Development Tourism II: … still thinking…

3 Jul

Still mulling the development tourism thing. Just a few more thoughts to get out there:

Definitions of terms, further taxonomy. Mulling further the previous definition of “development tourism”, I’m feeling the need to think separately and differently about some of the actors and types of activities that might be subsumed within that somewhat broad definition. At the moment, I see three types:

1) Socially conscious enterprises: These businesses do two specific things. First, they build local capacity in some way, preserve local or traditional culture, and/or enable a local social service of some kind. Second, they tend to target foreigners, often tourists. The extent to which these enterprises are, in fact, socially conscious can range from simply offering fair compensation to local staff (already a huge contribution in some settings), to being almost full-on self-funded development programs in their own right. There is usually a primary enterprise (a restaurant is the most common), often with peripheral services (cultural shows, cooking classes for foreigners…).

Something to consider about socially-conscious enterprise: it can be very difficult to verify the development claims made by the entrepreneur(s). Because they’re typically licensed and set up locally as for-profit businesses, rather than NGOs, and because they’re not typically funded by external donors there is no legal or industry pressure for transparency. Accountability can be a concern.

If development tourism can be compared to eco-tourism, I’d see patronizing socially conscious enterprises as the rough equivalent of “buying green.” The cultural exchange and/or education about development dimension of socially conscious enterprise largely secondary to the primary purpose (make money off of the foreigners, help the employees), and so is frequently accidental.

Examples of what I would consider socially conscious enterprise include:

  • “Know One, Teach One” (KOTO) (, a restaurant in Hanoi;
  • “Seeing Hands” (several locations in Cambodia. I couldn’t find a direct website – they’re listed in Lonely Planet) is traditional massage service, where massage is done by blind people;
  • “Barefoot” (, an upscale handicraft store in Colombo, where most everything is made by hand via traditional craft techniques.

2) Socially conscious tourism. Travel services and tours specifically meant to expose participants to local culture and/or development issues. The range of possibility here is huge and runs from those horrible group tours where the bus or convoy of landcruisers rolls up in a cloud of dust and the guide forks over cash while tourists video the Akah or the Qechua or the Nuer doing a tribal dance, just before whisking off to an air-conditioned craft/coffee shop; to highly regimented “voluntourism” tours that include required reading about the local language and/or culture every evening. I’d include actual study tours in this category.

In socially conscious tourism cultural exchange and/or learning happens intentionally. Tourists specifically choose this option over something else.

The challenge with socially conscious tourism is similar to that of socially conscious enterprise. It can be hard to gain a clear sense of how valid claims of benefit back to the communities are. The same kinds of accountability and transparency concerns apply. An additional concern with some kinds of socially conscious tourism is that they either promote or allow the tourists to feel as if they have somehow personally contributed directly to some tangible improvement in a community or in the life of one beneficiary.

Those concerns having been voiced, I actually see socially conscious tourism as having the most potential for good in the context of the development tourism discussion. What I personally think needs to happen more is for those companies that run development tours or voluntours to collaborate with existing, credible NGOs or INGOs, rather than to themselves try to run some kind of development program and also run tours.

I’d see the natural tension between NGO that wants to protect “it’s” beneficiaries and program, and a tour company that wants to sell tickets as necessary and beneficial to the interests of both.

3) NGO-led tours to development projects or relief zones. Although I certainly welcome comments, perhaps particularly from those who see it differently, this one feels the most problematic to me. In this definition I’m specifically excluding visits hosted by NGOs for their key constituents: donor reps, CEOs, board members. I am talking about NGOs that take non-aid workers with no specific connection to the organization or project out to the field. Frequently they commit what I consider the aid-work unpardonable sin of involving those non-aid-workers in the implementation of development projects, usually by conferring the title of “volunteer”,  even though the person has no skill or experience relevant to the project.

The biggest problem that I’ve personally witnessed with this model is that NGOs who do it, go to all sorts of logical and ethical lengths to justify it. Again, I’m willing to hear other views, but by and large my opinion is that NGOs stick to relief and development, and let tour operators operate tours.

More soon with my thoughts on volunteerism. In the meantime, check out Saundra’s minutes-old post on the subject over at Good Intentions…

3 Responses to “Development Tourism II: … still thinking…”

  1. Saundra 6 July, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    I think you’ve done a fairly good job of explaining the three types of tourism. I would advise any aid agency to approach the first two with caution and avoid the third type altogether.

    I agree that it is difficult to know just how much the projects really do aid the local people. I’ve seen handicraft “training programs” where the people work on the handicraft in front of the visitors and are theoritically learning how to set up a business on their own, but in reality remain working below normal wages for an organization catering to tourists wanting to support a livelihoods program. It is difficult for the average person to know what’s actually happening.

    For socially conscious tourism I’ve see the problem where the project is developed in such a way that it falls apart if the westerner staff leave. When this happens the people it is meant to help can be left in worse shape then when they began because they will have invested in buildings or supplies that meet the needs of westerners, which are of no use if the project falls apart. Part of socially conscious tourism needs to be intense mentoring of local people to be able to step in an fill most if not all positions held by foreigners, so that the project is sustainable on its own.

    Thanks for trying to pin down definitions with examples.

  2. Amanda Koster 7 July, 2009 at 9:49 am #

    Great article and distinctions. Regarding “am talking about NGOs that take non-aid workers with no specific connection to the organization or project out to the field, ” you may like what we are up to.

    SalaamGarage is a citizen journalism organization that partners with International NGOs and local non-profits. Participants (amateur and professional photographers, writers, videographers, etc.) connect with international NGOs, create and share independent media projects that raise awareness and cause positive change in their online and offline social communities.

    We are the media now. Join us.


  1. but what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game « Tales From the Hood - 5 October, 2009

    […] my (apparently controversial) thinking on development tourism and volunteering (see here, here, and here, if you missed the conversation earlier). Which is to say that while there is probably some good in […]

Pearls of wisdom

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: