Understanding the Motives and Benefits of Volunteer Vacationers
Understanding the Motives and Benefits of Volunteer Vacationers
With the growing trend of volunteer vacations, research has been warranted in regard to understanding the motivational factors of individuals who participate in such endeavors. With this understanding, the goal is to increase these travel offerings in the industry, which will bring better understanding between cultures. This study examines different travel motivation factors for someone who chooses to use part of their vacation participating in volunteer or humanitarian activities. Considering that ‘mission’ often has connotations of a religious purpose, the phrase ‘travelling with a purpose’ brings on even more significance as this concept expands. To understand travel motivation in general, a variety of scales and theories have been researched. Maslow, Dann, Iso-Ahola, Plog and Pearce are some included in the Literature Review. A qualitative focus group and semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted. The analysis of the data revealed that four main themes for why people traveled with a purpose
emerged. Cultural immersion was a strong objective; the desire to give back; the camaraderie that occurs on volunteer vacations; and the fourth theme focused on family. Non-verbal communication and bonding occurs at several levels with the local people and family members. This is a good example of cultivating peace through tourism.
Keywords: volunteer tourism, travel motivation factors, benefits, impacts
The concept of ‘volunteer tourism’ is a growing trend in the tourism industry and is starting to draw attention from researchers and marketers alike (Wearing, 2003). In the United States, for instance, a broad variety of organisations offer volunteer vacations. They vary from tour operators to non-profit organisations. One of the longest published guides to these organisations, Volunteer Vacations, by Bill McMillon et al., listed only 75 such organisations in its first edition in 1987 (Campbell, 1999). In its newest edition, published in 2003, the number of organisations increased to 275. These organisations offer a wide spectrum of volunteer vacation experiences. Volunteer vacation destinations range from local to regional to global reach. Volunteer vacation costs range from $100 and under to $3000 and above, with project length from under one week to six months or more. While summer appears to be the most predominant travel season, there are packages and programmes provided in all seasons. Analysing how an organisation positions itself within the volunteer tourism sector may reveal factors that influence a potential tourist’s organisational choice. The organisational types of volunteer vacation experience suppliers are comprised of a mix of non-profit organisations and for-profit tour operators. Some examples 1368-3500/05/06 0479-19 $20/0 are ‘Cross-Cultural Solutions’ (www.crossculturalsolutions.org), ‘The American Hiking Society’ (www.americanhiking.org), and ‘Earthwatch’ (www.earthwatch. org).
Types of projects offered for volunteers vary widely and include agriculture, archaeology, community development, conservation, construction, education and teaching, environmental protection and research, technical assistance, historic preservation, medical and dental, work camps. The nature of volunteer vacation offerings appear to be closely allied with the organisations’ respective missions and mandates. For instance, Ambassadors for Children (AFC), a not-for-profit charitable organisation based in Indianapolis, Indiana, offers global volunteer opportunities by providing trip opportunities for hands-on interaction with disadvantaged children of the world, balanced by opportunities for sightseeing and experiencing the native culture of the destination (www. ambassadorsforchildren.com). AFC has facilitated volunteer activities for passengers travelling to destinations like Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Haiti, Ecuador, Peru, Alaska, Vietnam, Belize, Guatemala, Native American Reservations, and other communities in need.
Humanity International seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world. Volunteers build houses together in partnership with families in need. Global Volunteers offer opportunities that include teaching conversation English, nurturing at-risk infants and children, renovating and painting community buildings, assisting with healthcare, and natural resource projects. Other organisations are geared more towards ecotourism such as Catalina Island Conservancy and Wilderness Volunteers, both giving back through stewardship of organising and promoting volunteer services. The commonality of the volunteer vacation suppliers appears to be the singularity of volunteering theme-focused experiences that reinforce organisations’ overall mission. Despite the growing popularity of volunteer tourism, systematic academic research in this field, particularly from the perspectives of the volunteer vacationers, is still in its infancy stage. Preliminary research appears to suggest that volunteer tourism can take two different forms based on participants’ mindsets: the ‘volunteer-minded’ versus the ‘vacation-minded’ (Brown & Morrison, 2003). The ‘volunteer-minded’ individuals tend to devote most or all of their vacation time to volunteer activities at the destination. Volunteerism is the central notion for them. This type of volunteer tourism is often called a mission or service trip.
The second form of volunteer tourism takes on a lighter undertone where the individual is largely ‘vacation-minded’, but spends a small portion of the vacation on volunteer work at the destination. The term ‘VolunTourism’ refers to this type of tourism experience where a tour operator offers travellers an opportunity to participate in an optional excursion that has a volunteer component, as well as a cultural exchange with local people. These brief encounters have often proved to be the highlight of the individuals’ vacations. This latter form of volunteer tourism has gained popularity among tourists. While this classification scheme takes a simplistic approach, it provides a baseline for typology development of volunteer tourists. While there has been increasing research on volunteerism which sheds insights on motivational and destination choice factors of the ‘volunteerminded’ service trip participants, very little research has been conducted on the ‘vacation-minded’ volunteer tourists. There is lack of conceptualisation and fundamental understanding of why individuals take part in volunteer work while on a vacation trip. What motivates them? What benefits do they derive from the volunteer experience? What are the highlights of the volunteering experience? How do the volunteer activities influence their overall vacation experience and satisfaction? As a result, more research is warranted to fully understand this growing form of volunteer tourism.
