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Introduction to reviewed volunteering criteria with focus on wildlife interaction and vulnerable people

A multitude of non-profit organisations and community-based organisations engaged in non-tourism fields as their core business (ie: conservation, childcare and community development) also work with volunteers to supplement their resources and capacity. As a result, this sector offers tremendous potential to positively impact destinations and communities around the world.

In 2009 Fair Trade Tourism reviewed its certification standard to include additional criteria for tourism products with volunteer offerings – the first attempt by any certification scheme globally to do so. Since then, we have seen a huge upsurge in both the supply and demand for volunteer products in Africa, many of them focused on so-called conservation or orphanage programmes.

Concerned about the lack of checks and balances within the burgeoning “voluntourism” market, a growing number of NGOs started expressing concern about malpractices which were especially evident in programmes dealing with vulnerable children, often dubbed “orphanage tourism”, as well as those dealing with captive wildlife.

The release of the hard-hitting documentary film “Blood Lions” in 2016 and its accompanying global campaign against predator-breeding centres exposed the fraudulent practices around volunteer experiences with captive lions and other predators. Such campaigns have highlighted the fact that in many instances so-called conservation projects can be actually detrimental to wildlife conservation and animal welfare.

Fair Trade Tourism is not an advocacy organisation, nor does it have specific expertise around wildlife conservation and child welfare issues. Our revised criteria were therefore not introduced to advocate for animal welfare or take an ethical position against volunteering with children. However, as an organisation that represents best-practice responsible tourism, it is our role and our interest to promote ethical, authentic, and transparently marketed volunteer experiences.

Responsible voluntourism programmes should at the very least benefit host communities and have positive social, economic and environmental impacts. Sadly, at present many voluntourism experiences are actually detrimental to the children or animals they proclaim to be helping – as is the case with orphanage or lion-cub petting programmes.

We are committed to help ensure that African tourism attains the dignified market position and positive image in the world that it deserves. Indeed, we believe that it is Fair Trade Tourism’s responsibility to positively contribute to an image of Africa that is not tarnished by fabricated experiences for volunteers and other tourists, which is detrimental to or exploitative of vulnerable people or animals.

Our aim is to encourage young travellers, who are the most significant demographic group to be attracted by commoditised interactions like orphanage tourism or lion cub petting, to instead seek meaningful cultural interaction and engagement with nature.

Fair Trade Tourism’s revised certification criteria were informed by a range of expert sources including, amongst others, Better Volunteering, Tourism Watch, UNICEF, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Wildlife Act, the Convention on Biodiversity, and the Association of British Travel Agents’ Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism. A number of Southern African volunteer organisations also gave their input.

The revised Fair Trade Tourism criteria, effective from June 1 2016, will not allow for any physical interaction by tourists or volunteers with a range of captive animals, including all large and medium sized carnivores, big cats, elephants, rhinos, large apes, hippos, ostrich, crocodiles and venomous snakes.

The new criteria will also not allow for tourists or volunteers to interact with any child or vulnerable person to unless this takes place under continuous, qualified adult supervision.

Given the growing body of evidence from orphanages that interaction with casual visitors can be deeply psychologically damaging, Fair Trade Tourism will not certify any volunteer experience based on full-time work inside orphanages.

Fair Trade Tourism wishes to thank the stakeholders who aided in the consultation process leading up to formulation of its new criteria. Volunteer organisations and wildlife sanctuaries who strive for best-practice in their operations are invited to apply for certification from June 1 2016.

For more information

Useful web links

Please contact Manuel Bollman (manuel@fairtrade.travel) for more information
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