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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 9 Issue 4 Highlights

 
Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race Volunteers

So You May Know

Bayfield -- Site of the Best Voluntourism Program in the World?

Since its inception, I have been tracking the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race Voluntourism Program in Bayfield, Wisconsin. As we annually approach the 1st of February, I take a closer, more refined look at the Bayfield community and how this event has become a "voluntourism bucket list" item for voluntourists interested in such things. Nevertheless, what has eluded me over the past six years is why other communities around the world have not used this voluntourism program as a model to replicate in their own communities. Is it the lack of snow? No sled dogs? What exactly?

Perhaps what is needed is an explanation of the elements that are included and why the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race (AISDR) Voluntourism Program might be the best such program in the world.

Point #1: Community Involvement, Investment, and Ownership

Community, community, COMMUNITY! How many academic researchers, journalists, practitioners and, yes, voluntourists, have emphasized the importance of community - involved and invested - to the point of owning a voluntourism program in a given destination. It just isn't a real voluntourism program unless it belongs to the local community.

The Bayfield community owns this voluntourism program - it belongs to them as an extension of the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race itself. Bayfield residents volunteer to support the event, the mushers, and the dogs. They come out to cheer for the teams. They welcome voluntourists into their community and honor the time, effort, and investment that these voluntourists make to come to their community. They orient voluntourists to the community and the experience and work side-by-side with them throughout the course of the event.

Point #2: Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) Engagement

The Bayfield Chamber of Commerce (BCC) has served as the primary driving force behind the creation, development, and implementation of the AISDR Voluntourism Program. The BCC makes the effort to let potential voluntourists know about the voluntourism program and to liaise between these visitors, race participants, local business owners - accommodations, restaurants, etc. - local residents, and, of course, mushers and dogs (see "Stakeholder Engagement Model" - Point #8, below, for more on this). The BCC does not leave these things to chance, as is often the case in many destinations across the world. The BCC seems to understand the richness of the particular experience to which it can introduce voluntourists and how these voluntourists can become the best form of "word-of-mouth advertising" for Bayfield that could ever be generated.

How many times do we hear critical commentary on the expectations of voluntourists not meeting the reality of the experience? This has become so pervasive that it verges on being a voluntourism epidemic. With the AISDR Voluntourism Program, however, participating voluntourists would be hard pressed to make an uneducated decision about opting in for this endeavor. The language around the program is quite clear. There are testimonials from past participants. You know what the weather will be like - cold, cold, COLD!

You will be working with animals; you will be outdoors; you will be working alongside local volunteers and visiting voluntourists; you will be having spaghetti dinner with mushers. In other words, as a potential voluntourist you know exactly what to expect. If the program does not fit you once you arrive, it is most likely explained as a failure on your part to make a conscious decisions as to whether these things resonate with you personally.

In addition, when a destination marketing organization (DMO) like the BCC is involved in the construction and development of a voluntourism program, voluntourists should be pretty excited. DMOs are not generally paid for creating and developing these programs. They rely on a different income stream and different metrics altogether - their success is predicated on two things: socio-economic benefits to the local community (and, thereby, the success of the businesses and NGOs which they represent in their respective destinations), and a positive view of tourism and the destination-tourist exchange.

Finally, DMOs are unlikely to receive a commission, "kick-back," or any type of direct payment as a result of a "sale" of a particular program to a voluntourist. Instead, they are focused on juggling the relationships between local governments, local communities, local businesses & NGOs, and visitors. As voluntourism continues to develop and expand around the planet, we will most probably see more such "neutral" institutional involvement in the creation, development, and guided implementation of voluntourism - DMOs having a specialized division, or even a dedicated Voluntourism Center, to support the voluntourism program process. (Stay tuned!)

Point #3: Unique Experience

It is not everyday that you can be a voluntourist at a sled dog race, this much we know for sure. Not only is the AISDR a unique experience - a world class event - but the people and animals associated with it are truly remarkable also. The mushers are moving teams of 6 or 8 dogs across 60 or 80 miles, respectively, of snow covered terrain. They hail from near and far and have raced in other locations as well. Having a chance to sit down with them at the "Mushers Dinner" - a carbohydrate-loading, spaghetti dinner no less - prior to the race is just one of the things that enlivens the engagement for voluntourists and delivers a serious ROI - return on involvement - for them.