The focus of this research was on the ‘vacation-minded’ volunteer vacationers. The purpose of this study was to examine the motives that drive vacationers to participate in some form of volunteer or humanitarian activities while on a leisure vacation trip and the benefits that the volunteer tourists derive from the experience. This study also sought to broker the link between motivations for the general form of tourism and those for the volunteer vacationing. The outcome of this research was expected to contribute to better understanding of the destination choices and tourism experiences sought, thus bearing important implications for organisations that are targeting this particular market segment.
The literature review of this study was intended to provide some contextual background for the research. It centred around two key components of
volunteer vacation: the tourism component and the volunteer component. More specifically, it dealt with the general leisure travel motivations and how they pertain to and interplay with volunteer tourism.
To understand travel motivation, a variety of scales and theories have been proposed and empirically tested in tourism literature. The importance of motivation in tourism is quite obvious. It acts as a trigger that sets off all the events involved in travel (Parrinello, 2002). Many researchers have used motivational theory to try to interpret the motivations of tourists. On the premise that motivations derive from a real or perceived need, it is justifiable to analyse tourist choices of destinations and activities as a consequence of need deficiency (Burns & Holden, 1995). Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ – self-actualisation, esteem needs, love needs, safety needs, and physiological needs forms the basis for further development and applications to understand travel behaviour and demand for tourism (Maslow, 1954, 1970). The decision to visit a destination is a complex amalgam of needs, motivating an individual to set and prioritise goals in a belief that achieving these will satisfy the perceived needs. One of the main reasons for the popularity of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is probably its simplicity (Hudson, 1999).
This hierarchy could be related to the travel industry in the sense that unless individuals have their physiological and safety needs met, they are less likely to be interested in travelling the world to make a difference. Self-actualisation can, in fact, be considered the end or goal of leisure (Mill & Morrison, 2002). Vacations offer an opportunity to re-evaluate and discover more about the self, to act out one’s self-image as a way of modifying or correcting it. Echoing Maslow, Pearce (1982, 1993) suggested that travel behaviour reflected a hierarchy of five levels of travel motives. The five levels of the Travel Career Ladder are: relaxation; stimulation; relationship; self-esteem/development; and fulfillment. As with a career at work, people start at different levels and are likely to change levels during their lifetime. Pearce explicitly recognised that tourists’ travel motivation can be self-directed or other-directed; they do not always seek the same type of fulfillment from travel, and that people can descend as well as ascend on the ladder. To what extent tourists do so from one trip to the next, or whether this only occurs over longer time periods, is not quite as clear (Oppermann, 2000).
Classifying tourists into different typologies is an approach to link psychological motives to behaviour. The earliest model that forms the basis of tourism typology theory was established by Stanley Plog (1974). He constructed a cognitive-normative model based upon psychographic types. At one end of the continuum are psychocentric tourists and at the other end allocentric tourists. The allocentrics are explorers and adventure seekers, who tend to choose remote and untouched (by tourists) destinations. Middle-centrics are likely to display characteristics of a limited adventurer, but they want home comforts. It is this group that represents the mass tourist market. Psychocentrics dislike destinations that offer unfamiliarity or insecurity. It is suggested that the psychocentric is dominated by safety needs.
Dann (1977) made a significant contribution in suggesting a two-tiered scheme of motivational factors: the ‘push’ and the ‘pull’. The push factors social-psychological motives that drive the desire to travel. The pull factors are external factors that affect where a person travels to fulfil
the identified needs or desires. Dann suggested that anomie and ego-enhancement were the basic underlining reasons for travel. Crompton (1979) agreed with Dann’s basic idea of push and pull motives but went further to identify nine motives for travel. They were:
the escape from a perceived mundane environment;
exploration and evaluation of self;
enhancement of kinship relationships;
facilitation of social interaction;
novelty; and education.
He classified the first seven motives as push factors, and the last two as pull factors. There was no mention of the need for the authenticity of the destination. Mayo and Jarvis (1981) suggested that travel motivations could be divided into four categories: physical motivations such as rest, cultural motivations such as the desire for knowledge, interpersonal motivations such as the desire to meet people, and status and prestige motivations such as the desire for recognition. In 1983, Beach and Ragheb developed a model called the Leisure Motivational Scale, which sought to summarise motivators into four components, based on the work of Maslow. The four types of components were intellectual, social, competence-mastery, and stimulus-avoidance.
