This blogpost is a brief summary of Stephen Wearing et al’s research paper, ‘Engaging volunteer tourism in post-disaster recovery in Nepal,’ published in the Annals of Tourism Research journal. The paper provides an initial exploratory understanding of how post disaster volunteer tourism can be effective by studying the post-disaster tourism recovery planning which occurred after the 2015 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks in Nepal.
Tourism was an economically significant industry in Nepal. According to the Nepal Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation, tourism represented 4% of Nepal’s GDP and directly contributed 500,000 jobs to the Nepalese economy in 2014. It was also forecasted that by 2025 tourism’s contribution to Nepal’s economy would reach 5% of the country’s GDP and international tourism arrivals would exceed 1.4 million.
The prospect for tourism growth to Nepal came to a sudden halt, however, as Gorkha earthquake struck the country on April 25, 2015. The quake and its subsequent aftershocks caused severe damage to buildings and infrastructure in much of central Nepal, resulting in over 9,000 deaths and 23,000 injured. Four months after the quake, international tourism arrivals to Nepal fell by 55.59%.
Surprisingly in 2016, Nepal’s tourism achieved a significant recovery of international tourist arrivals. During 2017-2018, tourism arrivals continued to soar to an all-time record level of over one million tourists. Much of this recovery was led by a significant growth of the participation in volunteer tourism.
What is volunteer tourism?
Volunteer tourism is a type of tourism where an individual travels to a destination that is predominantly considered ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ to offer their support to those in need. The aim of volunteer tourism is to create positive impacts for host communities and develop a mutually beneficial relationship between the volunteer tourists, volunteer tour operators and the host community.
After the earthquake, the Nepalese tourism industry was anxious to proceed with a tourism recovery programme. One of the challenges they faced in developing a coherent national tourism recovery strategy was the fragmented nature of Nepal’s tourism industry and the fact that the Nepal Tourism Board was poorly funded and subject to frequent personnel changes at both ministerial and senior administrative levels.
Although a number of Nepalese tourism associations advanced post-earthquake recovery strategies for specific sectors of the tourism industry, the strategy which gained the broadest acceptance at both government and private sector levels was PATA’s Nepal Rapid Recovery Task Force.
The reason why PATA’s recovery strategy gained much acceptance was because the association was a well-respected transnational tourism organisation in Nepal with a large number of Chapter memberships including the Nepal Tourism Board as a PATA member and most of the top 50 private sector companies in Nepalese tourism. It was thus perceived as more objective, independent and as a consequence more legitimate than a report produced by one of Nepal’s many national tourism associates.
Volunteer Tourism in the Strategic Implementation Stage
Volunteer tourism was a significant element in the PATA recovery track. The primary focus of PATA’s Nepal recovery strategy was the development of marketing strategies to facilitate tourism recovery through effective social media and traditional media communications, targeting and prioritising a number of potential growth market sectors, one of which was volunteer tourism.
Immediately after the 2015 earthquake, very few tourists, especially those with professional and trade skills, remained in Nepal. Some of these tourists were readily absorbed into Nepal’s extensive volunteer tourism infrastructure. The types of essential assistance given by volunteers included reconstruction and medical rehabilitation; UN Volunteers (2016) mobilised 107 volunteers in Nepal to assist with structural assessments of buildings and the clearing of debris. This responded to the Nepalese government’s call for assistance in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
Nevertheless, in 2015 and 2016, Nepal hosted three global celebrities – Susan Sarandon, Jackie Chan, and Prince Harry. This was an integral element in PATA’s Nepal recovery strategy that raised the profile and popular appeal of volunteer tourism in Nepal. Meanwhile, tour operators and tracking programs also include volunteer components in their program in response to increasing consumer demand for this form of engagement with Nepalese communities.
Volunteer Tourism’s Ethical Issues
While it is clear that volunteer tourism played a major role in the rapid recovery of Nepal after the earthquake, the significant involvement of volunteer tourism in Nepal faced a range of ethical challenges. In many cases, the needs of the tourist customer took precedence over the needs of the community in which volunteering takes place. There was also the concept of Dark Tourism, tourism that involves people who are attracted to visit a destination to view the site of a current or past disaster.
In order to avoid perpetuating neocolonial stereotypes of volunteer tourism and promote ethical post-recovery volunteer tourism, three significant stakeholders need to be acknowledged: the volunteer tourists, volunteer organisations and the host community. The ethical guidelines for volunteer tourism should also be implemented. In their ethical travel guide for volunteers, Tourism Concern (2016), a non-governmental organisation based in the United Kingdom advocating ethical tourism, included some critical points for volunteer tourism:
- Understand the value and objectives of the chosen organisation and establish where they are compatible with you as a volunteer.
- How do they work with the community?
- Do they work in collaboration with a local partner organisation?
- What is the nature of the volunteer work being undertaken?
- What pre-departure training will be provided and how much training and support for volunteers will be available on site?
This paper offers a social science perspective through the exploration of a topical social phenomenon – volunteer tourism. This phenomenon is presented in the context of a developing country’s tourism industry response to a crisis. Various stakeholder perspectives are considered as they engage in Nepal’s recovery following the Ghorka earthquake of April 2015. As this paper demonstrates, volunteer tourism has played a central role in the overall recovery of Nepal’s tourism since 2015, and when done in an ethical manner which is considerate of the local conditions and community, volunteer tourism can aid a destination in the recovery process and enhance destination resilience.