Point #4: Forget the Developing Vs. Developed World Debate

Across the globe, so much emphasis is placed on the "Developed North" traveling to the "Developing South" through voluntourism programs. Ironically, at least in the case of the AISDR Voluntourism Program, most every voluntourist has to travel from the South to the North to get to Bayfield, Wisconsin, geographically speaking that is. If there be "power" dynamics at all, then it is between a four-legged dog and a two-legged voluntourist as to who deals better with a snowy terrain - I think we know who wins that contest.

Bayfield unequivocally proves that voluntourism need not be a "developing world" phenomenon. On the other hand, it demonstrates that destinations in "developing countries" could, if they chose to, embrace voluntourism differently. If a "developing" destination features a unique event or experience that could benefit from extra hands and interested bodies, plus, and this is essential, includes an invested community, then the possibility certainly exists. The math is by no means complicated, yet the computation is impossible if one of these aforementioned ingredients is missing.

Point #5: Voluntourists Can Make a Very "Conscious" Choice to Participate

bayfield 1380

How many times do we hear critical commentary on the expectations of voluntourists not meeting the reality of the experience? This has become so pervasive that it verges on being a voluntourism epidemic. With the AISDR Voluntourism Program, however, participating voluntourists would be hard pressed to make an uneducated decision about opting in for this endeavor. The language around the program is quite clear. There are testimonials from past participants. You know what the weather will be like - cold, cold, COLD!

You will be working with animals; you will be outdoors; you will be working alongside local volunteers and visiting voluntourists; you will be having spaghetti dinner with mushers. In other words, as a potential voluntourist you know exactly what to expect. If the program does not fit you once you arrive, it is most likely explained as a failure on your part to make a conscious decisions as to whether these things resonate with you personally.

Point #6: Money

Money - where it goes, how much stays in the local community, how much voluntourism experiences cost, etc. - has become a point of tremendous contention around the world. In the case of Bayfield, the voluntourism program is locally-designed and implemented. The BCC has developed a program that emphasizes local distribution of money. It also appears that the money is spread amongst businesses rather than earmarked for a singular recipient. This is very important when considering the implications of a voluntourism program - multi-stakeholder involvement & benefit are crucial.

Point #7: Truly, VolunTourism

More than a decade ago when we established our working definition of "VolunTourism," we identified it as the "conscious, seamlessly-integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best traditional elements of travel & tourism - arts, culture, geography, history, and recreation - in a destination." Bayfield must have taken that to heart because the AISDR Voluntourism Program offers all of the above. I ask you: what could be more "cultural" than a spaghetti dinner with mushers?!? Or a more seamlessly-integrated recreation-volunteering experience than a sled dog race?

Bayfield Voluntourism Stakeholder Model

Point #8: The Stakeholder Engagement Model

The final point I will mention about Bayfield and its AISDR Voluntourism Program is the stakeholder engagement model (see diagram above). The Bayfield Chamber of Commerce (featured in the middle) represents the heart of the voluntourism program. Foremost, in terms of directives for the BCC is to facilitate the connection and reciprocal exchange between local residents and voluntourists (top). The other primary tasks are: 1) to serve as creator-developer of the program itself, 2) coordinating director for the interaction among the various stakeholders, 3) promoter of the voluntourism opportunity, and 4) program evaluator/modifier. Of course, simply writing these down in a list does them a substantial injustice from the standpoint of the amount of time, effort, and investment required to bring the program to fruition. For the purposes of this post, however, it does provide a framework for replication.

Final Thoughts...

We have repeatedly mentioned that voluntourism is not complicated; it is, however, complex. The best voluntourism programs in the world, like this one in Bayfield, Wisconsin, are not born and bred from thin air. They require someone or some group to take the lead, to be the Voluntourism Champion, if you will. Bayfield is fortunate that the BCC was prepared to take on this role, to continue to improve their capacity and functionality in the role, and to cultivate the program to be better over time.

Individual leaders in charge of the AISDR Voluntourism Program in Bayfield have transitioned over the years, but the continuity has carried through. "Locally-owned & operated" - what more could we require of a voluntourism program?

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