The most recent motivational theories are founded on very complex interactive models, which are based on personal and situational factors (Graumann, 1981; Schmalt, 1996). Behaviours are increasingly associated with life satisfaction, or perceived quality of life (Kernan & Unger, 1987). Kernan and Domzal (2001) believe that people express who/what they are, to themselves and to others, by engaging in action–leisure activities. Swarbrooke and Horner (2003) believe the main factors determining an individual tourist’s motivation are probably: personality, lifestyle, past experience, past life, perceptions and image. Changes which occur in an individual’s life stage may also have an impact on travel motives. Having a child, an increase or reduction in income, worsening health, and changing expectations or experiences as a tourist are circumstances that will affect motivation. Swarbrooke and Horner stated that no tourists are likely to be influenced by just one motivator. They are more likely to be affected by a number of them at any one time. Bello and Etzel (1985) investigated the role of novelty in pleasure travel.
They argued that people with a low level of arousal in their daily routines seek a higher level of arousal in their vacation (a novel trip), whereas those people who lead a hectic, fast-paced life with frequent problems and challenges seek vacations that provide a minimum of stimulation and/or a familiar environment. Similarly, Wang (2000) emphasised that holidaymaking is an institution of escape. It is freedom from the modernised mode of existence that is associated with rigid schedules, deadening routines, and stressful deadlines. People on holiday have entry into an alternative track of tempos and rhythms. They have freedom to change. The motivation to travel is to have a specific lifestyle separate from the routines of daily life. Understanding tourism motivation is important. It acts as a trigger that sets off all the events involved in travel (Parrinello, 2002). In other words, it represents the whys and the wherefores of travel in general, or of a specific choice in particular. The extensive literature on leisure travel motivation provides a solid theoretical background and some guidelines for studying the volunteer vacation phenomenon in this general tourism motivational context.
Volunteering and volunteer vacations
Volunteering has been a buzzword for some time for many socially oriented individuals both in the US and throughout the world. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63.8 million people volunteered from September 2002 to September 2003, an almost 7% increase from the previous year. Women are more likely than men to volunteer, and individuals between the ages of 35 and 44 years old make up the largest group of volunteers (Kellicker, 2004). Stebbins defines volunteering as ‘un-coerced help offered either formally or informally with no or, at most, token pay done for the benefit of both the people and the volunteer’. Similarly, other definitions of volunteering have included the recognition that volunteers are those who provide assistance, or unpaid service, usually for the benefit of the community (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1986). Others emphasise the characteristics of the action perceived as freely chosen, without financial gain and generally aimed at helping others (Stebbins, 1982, 1992; Van Til, 1979).
In terms of the volunteering process, the ‘American model’, proposed by Leopold (2000) starts with what is needed and then recruits volunteers to do the work. In Europe there is a membership tradition where everything starts with the members. It is up to the members to decide what to do. Regardless, volunteering has been viewed as beneficial to the well-being of the volunteers (Cnaan et al., 1996; Stebbins, 1982; Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). Volunteering gives participants a sense of purpose, provokes serious contemplation, encourages concern for others, provides the opportunity to further an interest, and generates a sense of deep personal fulfilment (Stebbins & Graham, 2004). Stebbins (1992) suggests that volunteering bears durable benefits for the volunteer such as self-actualisation, self-enrichment, recreation or renewal of self, feelings of accomplishment, enhancement of self-image, self-expression, social interaction and belongingness. Thoits and Hewitt (2001) empirically examine how volunteering affects six different dimensions of well being: levels of happiness; life satisfaction; self-esteem; sense of control over life; physical health; and depression. Their research reveals that people who are in better physical and mental health are more likely to volunteer, and conversely that volunteer work is good for both mental and physical health. People of all ages who volunteer are happier and experience better physical health and less depression. Broad (2003) suggested that volunteers were more open to positive attitude changes when exposed to a different culture, which may explain why volunteers frequently reported becoming more broad-minded, content, and relaxed, and less selfish and psychocentric as outcomes of volunteering, along with a changed way of looking at the world. Stebbins (1982, 1992, 2004) has conducted some pioneering work in conceptualising volunteerism in the context of leisure. There continues to be much research in regard to serious leisure volunteers and their motivation to volunteer as well as the fulfilment they derive from their diverse pursuits. Stebbins believes that the motivational reasons and socioeconomic conditions vary vastly with different demographic categories of people taking up volunteering.
