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Imagine you live in the UK. You’ve just finished your studies, and are eager to have your first adult adventure – somewhere exotic. But this isn’t just a case of itchy feet. Raised in the ‘woke’ era, you also have a social conscience. More than simply satisfying your curiosity about the world, your trip will be a chance to ‘give something back’.

So what do you do? Hop on a website and find the most interesting voluntourist package available, of course. Maybe you spend two weeks helping out in an orphanage in the Transkei: you go there every day, feed the kids and cuddle them. Your feel a twinge in your heart every time you look into their big-eyed faces, and when the time comes to leave, you can’t stop yourself from crying. But you know that you have made their world just a little brighter, a memory that warms your heart all the way back to Heathrow.

Now picture what’s going on in the lives of those orphans. For two weeks, you’ve been a part of their every day. At first, they were reluctant to open up to you – they’ve already been let down so many times. But because you showed up consistently, they let their guard down a little. They came to look forward to your visits, and valued your time together just as much as you did. But then you were gone – suddenly and inexplicably. How would you feel if you were in those children’s shoes: comforted and loved, or let down and betrayed?

No one wants to think that their attempt to help causes more harm in the long run, but often, this is precisely what ‘voluntourists’ unwittingly end up doing. And, while packages targeting orphans and vulnerable people have sparked a type of ‘poverty tourism’, the impact of voluntourism on conservation has also raised grave concerns.

This might seem hard to believe. After all, how could an institution established specifically to boost conservation be working against it?

Lions, legislation – and bullets

The documentary Blood Lions, which investigates South Africa’s canned lion-hunting industry, provides some disturbing answers to that question. In fact, the film uncovered realities so harsh that Fair Trade Tourism, an organisation which promotes fair and responsible tourism practices by tourism players, saw fit to review its stance regarding voluntourism.

Sharon Gilbert-Rivett, marketing manager at Fair Trade Tourism, explains the film’s harrowing revelations: “Essentially, lions used by certain voluntourist organisations are exploited at every stage of their lives,” she says. The industry isn’t dissimilar to puppy farming: a new litter of cubs is born every three months, and the female goes back into oestrus just a few days later, ready for the next litter. The cubs are taken away from their mothers, but tourists are told that their mothers rejected them and that they’re being readied to be released back into the wild. “What they don’t know is that there has yet to be a successful case study where lions are reintroduced to the wild,” Gilbert-Rivett says.

The tourists, meanwhile, are so moved by the cubs’ plight that they can’t wait to hand over their dollars to have a cuddle, believing that they’re helping to nurture the juvenile cubs. And, when the cubs get a little bit bigger, they’ll be just as eager to have a ‘walk with lions’ experience. But what happens when the lion is about four years old, and no longer able to participate in this kind of activity? Well, then it’s off to a hunting farm, where it will be shot by another tourist seeking a ‘typically South African’ experience. The sad journey doesn’t end there. Lion carcasses are then sold on to the Far East (at an average of R20 000-R30 000 per carcass) for use in ‘tiger bone’, an ancient Chinese remedy. “The reality is that these animals are being expressly raised to be killed,” Gilbert-Rivett states.

Viewed in this light, it’s perfectly understandable why Fair Trade Tourism has decided to clamp down on organisations purporting to offer wildlife interaction activities.

Look, don’t touch

Gilbert-Rivett explains that the crux of the new criteria, which came into effect from 1 June, is that any establishment wishing to be certified by Fair Trade Tourism may not allow any physical interaction between tourists or volunteers and captive animals. Similarly, no interaction is allowed between orphans and other vulnerable people unless under the supervision of a qualified adult.

Fair Trade Tourism development manager Manuel Bollmann explains the thinking behind these criteria: “So-called ‘poverty or orphanage tourism’ has been a topic of hot debate in Europe for some time. People have been concerned about the impact of tourists, who have no qualifications or credentials in childcare, looking after children in orphanages. This first sparked our awareness of the need to tighten our credentials.”

Then came Blood Lions. Gilbert-Rivett explains that the organisation’s peripheral involvement in the making of the film brought matters to a head. “It was a pivotal moment for the voluntourism industry, raising awareness of unscrupulous players whose operations have little to do with conservation. Given concerns of the voyeuristic element of orphanage tourism, we saw the time was right to take action.”

Fair Trade Tourism’s concerns aren’t only for the animals and children being exploited by dodgy players; tourists, too, are being duped. “Voluntours pay huge amounts of money for activities they believe are helpful but which actually perpetuate circumstances,” she points out.

A potential loss?

True enough – but isn’t there the possibility that we’re creating another casualty here: the tourism industry? After all, if the interactive element is removed from voluntourism, what’s the point to it? Make no mistake: this segment is a lucrative one. Gilbert-Rivett reveals that tourists, usually aged between 18 and 35 and hailing from markets like the UK, USA, Brazil and Norway, are willing to drop around £2 500 on a two-week stint. She admits that, already, some businesses have had to make tough decisions in the wake of the Blood Lions release. One lodge known to be heavily involved in lion breeding programmes has been put up for sale, while the Johannesburg Lion Park put an end to cub interaction. Given this sort of pressure, can the industry afford to adopt the new criteria? And if it does, is our tourism industry at risk of facing major losses as would-be voluntourists flock to countries with less rigorous regulation?

The Department of Tourism’s stance is that Fair Trade Tourism’s revised criteria are in line with various pieces of legislation, including the Animal Protection Act South Africa, the Children’s Act, the Wildlife Act, and the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation. Looking at the tourism industry specifically, it supports the objectives of the National Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism. All told, says NDT spokesperson Trevor Bloem, it’s a shield to protect all involved in the programmes – volunteers, children and wildlife – from exploitation and abuse.

