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Volume 5 Issue 2 Highlights


Study and Research


Zoë Alexander, Buckinghamshire New University, UK

For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we are focusing on Zoë Alexander’s research interest in 'the self' (the tourist) and the impact that tourism has on the individual. Her research is being done through the Buckinghamshire New University, UK, under the guidance of Dr. Ali Bakir and Dr. Eugenia Wickens. Ms. Alexander’s academic background is in psychology. More recently, she completed her MSc in Tourism Management and Development to support her business offering self-catering units in Cape Town and Scotland. Her commercial background is Project Management and has worked for a large retailer in the UK. Her long-term personal interests lie in the development of ‘self’ and hiking.


Two years ago, Ms. Alexander completed a Masters degree in Tourism Management and Development which included a dissertation investigating the impact of general vacation travel on the tourist (self).  She found that, of the 999 people surveyed, 53% were impacted by their vacation (Alexander, 2007).  An impact was defined as a long lasting change in the self.  These changes were reflected in the individual’s subsequent behaviour.

This research, together with that found in traditional volunteering (National Centre of Volunteering, 2003; Thoit and Hewit, 2001), suggests that perhaps there is a  capacity for volunteer tourism (also known as voluntourism) to change people.  One would assume that if ordinary vacation travel created long lasting changes to self, then a vacation that integrated voluntary service with the traditional elements of travel (Clemmons 2003) would have more impact. In addition, the research indicates that experiences that involve personal interaction are more likely to lead to changes in self (Alexander, 2007).  Whether volunteer projects are nature-based, people-based or involve restoration of building and artefacts, they will inevitably involve some form of interaction with other volunteers or with the communities themselves, and it is this interaction that can catalyse change in self (Wearing, 2001).  It is these changes in self that interest the author, along with positive psychology (emphasises the positive dimensions of self underemphasised in mainstream psychology), human potential and the mechanisms that support and promote growth of self.  Voluntourism is potentially a wonderful mechanism for self growth.


This research utilized a web-based personality inventory (IPIP-NEO) before and after a volunteer vacation and subsequently comparing the potential changes (determined by measuring certain traits) to a control group who will be living their normal day to day lives.  In this research, the author focuses on fifteen traits; they are: anxiety, depression, vulnerability, assertiveness, action, artistic interests, emotionality, adventurousness, intellect, liberalism, trust, altruism, self-efficacy, dutifulness, and cautiousness.  The relevance of these traits to personal development has been established by many academics (refer to Baumeister and Vohs, 2005; Csikzentmihalyi, 1992; Kegan, 1982; Maddux, 2005; Maslow, 1971; Schimmack, 2008; Seligman, 2005; Vitterso, 2001).  The IPIP-NEO personality inventory was chosen because it covers all these dimensions of personality comprehensively; there is no cost for using it and it is very stable over long periods of time (Johnson, 2007). 

Findings & Major Conclusions

The research is in its infancy, with data so far received from 33 volunteers undertaking voluntourism, through AVIVA SA, a voluntourism provider based in Cape Town, South Africa, who has a strict code of conduct and ethical guidelines for their interactions with volunteers and project partners (details can be viewed at http://www.aviva-sa.com/our-philosophy.php). AVIVA SA was willing to support the research and they were recommended by Cape Town Tourism.  The volunteering took the form of projects ranging from wildlife and conservation projects to child-centered and community-based projects. 

Although it is still early in the process, the tentative findings suggest that there are significant changes in the following traits of volunteers: trust (p=0.034), artistic interests (p=0.022) and assertiveness (p=0.030).  There was one significant change in the control group: assertiveness (p=0.0033).  The mean difference between the before and after personality inventory results suggests increases in all of these traits.  Although the changes in these traits are of interest in themselves, the author will additionally conduct interviews, via email, with the volunteers and control group members to establish what experiences, in their mind, have caused the change and what they are doing differently now as a result (if anything).  Already, the author gained some deeper insight from the few interviews that she has so far undertaken; for example, one UK volunteer commented of her experience in Africa:

She went on to explain what she was doing differently now as a result: 

Psychologists (e.g. Costa and McCrae, 1982) suggest the core of personality is determined by five central traits known as the ‘Big Five’: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience. People differ in their personalities due to different combinations of these core traits which are relatively stable over time.  However, within these core traits there are more changeable traits such as trust, artistic interests and assertiveness. 

