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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 5 Issue 1 Highlights



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Study and Research


Dr. Angela M Benson, Founding Chair ATLAS (Association for Tourism & Leisure Education) Volunteer Tourism Research Group
University Of Brighton
School of Service Management

For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, I am pleased to present a synopsis of research from Dr. Angela M Benson, University of Brighton. Dr. Benson is the Founding Chair of the Volunteer Tourism Research Group of ATLAS (Association for Tourism & Leisure Education).  She recently presented findings from this study at the Greater Western chapter of the Travel and Tourism Research Association’s annual meeting, which included a symposium entitled “The Voluntourism effect: Case Studies and Investigations.”  Dr. Benson reminds us of the broad and varied perceptions of voluntourism (often as neither volunteering nor tourism) and the “semantic challenges” of terminology we face as researchers of the subject. Her research presentation at the conference resulted in lively academic discussion, so we hope that it will do the same for you, wherever you are!


The Research Volunteer Tourism sector consists of organizations that coordinate the activities of those wishing to travel to undertake research projects - often in conjunction with a holiday.  The founders of these organizations capitalized on the idea of bringing together scientists to lead research projects and volunteers, who would willingly contribute, both financially and practically, to engage in worldwide, scientifically based research projects and, therefore, repute to offer sustainable development in the longer term. Whilst all the organizations offer a similar service, the range of research projects available to volunteers is both complex and diverse.  In terms of defining the experience (Research Volunteer Tourism), there is a lack of common language used at the present time by the organizations and the volunteers in terms of what the experience entails consequently, the research focus was to gain an understanding from both the organizational and volunteer perspectives and therefore define the experience and determine key characteristics. 

A mixed-methods approach was adopted drawing on both qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques. Nine of the fifteen organizations studied, responded to a detailed questionnaire.  After analysis of the data, four companies were chosen for their strategic position in the sector to follow up as case studies.  This was done by interviewing the owner / managers of the four case study organizations.  The author spent thirteen weeks participating in three projects in different countries, and interviewed seventy six volunteers.  Participant observation was also undertaken.  Finally, material in the public domain was also examined such as publicity and company websites.  This information was used to verify and triangulate where appropriate. 

The majority of the organizations in this sector use the term expedition to define the experience.  It is not clear where this term comes from, it may be as a result of the legacy from companies which originated from a military background (Frontier; Trekforce; Operation Raleigh) and / or from scientific ventures, both of which extensively used the term ‘expeditions’.  Other terms used by organizations are ‘volunteer trips’ and ‘travel experience’.  One company uses the term conservation holidays, which has been consistently used for a number of years. 
Even though the term holiday has been used, it is evident that the organization does not view this experience in terms of a traditional holiday and use alternative phrases to demonstrate that there is a difference. Specifically:

International Conservation Holidays ……get off the tourist track with BTCV”; further in the brochure it states: “These aren’t ordinary holidays” (BTCV, 2002).  Two years later the message is “BTCV Holidays - your chance to change the world” (BTCV, 2004).  This sentiment is also echoed by other companies in this sector:
Earthwatch is not a tourism company; it is a non-profit environmental organisation which engages people in its field research projects worldwide (Earthwatch Europe Institute, 2007)

The volunteers rarely used the term expedition in their responses about defining the experience, however, the term work was mentioned extensively, which the organizations rarely used.  Whilst the literature suggests that new terms (for example research ecotourism (Clifton & Benson, 2006), research tourism (Angela M Benson, 2004), research volunteer tourism (A M Benson & Henderson, 2011), volunteer tourism (McGehee & Santos, 2005; Wearing, 2001), voluntourism) are emerging to describe or rather label the experience that volunteers take part in, it was clear from volunteers’ perceptions that they struggled with the concept of trying to define what it is they take part in and therefore give a term to describe the experience.  It is not surprising the word holiday was used, however, like the organizations, this term caused some problems.  The following quotes, taken from the data, clearly show a lack of consensus:

Is it a Package Holiday(Package Tour)?

Or not?

Is it a Holiday (Vacation) at all?

Or not?

Is it a Working Holiday(Vacation)?

When volunteers had difficulty expressing themselves in terms of what the experience was, they reverted to language to describe what made it different from a traditional holiday experience. The following are the key themes which emerged that expressed the differences, accompanied by short quotes from informants in the study:

Companions are not chosen

The length of time is different

Lack of Freedom or Control

Lack of luxury

Traditional voluntary experiences are often described in terms of a level of contribution taking place (giving aspect) and benefits received by the volunteers (often expressed in terms of skills or ‘self’; i.e. self-image).  When trying to express their experience, some respondents (volunteers) used language around these two key themes: a Receiving Experience and a Giving Experience.

Receiving Experience
…getting a sense of satisfaction or that you’ve accomplished something, or helped in some way. (Erin)

Giving Experience
….you do feel like you’re doing something good (Gary)


In conclusion, both organizations and volunteers appear to have a need to expand upon the experience as being more than just a holiday; it would also appear that both the organizations and the volunteers have difficulty in articulating a message that defines the experience and there appears to be a lack of common language.  This being said, it is clearly evident that the use of volunteers is one of the key mechanisms for the organizations to meet their goals and therefore, play an important role.  The recruitment of volunteers onto projects enables the unlocking of money, annually, from private individuals that might not otherwise have reached the ‘pocket’ of the environment and therefore, provides invaluable funding; in addition, weeks and months of individuals’ time is donated.  Therefore, it is argued that for organizations to capitalize on this, a clearer definition of the experience based on both volunteer and organization perceptions is vital.


Benson, A. M. (2004). Research Tourism: professional travelling versus useful discovery. In M. Novelli (Ed.), Niche Tourism: Contemporary Issues, Trends and Cases: Elsevier: Butterworth Heinemann.
Benson, A. M., & Henderson, S. (2011). A Strategic Analysis of the Research Volunteer Organisations. Service Industries Journal, 31(6).
BTCV. (2002). Conservation Holidays. Global Programme, January 2002.
BTCV. (2004). Conservation Holidays. Global Programme.
Clifton, J., & Benson, A. M. (2006). Planning for Sustainable Ecotourism: The Case of Research Ecotourism in Developing Country Destinations. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 14(3), 238-254.
Earthwatch Europe Institute. (2007). 2007, from http://www.earthwatch.org

McGehee, N. G., & Santos, C. A. (2005). Social Change, Discourse and Volunteer Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 32(3), 760-779.
Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that make a Difference. Wallingford: CABI Publishing.

Nancy McGehee, PhD., Virginia Tech University

 I hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum!  If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to the Voluntourist newsletter, or e-mail Dr Angela Benson at amb16@brighton.ac.uk.  Also, keep in mind that Dr. Benson is a co-chair of the “International Symposium on Volunteering and Tourism– Creating a Research Agenda and Network in Volunteering and Tourism”, to be held 14 – 15 June in Singapore (in conjunction with the 2009 BEST Conference Singapore 15 – 18 June “The Importance of Values in Sustainable Tourism”). Contact her for additional information.

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg VA

For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>

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