Not That Alternative: Short-term Volunteer Tourism at an Organic Farming Project in Costa Rica

  • Kate J. Zavitz
  • David Butz Department of Geography, Brock University
Keywords: interview-based research, participant observation, international volunteering, transformative learning, tourism


Drawing on interview-based research with seven young Canadian women who volunteered briefly at an organic farming project in Costa Rica, supplemented by participant observation with a larger group of volunteers and conversations with local people and the farm’s owners, this paper offers an empirically grounded critique of short-term international volunteering. It demonstrates that, despite the claims of the voluntourism industry and the hopeful rhetoric of much academic literature, international volunteering does not reliably yield discernable material contributions to social development or environmental sustainability in ‘host communities’, meaningful trans-cultural understanding between locals and volunteers, or, in the short-term at least, transformative reflexive self-development among volunteers. Nor in the case under examination did it “challenge the very foundations of contemporary tourism and capitalist globalisation” (Higgins-Desboilles and Russell-Mundine, 2008, 186). Rather, “volunteerism” was almost entirely subordinated to “tourism” as a framework for imagining, understanding, coordinating, and performing Northern selves in the context of participants’ trips to Costa Rica. The paper traces five main dimensions of this ‘transformative failure’: (a) the hierarchical binary between Northern subject and Southern object on which discourses of international volunteering depend, (b) short-term volunteering’s reliance on a tourism infrastructure, (c) the farm’s specific characteristics as a volunteering project, (d) the short duration of participants’ volunteering stint, and (e) the behavioural outcomes of volunteers’ consequent disillusionment with their experience over the course of the trip.
How to Cite
Zavitz, K., & Butz, D. (1). Not That Alternative: Short-term Volunteer Tourism at an Organic Farming Project in Costa Rica. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 10(3), 412-441. Retrieved from