Each category is rather differently motivated, but the twin motives of altruism and self-interest are common to all categories. In his consideration of ‘serious leisure’, Stebbins points out that it is an important part of people’s lives in its relation to personal fulfilment, identity enhancement and self-expression (1982). Since volunteering in many cases involves some form of travel, the phenomenon has been examined closely in the context of tourism. The term ‘volunteer tourism’ refers to tourists who volunteer in an organised way to undertake holidays that involve ‘aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment’ (Wearing, 2001). Volunteer tourism has also been viewed as a form of alternative tourism or ecotourism emphasising the sustainable, responsible and educational undertone of the activity (Moskowitz, 1995; Wearing, 2001). Wheelan (1991), for instance, suggested that ‘ecotourists represent a potential army of recruits with free time and money to spend on sustainable development efforts’. Further, volunteer tourism experience has been viewed as a contextual platform for the intertwining interactions among the ecotourism element, the volunteer element, and the serious leisure element (Stebbins, 1982, 1992; Wearing, 2001).
Travelling overseas as a volunteer appears to have begun around 1915 (Beigbeder, 1991; Clark, 1978; Darby, 1994; Gillette, 1968). Although most of the literature in this field has focused on profiling the volunteering tourist ( Brown & Morrison, 2003; Wearing, 2003), there has been increasing interest in understanding vacation volunteers’ motives and the benefits derived. Exploratory research on volunteer vacationers suggests that their motivations appear to be similar to long-term volunteers, but the relative value of various factors can differ, with self-actualisation being very important for short-term volunteers (Gazley, 2001). Brown and Morrison (2003) propose that a volunteer vacation helps heal ‘corporate burnout’ by providing the individual with a sense of accomplishment outside the workplace.
The role of peace appeared to be another discussed benefit. And, according to Bud Philbrook (pers comm), president and CEO of Global Volunteers, volunteer service engenders hope and friendship, both of which are crucial to waging peace: ‘The more people volunteer all over the world and make friends with local people, the more peaceful the world will be.’ However, alongside ‘service trips’ or ‘mission trips’, where the primary purpose of the trip is volunteering and individuals spend the majority of the trip participating in volunteer work at the destination, there is also a lighter form of volunteer vacation that is gaining popularity. Here, the main purpose of the trip remains largely as a leisurely vacation, but the tourists also spend a small component of their leisure time on volunteer work at the destination. This form of volunteer vacation, although not a new practice, has gained increasing popularity. Rather than taking up a trip just for volunteer work, these groups of individuals join leisure-oriented vacation packages that provide a volunteering component as part of the itinerary.
Tourism theories and research have ranged from micro-social-psychological explanations to macro-social explorations concerning the globalisation of tourist venues. Given the rise of volunteer tourism, tourism practitioners have begun to strategically incorporate volunteering activities into their product planning. Some market-sensitive travel companies are offering leisure tour packages with optional excursions that allow tourists to participate in volunteer work. However, empirical research for this type of volunteer vacation is very limited. Many questions remain to be answered. For instance, what motivates vacationers to spend part of their vacation working at the destination? Are their motivations similar to the service trip or mission trip volunteers? What benefits do vacationers derive from participating in volunteer activities? And what are the highlights of the volunteer experience? Does the volunteer experience enhance the overall vacation experience? This research, therefore, was aimed at further exploration of these important issues.
The objectives of this study were threefold. They were to discover: (1) What are the motivational push factors that drive some leisure tourists to seek volunteer experience during their leisure trip? To what extent do these motives differ or coincide with the general tourism motives? (2) What are the perceived benefits that vacation tourists derive from participating in volunteering activities at the destination? To be more specific, what are the immediate impacts participacting has on the overall vacation satisfaction? To what extent does it transcend the temporal boundary and exert long-term influence on the individuals?
This research adopted focus group and in-depth personal interview approaches, instead of a more quantitative approach such as structured surveys. The researchers believe this is an area of investigation that is at its exploratory stage. There are no proven measurements or theories for researching this particular phenomenon. In addition, unlike traditional quantitative research, focus group and in-depth personal interviews are centrally concerned with understanding attitudes rather than measuring them. In an academic sense, the goal of a focus group or personal interview is also to gain access to more inclusive sets of feelings and emotions that a structured instrument could not capture. These research methods are more direct, sensitive, and interactive in nature in assessing attitudes, motivations and opinions. Thus, it was believed that qualitative research methods would facilitate better in-depth understanding of motivational factors of volunteer vacationers instead of merely obtaining the distant panoramic view through quantitative channels. It was hoped that that these approaches would draw out the ‘motivational factors’ behind the ‘top of mind’ opinions – which is critical to understanding what is driving volunteer vacation. A focus group session was conducted in May 2004. The focus group was composed of nine people with ages ranging from 40 to 72: four males and five females.