Bloem says that in spite of the acknowledgment that voluntourism is a significantly growing sector, and that Africa – and South Africa specifically – is emerging as a focus for the industry, there hasn’t been much research into the phenomenon beyond looking at the motivations of voluntourists and the impact of their actions. “That stated, tourism is regarded as a modern-day engine of growth and contributes positively to the GDP as well as to direct and indirect employment. It creates opportunities for skills development and encourages entrepreneurship, which voluntourism certainly contributes to.” Apart from the financial boost – one travel agent said that between 10-15% of the total of a package ultimately flows to the project or community – participants may also benefit from the transfer of skills and knowledge.

In spite of these benefits – and the massive growth the industry is expected to experience within the next few years – the Department of Tourism hasn’t implemented specific policy around the segment; something which may add impetus to Fair Trade Tourism’s criteria. “We are considered one of the leading responsible tourism destinations globally,” Bloem says. “Similarly, responsible voluntourism is now also underpinned by standards that aim to ensure valuable input from volunteers and deliver tangible benefits for the communities involved.” Although there is no standalone policy for voluntourism, the Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism applies; this aims to establish a baseline standard for operators to aspire to and encourages the involvement of local communities in planning and decision-making, among other activities.

Against this backdrop, the new criteria are a welcome addition to the regulation surrounding the industry. As for Bloem’s concerns that they may deter voluntourists, causing us to lose out on those appealing voluntourism dollars – they simply don’t exist. “Consumers around the world are increasingly aware of the potential impact of tourism,” he points out – and, after all, isn’t that what’s driving the interest in voluntourism? Look at the popularity of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable tourism, now leading market segments globally, if you need further confirmation. Added to this, volunteers are generally ethical people who care about conservation and the protection of children. “If anything, the new criteria supports legislation and should enhance the country’s positioning as a leading responsible tourism destination. It is in our interest to promote ethical and authentic volunteer experiences.”

What the stakeholders say

Interestingly, some of the most vocal supporters of the criteria are groups offering voluntourism themselves.

Bollmann reveals that their involvement was instrumental in the establishment of the criteria, with key players invited to play a part in an extensively consultative process. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, when Bollmann says that the only backlash has come from those operators of dubious repute.

All other stakeholders have given the criteria a firm thumbs-up – African Impact, one of the largest voluntourism operators in South Africa, included. Andrew Procter, the organisation’s director, reports that he’s been in dialogue with Fair Trade Tourism for three years, as the lack of standards and complete absence of industry regulation was – in his view – a major bugbear. “We need to make sure that we’re meeting clients’ expectations while contributing to long-term positive change, and too many operators don’t tick either of these boxes,” he says.

Procter notes that the creation of standards has been something of a tricky exercise. Voluntourists may be soft-hearted and socially aware, but they also want to have a good time, and it’s critical that operators are able to get this balance right. Nor does he think that implementation of the criteria will be without its challenges. Using his own organisation as an example, he points out that large operators may struggle to achieve certification according to the new criteria, especially if they have businesses active in different provinces, and even different countries, which may operate at varying levels.

He adds that it’s not only in South Africa that the industry’s reputation has taken a beating; globally, travellers are becoming suspicious of operators that don’t live up to their promises.

That’s why David Youldon, director of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (Alert), says he’s also in favour of stricter regulation. “There are many captive animal facilities that claim a conservation or animal-welfare benefit to justify maintaining and breeding those animals in captivity but, sadly, not all of those claims stand up to scrutiny.” He points out that there are many times when interaction with an animal is not only unavoidable, but necessary (for example, when the animal is in need of veterinary care); similarly, there are entirely valid reasons for keeping and breeding an animal in captivity. “We support guidance that enables tourists to recognise legitimate organisations with which they might choose to become involved, and to ensure that animal interactions are in the best interests of the animals. The criteria presented are not perfect, but are a good start in providing that guidance and in protecting wild animals in captivity,” Youldon says. His view is that if the criteria do indeed deflate the industry’s growth somewhat, it’s probably a good thing because those entities most likely to be affected are the ones with questionable ethics.

The final word

But what about the voluntourists themselves? How do they feel about having an abridged adventure? Eulogi Rheeder, a journalist who volunteered at a marine research organisation in Plettenberg Bay, has a thought-provoking answer: “When I signed up, I thought my days would be spent swimming with dolphins. As it was, one of the first things I had to do was cut up a beached whale so that its parts could be used for research. It was harrowing.” It was also one of the only times Eulogi came close to a sea animal; on each other occasion that she or any other volunteer spotted, for instance, a seal, the programme managers made it clear that there was to be no touching. “The experience wasn’t how I imagined it would be, but it was better. It taught me so much; actively participating in research was more meaningful than diving with dolphins could ever have been.”

Gilbert-Rivett says that with the new standards in place, Fair Trade Tourism’s goal is to help people find experiences that are memorable in the same way – and to avoid those that are part of the problem, rather than the solution. But, she says, it’s important to remember that there are other ways to help. “Rather than paying for a costly voluntourism package, you could contact an NGO active in the area you wish to visit, and see if they could use your services in any way,” she points out.

Bollmann has the last word to offer: “We must remember that the people we are targeting through voluntourism are affluent, future decision-makers. Is this really the image we want them to have of South Africa – or would we rather they experience our country as it truly is?”