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Volunteer tourism: 'the more expensive the less responsible' study concludes

Volunteer tourism organisations that offer the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible, research from Leeds Metropolitan University has revealed.

The study, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, led by Victoria Smith and Dr Xavier Font, suggests that price and responsibility display an inverse relationship when considering comparable volunteer tourism products, on a price-per-day basis. The product or content that communicated the least how it was responsible tended to be the most expensive. In the study, the researchers also suggest that volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously especially in marketing their programs to potential volunteers.

The researchers sampled UK volunteer tourism websites and analysed their use of responsibility and price in their marketing to potential volunteer tourists. The researchers developed a web content analysis tool to understand how responsibility in volunteer tourism is demonstrated, and rated and compared the organisations' content and price levels for comparable products.

Comparable products' prices were demonstrated to vary widely from £48 per day for the overall most responsible organisation to £110 per day for the least overall responsible organisation in the study. Using the results, the researchers introduced the concept of 'Responsibility Value' as a bond of quality. As volunteers' priority factor for choosing projects is price, if they focus on price per day comparisons this is good news for the more responsible organisations.

Volunteer tourism brings together international volunteering and tourism and is often promoted as a way to experience authenticity within alternative tourism and provide benefits to destinations, leading to expectations of a responsible tourism ethos.

Speaking about their findings, Dr Xavier Font, Reader at Leeds Metropolitan University, said: "It's not entirely unsurprising that the most responsible organisations price responsibly, as they are transparent about their cost structure and income. The less responsible organisations tend to hide the origin of their costs, which can also hide excessive profit margins".

"We found that companies choose to communicate not what are arguably the most important aspects of volunteer tourism but what is easiest and most attractive. Some organisations were good in responsible tourism policies and conservation projects but were poor in communicating issues such as responsibility in childcare and other projects requiring the most sensitivity."

Speaking about how the organisations choose to market themselves, independent consultant and lead author of the study, Victoria Smith, added: "The status of an organisation is no guarantee of responsible practice - it cannot be assumed that a charity automatically demonstrates responsible practice better, or for-profit commercial business demonstrates responsible practice less well. The credibility that being an ethical business can bring in this market is strong, so organisations like to portray themselves that way, but it cannot be assumed they actually are."

Offering recommendations to volunteer tourism organisations and potential volunteers, Victoria added: "Volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously. Just because a product is volunteer tourism, does not mean it has positive impacts. In fact, due to the community integration that they can offer, it can merely act to magnify mass tourism's negative impacts. These organisations have a responsibility to ensure their programmes have positive and not negative impacts and should offer financial transparency. It should not be sold like a holiday: this is affecting host communities' lives and livelihoods. This means proper needs assessments, appropriately recruited, matched and skilled volunteers working with locals, with clear objectives, sustainable programme management, reporting and lasting impact and respect.

"Online, volunteer tourism organisations must clearly demonstrate with evidence any claims they make, they must be transparent about their pricing structures and attribution and I urge them to review their web content regularly to ensure it is correctly communicating their level of responsibility, and is consistent across their web sites and congruent with their stated policies."

Speaking about the study, Gavin Bate at the AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) Sustainable Tourism Committee, said: "At long last, a hard-hitting study that provides empirical evidence of the link between the marketing of volunteer tourism products and the 'responsibility value' that this type of tourism demands. There is a wealth of anecdotal information on the internet, much of it highly emotive and few people would disagree with the moral imperative surrounding the concept of volunteering. But this study authored by Dr Xavier Font and Victoria Louise Smith has used market signalling theory to determine how responsible marketing is used by a selection of volunteer tourism companies; the findings are both surprising and worrying.

"The Association for Independent Tour Operators needs to send a clear message to both the industry and the public about the integrity of its members and this involves educating people at the decision-making level about the importance of responsible marketing and embedding sustainability into their products. Being open to progressive studies such as this, and adapting to an evolving world of sustainable tourism, is key to our future. We welcome the work of Xavier and Victoria and thank them both for highlighting such an important issue regarding a controversial subject."

Victoria Smith is an independent consultant specialising in online marketing, responsible and volunteer tourism, and a graduate from the MSc Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University. She has 20 years' tourism industry experience for big brands, specialist operators and volunteer tourism, with 15 years' experience in marketing and e-commerce development. Follow and contact Victoria @vickysmith on Twitter.

Dr Xavier Font is an expert in responsible tourism marketing, with extensive experience in industry and government training on all aspects of sustainable tourism production and consumption. He is the most published academic in the world in sustainable tourism certification, having consulted on this subject for UNEP, UNCTAD, UNWTO, IFC, EC, VisitEngland, Fáilte Ireland, WWF, the Chilean government and the Travel Foundation amongst others.

The full article can be viewed in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.

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