revealed his eye-opening experience when his mother took him for the first time to a volunteerism trip. He realized how privileged we was compared to the people he has worked with and aim to help, thus they became his reasons for staying committed. Anton Diaz’ participation in a voluntourism trip during the aftermath of 2014’s Typhoon Haiyan saw the start of his advocacy in social enterprises, sustainable travel, and how the two can coexist to help give opportunities to the people, especially the youth.


On the surface, voluntourism seemed like the ultimate win-win experience. But with Asia Society Conversations’ aim for a well-rounded and balanced view on issues, Zak Yuzon brought up the criticisms on voluntourism. The speakers did not shy away from the limitations of the movement. They candidly and openly shared their misgivings on the topic, some of which concern the term itself, its sustainability, and sincerity. Anton Diaz brought up sustainable travel as a better alternative to voluntourism, especially with the Philippines steadily becoming the center of sustainable travel. He gave insights on ways to give opportunities to the locals by marketing the movement in a way where the tourists feel good instead of guilty over their privileged status so that it becomes more popular. Participants asked if working with the private sector, like hotels and travel agencies, could help. While the panelists have recognized this idea, they admitted that it might hinder the deeper meaning behind the immersions if it becomes more commercialized. Thus, going back to an earlier point on sustainable travel, this might be ameliorated if local homegrown businesses such as small bed and breakfasts owned by locals are patronized instead of big brand names. The audience members also raised the notion of the “white savior” phenomenon that seems to be attributed with the movement, as volunteerism is mainly marketable to foreigners looking to boost their CVs. Tom Graham acknowledged this but stated his aversion over this growing trend while affirming that immersion programs should not center around this shallow reason. Its marketing also brought up the issue of how to make it more appealing to the local market, who should be the primary sustainers of voluntourism.


With its still untapped potential, the audience and panelists rallied to brainstorm their ideas on how to mobilize the domestic market, like improved promotion to spread awareness that such an activity exists. Hali Navarro suggested how the local tourists would gravitate towards experiences that are marketed as rare and once-in-a-lifetime, like learning our rich histories and the dying indigenous language Baybayin during immersions. The audience remarked that the talk has provided them with more answers than the Department of Tourism (DOT) has and so they suggested a partnership with the department to help the sector. The panelists said that while the DOT does help, it is still far more complicated than it seems with many terms and conditions like having to be a registered tour guide to work with them and the bidding system on projects, a system that is not fully explained to the public. While their insights unraveled how the subject has more intricate workings than expected, it did elucidate that if you work with the right people and the right attitude, it can be a powerful force to achieve its goal of eradicating socio-economic barriers.


The event was more than just an informative talk, as it transformed into a real conversation between the engaged audience members and the panelists. The latter not only asked questions but shared their personal experiences and express of support for such a cause. As the talk came to an end, it marked the start of the participants’ enthusiasm and interest in voluntourism. While having a beer or two, as provided by San Miguel Brewery, they made connections and goals to be more involved, with some starting to develop possible projects that will uphold the positive side of traveling with a purpose.




Text by Issabella Ver