You Can Now Volunteer As Part of Your Holiday On A Cruise Ship. Don’t Do It.
Image credit: Yannis A on Unsplash

What do you picture when you see the word ‘cruise’?

Sipping cool drinks on deck? Relaxing in the shade of a beach umbrella? How about labouring under the sweltering sun, painting school walls?

In a bid to attract more youth to an ageing industry, Genting Cruise Lines in February launched several ‘Cruise Voluntourism’ packages, allowing guests to “experience different communities in an interesting way”.

Seeing as more Singaporeans are coming forward to volunteer, but individually spending fewer hours doing so, it would appear that more people want to contribute to needy communities and worthy causes. But because they are unable to spend as much time volunteering, cruise companies are expanding into volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, drawing the interest of an increasingly civic-minded population.

Something about this is discomfiting: a cruise company, one that is worth millions of dollars, is capitalising on the neediness of one community to make money off of a wealthier one.

The cruise industry, worth USD$29.4Bn, is now looking to profit from poverty. (Image credit: Jamie Morrison on Unsplash)
The advent of voluntourism worldwide, especially amongst youth, has been spurred by its injection into many an overseas exchange or study programme. In the face of this trend, there have been sincere calls for greater caution from international Volunteer Welfare Organisations (VWOs), as voluntourism can have negative effects on local communities.

Amongst concerns: volunteers may not be qualified in the job they are brought on-board to do; volunteers may be taking jobs away from locals; on a larger scale, paying to ‘experience’ helping a poorer community is a way of fetishising and capitalising on poverty while not actually helping to resolve it.

Poverty is not idyllic, nor scenic. It is harmful, and making money off of it seems somewhat dubious, at least in the eyes of this concerned citizen.

To understand how Singaporeans at large feel about voluntourism, independent research company Milieu Insight* surveyed over 2,500 people, weighted based on our online population.

40% of youth responded that they have volunteered overseas, while only 22% and 17% of Gen Y and X’ers have done so, indicating that overseas volunteering is most prevalent amongst Singaporean youth (aged 16-29) than it is amongst Gen Y (30-44) and Gen X (45 and above).

On the whole, Singaporeans feel that volunteering overseas is beneficial to local communities; 6%, however, feel that it could have a negative impact. One respondent argued that this is because “the locals will become too reliant on volunteers and external help.” Others said that “the organisations who offer these trips are building unnecessary barriers to volunteerism,” and such trips are “not very effective in the long run”.

Going It Solo

Of those who have volunteered overseas, only 1% felt they might have had a detrimental effect on local communities. The remainder thought they had an overall positive impact on the community they volunteered in.

One such person is Brandon Tan, a 21-year-old Singaporean who spent almost two months volunteering overseas. He signed up for a course to Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in the village of Hua Hin, Thailand. After a month, he earned his TEFL certification; after finding out through the internet that a school in Cambodia was looking for an English teacher, he decided to travel there to volunteer his services.

Many overseas volunteers choose to teach in local schools or orphanages (Image Credit: Yusril Ali at Unsplash)
For many Singaporeans, it may be the desire to travel that spurs them to take on this challenge. If financially able, 82% of those polled felt that they would like to go on a volunteering trip. 86% of respondents would go on such a trip if they were travelling with a group, like their religious association or club.

“The TEFL course gave me the opportunity to teach English in several public schools across a period of 4 weeks,” Brandon adds, and it was “more than adequate.”

Brandon explains that doing your research is important to find a reputable organisation that offers the course. But even with the certification, was he qualified enough to be an English teacher?

“The Thai teachers … most of their English is taught using ‘grammar translation method’, which basically means that it’s an English lesson taught in Thai. The students didn’t really have opportunities to converse in English,” Brandon explains.

Unlike other volunteering tasks, like building an orphanage or (ahem) painting the walls of a school, teaching English is something unique that Singaporean volunteers can offer to overseas communities, as our English-language education means that we are well-versed in conversing and writing in the language, something “Thai teachers are not very qualified in,” Brandon points out.

But would Thai teachers not then be displaced by the volunteers, taking jobs away from locals?

“It is possible that jobs are being taken away. Then again, then again, native English-speaking foreigners who have some sort of teaching qualification are far more qualified to teach English than the Thai teachers… Most [of whom] are really uncomfortable teaching it anyways. This benefits the students in the end.”