All were married. The focus group attendees were from a variety of life situations ranging from an engineer, healthcare consultant, and business owner, to a retiree, stay-home mother, and community volunteer. While university education appeared to be the norm for the group, the participants’ educational background varied by level from high school education to PhD. The diversity in backgrounds of the participants was intended to reveal different insights and opinions on the volunteer tourism issue. A few commonalities brought the group together. They all had extensive leisure travel experiences. They had a shared interest and passion for travel. All had participated in volunteer work while on a leisure trip. The volunteer experience ranged from visiting an orphanage and volunteering at local hospitals to participating in Habitat for Humanity projects. The volunteering experiences occurred during leisure vacation trips but the volunteering locations varied from domestic destinations such as New Mexico and Alaska to international destinations such as Guatemala, Cuba, and Brazil. The focus group participants were asked to share their thoughts. The discussion centred around three issues: (1) Why would an individual become involved with using part of his or her vacation for volunteering activities? What are his or her motivations? (2) What are the highlights of the volunteer experience?
(3) What are the benefits and impacts of the vacation volunteering experiences? In order to separate motivational factors from beneficial factors resulting from volunteer vacation experience, we conducted a second focus group session that was made up of three males and three females who were first-time participants of volunteer vacation. This focus group was conducted in June 2004, before the individuals departed for their first volunteer vacation trip. Both focus group sessions were video and audio-taped. Transcripts were made by a graduate research assistant who was also present at both focus group sessions. Following the focus group sessions, the researchers conducted 10 in-depth personal interviews with individuals who had participated in volunteer work on a vacation trip. The interview sessions lasted approximately 30 minutes each and were audio-taped and subsequently transcribed. The purposes of supplementing the focus group sessions with in-depth interviews were three fold: (1) it was felt that in-depth personal interview allows more time and space for personal reflection on the part of the interviewee; (2) it was logistically flexible to include and capture the viewpoints of the younger individuals that felt underrepresented in the focus group sessions; and (3) employing a multi-method approach (focus group plus in-depth personal interview), researchers could cross-validate the themes and patterns of the findings from the focus group sessions. Based on the review of literature in volunteerism and volunteer tourism, as well as the results of the focus group session, the personal interviews took on a semi-structured format with a list of 15 open and semi-open questions that centred on motivational factors and impacts of volunteer vacation. All 25 study subjects were members of Ambassador Travel Club, the largest travel club in the US, and were recruited to participate in the study on a voluntary basis.
The researchers considered different approaches for the text data analysis. Text analysis software tools such as CATPAC were initially considered. However, the researchers felt that the computer-aided, more quantifying approach does not seem to handle well the complexity of language context, the dynamics of the group interaction and the richness of relationships revealed in the text data. As a result, a decision was made to use the more
traditional approach of content analysis. Both researchers analysed the transcripts simultaneously but independently. The results were later compared and compiled together. This effort, while more time consuming, resulted in a more consistent interpretation of the text data and increased the reliability of the study.
The motivator: Why volunteer while on vacation?
Using the multi-method approach, four major motivational themes appear to take shape concerning why individuals volunteer while on a leisure trip: cultural immersion, giving back, seeking camaraderie and seeking educational and bonding opportunities.
When asked, ‘Why volunteer while on vacation?’ it was found that being able to physically and emotionally immerse oneself in the local culture and community is a strong motivational factor. It was a common sentiment from the research subjects that participating in volunteer work provided the travellers with invaluable opportunities to immerse themselves in a local culture to a degree that would not be possible without the first-hand interaction with the local people and community through volunteer work. These volunteering experiences enable travellers to experience and learn beyond the typical tourism platform, where one is surrounded by staged settings typified by beautiful beaches and fancy resorts, to see the people as they really are, their lives and their living environment. It appeared that volunteer travellers tended to attach strong value to seeking and experiencing authenticity of a place. They also demonstrated their insatiable curiosity about other people and places and their belief that working and interacting with the local people and communities leads to opportunities to become immersed in local culture and connect with the local people in a more profound way. As a result, long-term relationships and friendships were built between the hosts and the visitors as testified by the participants: I’m a doer, you know. I like to do stuff for people and it gave me a chance to do that. And also, you know, as other people said, to really get immersed into the community and I think when you work with people you really can see the real aspects of the population there much more so than, you know, in a hotel lobby. And so on even if you are friendly and outgoing and so on, you just don’t get to really know what peoples’ lives are like and this gave us such an opportunity to do that and get acquainted and make relationships.
Giving back and making a difference
The second motivational theme that emerged was the desire to give back and reach out to the less privileged. Many participants felt that they do well in life and wanted to give back. Spending time to help people in need is a good way to just do that. ‘A trip with a purpose’ is appealing to participants because it offers them a chance to help with the less fortunate instead of pure self-enjoyment. It appears individuals who are seeking a ‘purpose-driven life’ as put by one of the focus group participants, are drawn to the notion that volunteer vacation serves as a means to give back to society.
So I decided to do it because I do well in life and I like to give back. I enjoy doing that kind of work and so I think my main reason was it’s time to start giving back again. My daughter and I went. My husband and I have been lucky enough to travel a lot, and I just got to thinking that it’s really nice to go just and lay on the beach and have people wait on you and I really enjoy it, don’t get me wrong. And we also enjoyed immersing yourself in the culture through taking bicycle trips but it just seemed to be kind of selfish, so I thought maybe it would be nice to be a little unselfish.
