Voluntourism: A Guide to Being an Ethical Traveler

We asked Bryan Goldfinger, buildOn’s Country Director in Nicaragua, to reflect on his experience living in Latin America and come up with an insider’s guide for travelers who want to be good ambassadors while staying in developing countries.

Striving to be an ethical traveler can mean a million different things to different people. The beautiful thing about travel, tourism, or voluntourism, is that you are stepping outside of your comfort zone and putting yourself in places and situations you never experienced before. For that same reason, it’s wise to educate yourself on the customs and cultures of the places where you’re headed so you don’t end up with your foot in your mouth or worse.

Here are a few tips you can keep in mind to maximize the positive impact of your travels and, hopefully, avoid any unnecessary awkwardness or offenses.

1. Slow down! Everything runs on a different time scale, particularly in Latin American culture; in this case, a much slower one. Not taking the time to sip a cup of coffee or a fruit drink with someone can come across as rude or unfriendly. When making your plans, always leave a healthy time buffer to compensate for the likelihood that very few tasks will actually go as planned, and many will take significantly longer than you expect. This way you don’t get stressed that you’re falling behind schedule, and people don’t think you are brushing them off because you’re in a rush. Aside from not offending people and helping to maintain your sanity, slowing down your pace leads to a much better and enlightening travel experience.

2. Negotiate tactfully. For better or worse, the vast majority of price tags in Latin America are negotiable. As a tourist, it is likely that you will pay a premium. With that in mind, it is okay to negotiate if you want to. However, cutthroat negotiations over the equivalent of a few cents for a taxi or a bag of fruit at the market are unnecessary and leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouth. At the end of the day, if both you and the vendor are happy with the price you pay, consider it a success. Don’t sweat the fact that maybe you are paying slightly more than the local who is behind you in line.

3. Know where you are. The difference between life in the big city and in rural communities is vast. Take a large portion of your expectations from the city and throw them out the window. Other characteristics from the cities are magnified in rural villages (i.e. just when you thought you had successfully slowed down your time scale to match that of the Latin American city, you’ll be surprised at how much slower life is in the rural areas). Actions that you might not think twice about in the city, like pulling out your iPhone and typing away, could be viewed as you flaunting your wealth. Lastly, people in rural communities tend to have completely different mannerisms and styles of communication. A demeanor that might be considered direct and frank in the city could be interpreted as overbearing or demanding in a rural setting. Be aware of how people around you act and react.

4. Consider the long-term. Understanding the long- term effects of your actions is essential, and often times harder than you might think. One of the most common examples of this is children begging for money. You may want to help these poor, cute children. And in the scheme of things, a few dollars is worth a lot more to that child than to you. However, these children are usually on the streets begging because their parents are forcing them into it, and are using the money to support a drug or alcohol habit. By giving money to the child you are ultimately supporting the bad habits of the parents, leading to a long-term negative effect. But if sending their child to beg for money is not a profitable endeavor, then sending them to school to get an education will be a more attractive option.

5. Know your role and your goal. Voluntourism is a growing phenomenon. Not only do people wish to travel, but they want to have a lasting and positive impact in the areas they get to experience. Organizations in both developing and developed countries could benefit from a volunteer or donor who wants to lend a hand, and they are usually more than welcome to help. But it is important to know what you want to accomplish through volunteering and to recognize where you can help and where you may be a hindrance. In order to prevent a disappointing experience for both yourself and for the organization you want to work with, it is helpful to do some research, be very clear and direct in any interviews, and make sure you know exactly what you are getting into. At the end of the day, being honest with yourself and with others about your abilities, goals, wants and needs will greatly increase the possibility of a good experience.