“However,” Brandon admits, “I can’t [speak] for the schools of other countries.”

While any foreign assistance, be it volunteerism or financial aid, is a complex issue, at least some foreign volunteers, like Brandon, have good intentions.

In my mind, however, voluntourism still conjures the image of clueless students rhapsodising about ‘local culture’ whilst residing in paid comfort and contributing little to the community.

What Do Singaporeans Think?

Concerningly, 63% of Singaporeans are open to volunteering as part of a tour or cruise package, indicating that they are either unaware or uncaring of the detriments of such a trip to the local population in need of succour.

Significantly, an age stratification emerges when it comes to self-sourced trips. 63% of youths are willing to find their own volunteering lobang, but only 53% of Gen Y and 44% of Gen X surveyees are willing to do so (For this question, respondents could choose whether they would book or self-organise a trip, or were open to both).

For older Singaporeans, there is an understandable preference for purchasing a voluntourism package, as they may not have the time or energy to plan their own trips.

The solution could lie, as ever, in friendship: Singaporeans of all ages would be more open to planning a group volunteering trip themselves. 63% more youth would plan the trip themselves if going as a group; 67% and 60% for Gen Y and X respectively.

Overall, 56% would consider booking a group volunteering trip with a vendor, but 68% would be fine with arranging it themselves. Commercial enterprises that offer volunteer opportunities run the gamut from somewhat benign (like the TEFL course Brandon attended) to the downright distasteful (paint a school, while staying on a cruise ship…).

Rather than book a commercial trip, Brandon stayed with a local teacher who had asked online for assistance in teaching English at a free village school he had set up. He felt that this was “an incredibly eye-opening experience”, and that he made an impact on the community.

“I found out that having a decent level of English could mean lifting a whole family out of poverty and into the middle class. For a village kid, being able to converse in English meant that they could move to the city to work in the lucrative, booming tourist industry either as a tour guide, or a tuk-tuk driver. English was an extremely valuable skill that a Cambodian could have to earn a decent income.”

There is no doubt that by teaching, Brandon helped that community. Still, doubts linger as to whether such brief volunteering stints can ever leave a lasting impact. However, remembering that the teacher requested volunteers, I opine that set against the background of commercial voluntourism, a USD$2bn industry, Brandon’s example is likely the most helpful an overseas volunteer can get.

Voluntourism is a growing industry, but is it really about helping anyone? (Image credit: Hoshino Ai on Unsplash)
What can we do?

Singaporeans have an increasing desire to help not only their own communities, but those in need beyond our shores as well. Commercial voluntourism may seem like a benign way to render assistance while enjoying ourselves, but it can often be a predatory business model that inflicts real harm upon communities and fails to do any real good. For example, if you build a well, it can create dependence within a local community, taking manual jobs away from skilled locals.

To any Singaporean who yearns to help the less fortunate of other nations, this writer has a far simpler suggestion: properly research local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and set aside a small monthly sum for donation to a reputable charity. It will help far more than painting a schoolhouse, once, on a cruise.

“I feel kind of uncomfortable with that,” says Brandon, when I ask what he thinks of cruise voluntourism.

“Making a volunteer session part of a cruise kind of takes away the authenticity of the whole thing. It’s not a holiday, or for you to have fun. You should be there because of a genuine desire to help the community, and any self-indulgent aims just pollute [the experience].”

“Then again, if the schools benefit in any kind of way … I have mixed opinions, but I wouldn’t do it anyway.”

If you want to travel, follow in Brandon’s footsteps: less volun-tourism, more volun-backpacking. Paying a million-dollar company for the ‘pleasure’ of helping in a town where you may not even be wanted is just demeaning; instead, look out for local NGOs that are calling for assistance. Beware, though, that you aren’t simply serving a branch of the human trafficking industry, as was the case in Nepal for many volunteers.

Well-researched monthly donations or thoroughly self-sourced volunteering are the difficult approaches but I would argue that if you can’t do good, at the very least, do no harm.

Don’t go voluntouring.

*Milieu Insight is an independent, Singapore-based online market research company that measures public opinion through a mobile survey app, leveraging high quality data to provide insights for everyone.

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