A third motivational theme attests to the camaraderie that is sought on volunteer vacations. For well-travelled individuals, these trips bring together the ‘most enjoyable groups’, according to half of the study subjects. Meeting and interacting with people from the same travel group who share common interests and values appear to be major motives behind volunteer vacation. Many interviewees and focus group members concurred that travelling with people with similar minds and making friends certainly added value and enjoyment to the overall leisure trip experience. ‘Working with fellow group members in the volunteer
And you know you are working side by side with a lot of good people. It also shows other cultures that Americans are willing to give in a physical way, in terms of getting down and dirty. Folks from Guatemala were taken back by the fact we were working. I think it is just another way of making ourselves ambassadors for the good people in our society.
Seeking camaraderie appeared to be a sentiment voiced by the majority of the first focus group as a stronger motivator for volunteer vacations. However, considering the first focus group participants were composed of individuals who had various levels of prior volunteer vacation experiences, the researchers were concerned that seeking camaraderie could be attributed more to a ‘benefit’ factor than a ‘motivational’ factor. That is, would individuals actually choose volunteer vacation because they anticipate building new friendships or was it a benefit realised in retrospect resulting from the vacation volunteer experience? The researchers conducted a second focus group with six individuals prior to their first volunteer vacation. The second focus group appeared to confirm that meeting with and having a good time with people of similar interests was one of the motivational aspects that they were looking forward to. As one participant put it: ‘It is about blending good hard work and volunteering with some fun activities wrapped around it and know that there will be some pretty neat people doing the same thing.’
Seeking educational and bonding opportunities for children
The volunteer vacationers appear to be also motivated by the educational and family-bonding opportunities that volunteer vacation experience presents. In the case where volunteer vacationers travelled with their children, informants agreed that the volunteer experience was an opportunity for them to impart their value system to their children. They believed that the volunteer experience they shared with their children can teach children that there are people in the world who are less fortunate, that there is broad diversity in the world, and that material items should be of minimal importance. Informants also believe that the volunteer experience helps teach children the value of giving, an important component in life. It is apparent that participating in volunteer work with children while on vacation is perceived as having an educational component for the younger generation as testified by one participant:
Well, in conjunction with the father–daughter bonding quality time to spend with my daughter, the thing that appealed about Ambassadors for Children for me was that many of our children live in a privileged world compared to the rest of the world. And I wanted my daughter to understand the environment, the social issues, the lack of any kind of parenting that some of these children are exposed to, just to give her a better understanding of the world outside, of course, the sheltered environment that many of us live in. And Ambassadors for Children sort of fit that bill. It was something that I could actively participate in instead of serving on a committee. That attracted me to Ambassadors for Children initially and now it is that I can have hands-on experience with the children and share those experiences with my family also.
Another related, but distinct, motivational factor is seeking better bonding opportunities with children. Volunteering together with children appears to be a very good interacting context for parents and their children and/or grandchildren. For many interviewees and focus group members, it is very important to be able to spend quality time with loved ones, especially children or grandchildren, and taking a volunteer vacation together appears to enable them to achieve that goal. A volunteer experience builds a special shared experience with children, as echoed by one father:
Initially I became involved with Ambassadors for Children because I’m a father and I have daughters. And there were so many things I could do with my son athletically. I coached sports. I’m involved obviously in games and things with my son all the time. But for a father sometimes there are limits how he can interact with his daughters. So I wanted to look at something my daughter and I could do together other than going to the mall or going shopping or going to the beach. So I looked into Ambassadors for Children and that’s how I initially got involved in it.
The benefits and impact of volunteer vacations
It appears to be consensual among all participants that the volunteer component of the vacation became, in fact, the highlight of the total vacation experience: This personal interaction with the family, and their obvious appreciation of having a home and having people that they didn’t know willing to help them – that made the whole experience.
I think again that the self-fulfillment and the memories you bring back of what happened between you and the people that you met to me are wonderful. And you think of travel and the beautiful sites you’ve seen, but the kids’ faces are the most beautiful.
I think the vacation was fun! I just think it (the volunteer experience) was another element to bring to it that was even neater. It just gave you a little more culture and that puts you in direct touch with the people and that helps you talk to them a little more. It was a lot of fun.
I think there’s a great number of people who are looking for new experiences. In other words you can only lay on the beach so many times, you can only stay in nice hotel so many times and although that’s good and it’s good to get away I think people many people are looking for new experiences and here’s an opportunity for you to travel to have a vacation experience and at the same time take a small time out of that vacation experience and do something that is meaningful, and do something that last in your memory and do something that makes a difference.
