Commodified volunteer tourism and consumer culture : a case study from Cusco, Peru

Publication Type:
Thesis
Issue Date:
2016
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While conventional mass tourism has been criticised for negatively impacting the host community, volunteer tourism has traditionally been portrayed as an altruistic alternative which allows tourists to access a more authentic tourism experience by ‘giving back’ to the host community. This view has provided a platform which has seen volunteer tourism become increasingly popular and profitable over the last decade. This thesis employs a case study of a commercial volunteer tourism organisation in Cusco, Peru to investigate the commodification of volunteer tourism through a consumer culture perspective. This study uses a grounded theory approach and is based on 15 weeks of participant observation in Cusco and in-depth interviews with 33 volunteer tourists and three staff members from the case study organisation. Three key aspects of commodified volunteer tourism are explored, that is: the characteristics of commodified volunteer tourism, how volunteer tourists perceive commodified volunteer tourism, and how they consume it. Most of the volunteer tourists lived in guesthouses with other volunteer tourists; they volunteered for only a few hours each day and for much of the rest of the time behaved in a similar fashion to mainstream tourists. These findings suggest that, in many ways, the volunteer tourists were focused on the tourism or hedonistic aspects of the volunteer tourism experience rather than the volunteering or altruistic components. The early volunteer tourism literature promoted volunteering as a means for tourists to access a more authentic cultural exchange with the host community. In contrast, the volunteer tourists at the case study site largely remained within an enclave or ‘bubble’ which saw them operate in parallel to, but separate from, the host community. The commodification of volunteer tourism is associated with a shift towards a business model and a focus on the transactional nature of commercial volunteer tourism where volunteer tourists have become consumers who purchase a specific experience and therefore expect to ‘get what they paid for’. Consumer culture centralises the volunteer tourists’ sovereignty and can therefore lead to an increased emphasis on creating an experience which satisfies the wants of the volunteer tourists rather than meeting the needs of the host community. This thesis contributes to the body of knowledge in this field by exploring both the theoretical and practical implications of the changing nature of volunteer tourism within consumer culture, and what this means for the volunteer tourists, the volunteer tourism organisation, and the host community.
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