Alice in WWOOFerLand : exploring symbiotic worlds beyond tourism

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Willing Workers on Organic Farms’ (WWOOFing) emerged in the UK in the early 1970s as a means of supporting the organic farming movement and fostering knowledge about its practices, but since that time has steadily become closely entwined with practices of independent global travelling. Current membership is heavily dominated by long term budget travellers and very limited existing research has largely portrayed WWOOFing in terms of farm tourism or the differentiation of more general trends among experience seeking backpackers in search of more ‘authentic’, more intimate encounters with other cultures. While there is certainly utility in such approaches to comprehending WWOOFing, this study endeavours to situate WWOOFing in a more thorough exploration of perspectives or participants. Using surveys, interviews and participant observation of hosts and WWOOFers in Australia, a wide range of data is brought together and interpreted by means of a constructivist grounded theory approach to knowledge generation. The overall aim of this thesis is to understand what WWOOFing is about. By undertaking close analysis and interpretation of the perspectives of those involved, the subject of WWOOFing has been approached in conjunction with, rather than as a subset of the phenomenon of tourism in order to allow for the important perspective for some that WWOOFing is about transcending tourism: being based on interpersonal exchange and normative mechanisms of reciprocity, WWOOFing experiences are commonly perceived as characteristically different from those of ‘tourism’ experiences based upon fee-forservice forms of reciprocity. In terms of host-guest relations particularly, the structure of WWOOFing experiences and the primacy of ‘sincerity’ and ‘existential authenticity’ in WWOOFing encounters are shown to facilitate the creation and occupation of spaces that can directly generate mutually beneficial exchanges for all the selves involved, evoking MacCannell’s ideal ‘Neo-Nomads’ of tourism in the postmodern era, crossing cultural boundaries as welcome(d) “imaginative travellers”. This study finds that though WWOOFing is now largely the domain of ‘tourists’, it is also ultimately and paradoxically it’s ‘exact opposite’ which appears as a reflected, mirror image of it. WWOOFing has always operated ‘beyond the looking glass’, outside of tourism, while yet being attractive to tourists and opening up to them and embracing them as they seek a range of things, including for some, conscious ‘refuge’ from a touristic world. In exploring the ways in which WWOOFing acts to facilitate transcendence of ‘tourism’, and while acknowledging there is a degree of liminal amorphousness between tourism and non-tourism, this study contributes to an ontological reframing of tourism. In doing so, it brings into consideration novel insights into the relationship between power, authenticity and sustainability in the tourism context, with significant implications for understandings of ‘best practice’ sustainable tourism.
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