The volunteering component of the leisure vacation seems to have become a vacation experience enhancer in multiple ways. First, meeting and interacting with people with shared interests from the same travel group has added value to the overall leisure trip experience. It was brought out repeatedly that participants genuinely enjoyed the interaction and group dynamics of their travel companies. This type of travel companionship and interaction appears to enhance the enjoyment of the overall leisure trip. Second, volunteer vacationers discovered that material needs were of minimal importance and the little things that happen such as the exchange of love, care, curiosity, understanding, and appreciation were the highlights of their trips. Third, in a broader sense, the volunteer vacationers became the ambassadors for their own country. The helping and commitment appeared to provide a window for international communities to understand the American people, projecting the friendly, generous and helpful American image as was attested by one informant. . . . But I always want the children to know and understand that we’re from the US, that we represent American people that we’re being American interest there . . . People have done things for them that they didn’t have to do. They’ve taken their time their money and their energy to help these people. And maybe some day that will make a difference. Maybe instead of someone having bad thoughts about the US they can remember there were people that came here for me and helped me from a dental standpoint, from a medical standpoint, from a clothing standpoint, or whatever, and maybe they won’t have such a negative bias towards the US like so many people do these days.
When asked whether there were any enduring benefits or impacts from their volunteer vacation experiences, the study participants also agree that the impact permeates beyond the vacation trip itself. A sense of self fulfilment and personal growth are among the most mentioned enduring effects:
You go thinking you are going to help people makes their lives better. But you end up getting far more out of it than you put in. It is a real blessing. I don’t know how to put it into words but it went above and beyond my expectations I guess. What I expected to get out of it and how it still affects me today three years later and my friend that went with me how its changed her life dramatically its just one of those things that blows me away when I look back it was just a beginning point for what I can see myself doing in the future and for her as well.
Another common sentiment is that the shared volunteering experience appeared to have an enduring effect on enhancing family relationships. Well its helped me to in some ways to communicate with my children that the life that they have is a very privileged life and a lot of people don’t have even the percentage of opportunity or life that they’re able to enjoy. I don’t think children get that by seeing it on television, I think children have to have a personal relationship with particularly young children have to have personal experiences to help you communicate with them.
The one thing that I do notice is we have a lot of stuff around the house. We’ve collected bits and pieces. But stuff that we’ve gotten on these trips has fairly prominent locations and all of it tends to say, ah . . . that was a neat experience. They are reminders. There’s a Guatemalan embroidery here, and a Cuban picture there, and a picture from Brazil.
It’s a great shared experiences when you get back to, you know, talk about it. When we talked and shared pictures with friends and so on to remember the, you know even if we didn’t always do the same thing. We were there at the same time and saw a lot of the same things and met a lot of the same people and had very much the same feelings. That’s a neat thing to share and compare.
Many informants also emphasised the realisation of the stark differences in material life: ‘how privileged we are versus them’. The transcending effect is especially apparent among the younger informants. In the individual in-depth interview sessions with individuals in their teens and early 20s, informants agreed that the volunteering experience went beyond their expectations for the trip, and impacted their lives in a profound way. For
instance, several interviewees said that their future career choices would be influenced as a result of their volunteering experiences.
It challenged me. It opened my eyes to other parts of the world. My passion for children and missionary work has grown. My friend who went with me is now in Uganda on a mission! It just brings you back that basic humanity with everything else stripped away, we are just the same and that is exciting and encouraging. I see them in God’s eyes. We’re all the same. We have the same needs, the same wants, the same desires and same fears. They want family just as much as I do.
Discussions and Conclusion
Using qualitative focus group and personal interview approaches, this study examined the motivational and benefit factors of volunteer tourism from the perspectives of vacationers who spend a small proportion of their trip volunteering at the destination. More specifically, we sought to understand what the underlying psychological factors are and whether they are similar to or different from two phenomena: (1) volunteerism – those of pure missionary or service trips where individuals devote the entire or the majority of their time to volunteer work, and (2) mainstream tourism where individuals travel for pure leisure purposes. The goal of the research was to broker the linkages between volunteer vacation motives, mainstream tourism motives, and volunteerism travel motives. The findings of this research appear to suggest some similarities as well as differences between the ‘volunteer-minded’ travellers and the ‘vacationminded’ travellers. The motivations of the volunteer vacationers appear to be conforming to some degree to volunteering motives in general in such aspects as ‘personal fulfilment’, ‘identity enhancement and self-expression’ (Stebbins, 1982, 1992, 2004), ‘promoting peace’ (Philbrook, pers comm) and ‘cultural exchange’(Broad, 2003).
