Ecotourism and Voluntourism in Ecuador — A Semester Abroad
December 12, 2011
From January through June 2011, I worked as the ecotourism intern at Rio Muchacho Organic Farm on the coast of Ecuador, 17 km outside of Canoa. This beautiful get away location attracted both ecotourists and volunteer tourists to the rural community composed of 308 people. The slogan of Guacamayo Tours, the tourism institution that the farm owners ran, is “Tourism for a better planet.” In deciding to live and volunteer at the farm for 5 months, I chose to go on a form of identity quest. While on the farm, I met dozens of other international volunteers, all but two from western countries. In a western mentality, ecotourism as well as voluntourism are viewed as good things to partake in, in order to help the local communities in which the tourism activities take place as well as sources for personal growth for the tourist. Interestingly, volunteer tourist opportunities often cost more than equivalent mass tourism movements. While connecting with the local community as a source for personal growth may be the objectives upon entering into the farm, people always found what they were sure would be a haven to have its own flaws and problems. Instead of focusing on how they could learn from the community in which they were volunteering, the volunteers often chose to spend more time with other volunteer tourists that had very similar backgrounds to their own. Beyond the constraints of the language separation between tourists and locals, there existed a separation in values and experiences that resulted in a preference for like people to continue to associate within their own group.
Volunteer tourism is an interesting social phenomenon for discussing relationships between the developed and developing worlds as well as further investigating motivations behind volunteer tourists participation in “helping” abroad. Volunteer tourists are primarily from western countries, young, educated, and financially better off than most. The demographics and state of searching associated with voluntourism are concurrent with a new developmental stage known as “the Odyssey Years.” This is the period between age 20 and 30 when an individual figures out his/her place in community. People in a western culture associate travel abroad as a source of developing an identity. Volunteer tourism is viewed as an even more authentic experience due to the work in “helping” the community, not just experiencing it.
This independent study allowed for a reflection on the potential relationships that form between the voluntourist and the community in which the volunteer is working. I evaluate the role of work in defining relationships, even when the locals and the tourists have little in common. In so doing, I question the authenticity of volunteer tourism. I evaluate the growth of the volunteer tourism sector, and what external societal qualities motivate the growth at this point in time. Essentially I ask why people feel the need to go abroad to define their identity, and why participating in a work environment would be included in that search. This research is intended to provide a deeper understanding of what volunteer tourism both for closure on my time in Ecuador and as groundwork for a future study in Bolivia fall of 2012.