May 3, 2012
Volunteer tourism is on the rise but industry experts stress not enough is being done to combat ‘reverse culture shock’ in participants.
Reverse culture shock occurs when volunteers feel disoriented by their home country’s way of life after travelling overseas.
It occurs more often in travellers who volunteer as they are generally immersed in third world cultures.
According to to the International Eco-tourism Society, ‘voluntourism’ is one of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry.
A 2006 study by Tourism Research Marketing found about 1.6 million people a year volunteered overseas, 70 per cent of which were aged between 20 and 25 years.
Kirsten Holmes is a senior lecturer in Curtin University’s School of Management who has been researching volunteering.
Dr Holmes believes that providing a debrief for volunteers is essential.
Dr Holmes said international volunteering was a life-changing experience and that skills learned overseas could be put to good use back in Australia.
University of Western Australia student Danielle Keep, who has volunteered abroad, said that feeling guilty about your life at home was part and parcel of volunteering overseas.
She said volunteering really put things into perspective.
“It’s hard to deal with at times knowing we’re so lucky over here and knowing I could be volunteering right now but I’m not,” Ms Keep said.
She spent three weeks working in an orphanage in St Petersburg, Russia, with the International Economic and Commercial Sciences Students Association.
Ms Keep went through a rigorous interview schedule to be accepted but said she was not prepared for how life was going to be in Russia.
And once she got home she wanted the opportunity to volunteer more.
“It was really hard to leave the kids [in the orphanage],” Ms Keep said.
“They started crying and hugging us.
“They really appreciated [our work] and I definitely want to volunteer again.”
Curtin University student Rosie Norris volunteered in India for three months through World Education Program, a not-for-profit exchange group.
“India makes you rethink what you have,” Ms Norris said.
“I came back and everyone was like ‘what the hell happened to you?'”
“You come back with changed perceptions.”
Ms Norris has volunteered since returning to Perth but said she did not feel like it was enough after spending nine to five volunteering in India.
Dr Holmes said this was a common issue among volunteers from all over the globe.
“Organisations could provide [volunteers] with opportunities to meet with people that have been through similar experiences,” she said.
The Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the US Government, now does a close of service conference for volunteers at the end of their ‘tours of duty’.
The organisation also helps unite volunteers once they return to the US.
This is something Professor Holmes says could be implemented by all volunteer organisations to help volunteers deal with reverse culture shock.