However, this study also revealed factors that appear to be specific to the phenomenon of volunteer vacationing. For instance, volunteer vacationers appear to attach high values to the opportunities for educating children and bonding with family members. Seeking camaraderie also appears to be a strong sentiment that is reflected in both motivational and benefit discussions among the participants. Further, volunteer vacationers seem to be driven by sense of adventure and desires for exploration and novelty, that are not as prominent with the more serious volunteer travellers. Borrowing Plog’s (1974) theorisation, the volunteer vacationers can also be labelled as allocentrics – explorers and adventure seekers, who tend to choose remote and untouched destinations. While both groups have demonstrated certain altruistic motives, the notion of altruism for the volunteer vacationers is much less apparent. Using an ethnographic case study approach, Broad (2003) examined the relationship between volunteers, their volunteering experiences and the outcomes that eventuated. Broad’s study subjects were serious volunteers in Phuket, Thailand. His study found that just under two-thirds of volunteers were motivated by an ‘altruistic desire to help’, although other motives similar to the volunteer vacationers were also present such as working with like-minded people, or a desire to develop personality as a result of volunteering. Interestingly, serious volunteers also indicated that their volunteering was at least partly motivated by a desire to travel and a chance to experience a new culture.
This study also revealed some intriguing patterns of the interplay between the general leisure travel motivation and motivational factors underlining volunteer vacation. It appears that the motivational factors for volunteer vacation intertwine with multiple layers of general leisure vacation motivation. While volunteer vacationers demonstrate that there is a definite notion of self-actualisation and authenticity, the highest level of needs as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, the volunteer vacationers appear to also be strongly motivated by lower-level factors such as love and social needs as well as learning needs. Another interesting observation is that the volunteer vacation motivational factors appear to follow the directional argument about self- and others-directed motivations, as proposed by Pearce (1982) in his ‘travel career ladder’ model. This investigation showed that the motivational factors were largely driven from two different aspects: self-directed – acquaint, learn, feel better, self-actualise; other-directed – help, connect, understand. The benefits resulting from the volunteer vacation experience also seem to align with the directional argument. They can be grouped as self-enhancement (such as becoming a better person) and other-enhancement (such as imparting values on children).
This study also adds a new dimension to this post-modern tourism phenomenon and is in line with trends that mass tourism is in more of a spiritual search and a desire for travel opportunities that increase the sense of place. While the increasingly popular ecotourism experiences emphasise the notion of learning, environmental obligation and social responsibility, which breaks away from the mass commodified tourism products, volunteer vacations present an altruistic theme in which participants can make a difference and help others. What is the significance of spending only a small proportion of time volunteering during a holiday? The volunteer vacation purports an infusion of an ideological divergence from the market-driven priorities of mass tourism. This divergence, however unintentional, seems to converge well with the societal needs of the fast-paced, stress-driven contemporary world. Individuals are in fact increasingly using tourism, especially experiences with a strong spiritual notion, as a means of improving their home life, rather than merely escaping from it. This could explain the rapid growth of volunteer vacation as a travel phenomenon in recent years.
The benefits derived from the volunteer vacation appear to be temporary or enduring in nature. Temporary or immediate benefits could be having a higher level of satisfaction with the overall leisure trip as a result of the volunteering experience. The enduring benefit effects centre around the developments of both self and others, as well as social relationship enhancement. The social interactions pertaining to the volunteer vacation domain appear to enhance relationships in a multifaceted manner:
(1) Interacting with people from the destination community promotes mutual understanding and appreciation and friendship.
(2) Interacting with travel group members with similar interests and values promotes friendship and peer bonding.
(3) Interacting with family members, such as spouse and children, promotes healthier family relationships and tighter bonding.
This research contributes to the tourism literature by brokering the linkages between the volunteering, volunteer vacationing, mass tourism vacationing and motivation to travel. The volunteer vacation phenomenon appears to bridge the altruistic motives of volunteering with the general commodified tourism experiences. In this regard, the outcome of this research also bears some practical implications for the tourism industry practitioners. Volunteer vacation seems to provide a new avenue for tourism satisfaction. As demonstrated in this research, this concept brings about a higher level of trip satisfaction for the participants. We are identifying a new and unique market segment that is neither a pure leisure trip nor a pure volunteer experience. Implementing this concept will create authentic cultural experiences unlike any other in the industry. This philosophy and practice of volunteer tourism can be linked to the mainstream tourism with its focus on market priorities. The outcome of this hybridised approach in the global marketplace of tourism can potentially generate new market dynamics and promises while enabling every traveller to be an ambassador for peace.
The authors acknowledge that while this research presents an interesting snapshot of the emerging volunteer vacation phenomenon, the generalisability of the research outcome is limited, as it is based on a small sample from one organisation with qualitative methodologies such as focus groups and personal interviews. Substantially more research is needed in this area to better attempt to understand the dimensionalities of the motivational and benefit factors of volunteer tourism and the interplay of mass tourism motives and volunteer motives. To achieve this goal and increase internal and external validities of the research findings, more stringent measurement scales will be developed based on the qualitative analyses and extensive literature review. Quantitative approaches based on structured measurements and more inclusive or representative samples should be adopted. Nonetheless, this research serves as an excellent baseline for more statistically rigorous follow-up research which should produce broader inferences in this specialised field of tourism studies.
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