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Traveling Responsibly – Learning Trips Over Giving Trips?

This is a guest post from Daniela Papi of PEPY:


Our trips during our first few years at PEPY were all about service. We were enthusiastic about offering travelers a chance to give back to the places they visited, otherwise known as voluntourism. Tour participants taught classes at local schools, visited orphanages, and repaired educational buildings. Often times, the needs the travelers were filling were not the biggest needs for the projects we were partnering with but were instead the things they were able to physically contribute to. When our guests left, they, and we, would make comments like “I’m so glad we came here to help,” or “I am going to make all of my future travel about volunteering.” I used to smile on this comments, but now I realize we were breeding a backwards approach to responsible travel.

People, myself included, sometimes cringe at the word “tourist”. We spend time trying to distinguish ourselves from “the tourists”, trying to lay claim to a different type of travel attitude, which puts us in a class above the average traveler. There is a tricky problem with that. . . we ARE tourists! Whenever we are exploring a new place, no matter how responsibly or irresponsibly we do it, we are tourists by definition. Encouraging tourists to come to a place to “give” or to “teach” can in some ways be viewed as belittling all of the opportunities we have to learn as WE are ones entering a new place.  WE are the tourists.  So should we not take our cues for how to act and support the community from the people we learn from rather than bring in our preconceived notions of what a place needs? As responsible tourists, we need to learn about the places we visit, for only through educating ourselves can we understand how to act in a new culture, how to interpret the historical context of what we see, and how to give back to the places we visit.


A lot of voluntourism involves hands-on building projects. Most travelers are not skilled in technical skills, so tasks like painting are left to the travelers, and often times even with those tasks voluntourists create waste and inefficiencies as we did in many of our painting projects. This is a gray area for me since the boundary of ethical voluntourism decision making really falls with the funding. Are travelers paying for the experience? Do people in the community being “served” benefit financially from the travelers’ visit? Was the voluntourism project decided because of actual needs or because of the ease of integrating unskilled foreigners into the tasks? Where is the funding going? Let’s say the real needs at the school are teacher training and the tourists are bringing $3000 of support. Of that, perhaps $2800 is going to those real priorities which will improve education with the remaining $200 going towards the paint of the voluntourism project.  I still don’t think the system is efficient, but I think that is much better than the voluntourism projects I have seen where the tourists are paying a company abroad to come “help” a community, and the only money coming in is the $200 for the paint, which doesn’t really help that much at all!  As voluntourism operators who put these communities and partners on our websites as part of the marketing for our trips, we need to be honest with ourselves and make sure if those people and projects are making US money, they had better be providing REAL support for the communities being advertised.  Having seen many projects in action in Cambodia, I can tell you that many of them are not.

The most important lesson we learned at PEPY in the past five years: we have to learn before we can help. As a result, PEPY’s focus is now on edu-tourism.  From our experience, helping before we have learned can sometimes not be any help at all!

When people travel with PEPY nowadays, we remind them that they are not going to change the world in a week, or a month, of however long they are with us. In fact, the only thing in which we can really ensure change is ourselves. We can learn during our travels, go back into our real lives, and THEN we can change the world.  At PEPY, our goals are to change the way people give, travel, and live AFTER they are with us. We want to give them tools to ask the right questions, which will help them be responsible donors and identify the best NGO partners. We want to influence the way they travel in the future by helping them think about ways to keep their travel dollars in the countries they visit how their travel impacts these places. Maybe they will be so inspired during their trip that they will bike more, use less plastic, volunteer at a local library, serve as a liaison for refugees in their home country, study something new. . . LIVE differently. We can’t change the world in a week, but we sure can over a lifetime. Our past participants have already proven to us that any impacts we can have on our trips pale in comparison to the good they can go out into the world and ignite through changing their attitudes and actions due to their new insights.

By reminding our trip participants that the people, places, and projects we visit were here before they arrived and will be here long after they leave, they can understand WHY their trips are going to make a difference. All of our trips have a fundraising minimum in addition to the trip costs, and that funding helps our projects continue. Our guests realize that changes in attitudes and actions take time, and that giving things in a short term project is not going to bring the same successes as investing time in PEOPLE.


This is what we have learned at PEPY, and the reason we are changing from “voluntourism” to “educational adventures”. The changes we want to see in the world require an investment of time in people. We look to give people the skills, connections, and support to be great leaders and make the changes they want to see in their own lives and in the world.  This applies to our education programs in Cambodia as well as our tours.

People on our trips sometimes say “I want to support development in a developing country” or “I want to start a social venture, what should I do?” and I usually respond with this quote from Harold Whitman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes YOU come alive, and then go out and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

We can invest time in people to help them make the changes they want to see in themselves and in the world, and encourage them to go out and do the things they love.  I can think of nothing better for our future than having a world full of global citizens doing what they love to do.

Daniela Papi is the founder of PEPY, a hybrid organization based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. PEPY’s educational development arm works in teacher training, Khmer literacy, and leadership development programs. PEPY Tours offers responsible travelers a chance to visit Cambodia, meet local changemakers working to improve Cambodia’s future, and learn first-hand about the development issues facing the country today.  You can read more about the lessons Daniela and her team are learning by following her blog: Lessons I Learned.

photos courtesy of pepy tours

Is voluntourism compatible with edu-venture? If yes, how?  If no, why not? Tell us what you think.

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  • Alexia Nestora said:

    Love this post Daniela! Really breaks everything out clearly and without the classic sugar that is dripped all over voluntourism brochures. Voluntourists are in fact never going to ‘change the world on vacation’, like one of the big volunteer companies shouted for years on their website, but if when they return home they remain committed to community development and help through donations and fundraising then we, as a voluntourism ‘industry’ have succeeded.

    This is my favorite quote by far that you made:

    “Was the voluntourism project decided because of actual needs or because of the ease of integrating unskilled foreigners into the tasks?”

    Can we please paste this all over the internet??? I would love it if every volunteer company out there asked themselves this exact question for each of the trips they offer – I think then we would rapidly start becoming a more responsible industry.

  • jessiev said:

    LOVE this article. i am so impressed with the dedication and efforts that PEPY has made.

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