For example, trust falls within the category of agreeableness.  Agreeableness reflects an individual’s concern with cooperation and social harmony, in other words, getting on with others.  So, an increase in the trust trait, among volunteers, suggests that the voluntourism experience encourages volunteers to see others as fair, honest, and having good intentions which helps individuals in society get on with each other (reflected in the quotations above). Similarly, artistic interest falls into the category of openness to experience. Open people are intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. Openness is often presented as healthier or more mature by psychologists.  The voluntourism experience can increase a volunteer’s love for art and nature; encouraging them to become more easily involved and absorbed in artistic and natural events:  

Both the control group and volunteer group showed a significant increase in assertiveness.  Assertiveness falls into the category of extraversion.  Extraversion is marked by pronounced engagement with the external world.  The control group members were tested before and after a six month interval (the average time between a volunteer booking a trip and returning from it). Increases in assertiveness are displayed by individuals speaking out more, taking charge and more likely to direct the activities of others. Although both groups showed significant changes in assertiveness, the volunteers changed more; the mean deviation was 1.7 versus 1.1 for the control group. This difference is also interpreted from the experiences of each. One English volunteer arrived in Cape Town without anyone to meet her at the airport. After the initial shock and having no contact details on her either, she had to take charge of the situation and finally arrived safely at her destination. 

The self confidence gained from the volunteer’s experience may explain some of the difference between the two groups, as can be seen from this volunteer’s words:

This sense of achievement seems to have boosted the confidence and increased the assertiveness of this volunteer:

This assertiveness is often channelled into activities back home such as fundraising (described earlier), becoming more politically active, participation in social movements, becoming advocates etc.  However, the results show that day to day experiences also change assertiveness, just not as dramatically.  The differences between the changes in the volunteers and those of the control group are of great interest and will be examined in much greater detail as the research progresses.  It is worth noting that the research undertaken so far suggests that engagement in volunteer work as a tourist does offer a mechanism through which growth, learning and change occur.  Watch this space!


Alexander, Z. (2007) An investigation into the impact of Vacation Travel on the tourist (the self), Unpublished MSc Dissertation, Faculty of Innovation, School of Sport, Leisure and Tourism, Buckinghamshire New University, High Wycombe.

Baumeister, R. and Vohs, K. (2005) The pursuit of meaningfulness in life, In Snyder, C. and Lopez, J. (2005) Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Costa, P. and McCrae, R. (1982) Hypochondriasis, neuroticism and ageing: when are somatic complaints unfounded? American Psychologist, Volume 40, pp19-28.

Costa, P. & McCrae, R. (1992) Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI), Professional Manual, Psychological Assessment Resources, Odessa, Florida.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1992) Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. Rider Press, London.

Gluck, J. and Spiel, C. (2007), Using Item Response Models to Analyse Change, In Ong, A. and Van Dulmen, M. (2007) Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Johnson, J. (2007) Email conversation between the researcher and Professor Johnson on the 17.12.2007.

Kearsley, G. And Schneiderman, B. (1998), Engagement Theory: A framework for technology-based teaching and learning, Educational Technology, Volume 38 (5), pp20-23.

Kegan, R. (1982) The Evolving Self, Harvard, USA.

Maddux, J. (2005) Self-efficacy: the power of believing you can, In Snyder, C. and Lopez, J. (2005) Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Maslow, A. (1971) The farthest reaches of human nature, Viking, New York.

McCrae, R., Terracciano, A. and Khoury, B. (2007) Dolce Far Niente: The Positive Psychology of Personality Stability and Invariance, in Ong, A. and Dulmen, M. (2007) Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, Oxford
National Centre of Volunteering (2003) You cannot be serious!  Involving volunteers with mental health problems, Government Department of Health.

Seligman, M. (2005) Positive psychology, positive prevention and positive therapy, In Snyder, C. and Lopez, J. (2005) Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Thoit, P. and Hewitt, L. (2001) Volunteer Work and Well-Being, Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, Volume 42, pp115-131, American Sociological Association, USA.

Vitterso, J. (2001) Personality traits and subjective well-being: emotional stability, not extraversion, is probably the important predictor, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 31, pp903-914.

Watson, D. (2005) Positive Affectivity: The disposition to experience pleasurable emotional states, In Snyder, C. and Lopez, J. (2005) Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, New York.

Wearing, S. (2001) Volunteer Tourism: Experiences That Make a Difference, CABI Publishing, Oxford.

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 Zoë Alexander at zoe.alexandar[at]bucks.ac.uk.

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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