48 VOLUNTEERS AND TOURISM – Contributions by Kirsten Holmes

My contributions to tourism research have been primarily about giving a voice to the enormous number of volunteers who are involved in tourism globally. I have more recently worked in the events and festivals space, examining event sustainability, event life cycles and event legacies. However, my work on volunteering within tourism dates to my Masters’ thesis, when I documented how a group of volunteers worked with the local council to turn a landmark – Shirley Windmill (https://www.shirleywindmill.org.uk/) near London in the UK – into a tourism attraction. I have had a soft spot for windmills ever since but my passion is about giving a voice to volunteers.

Why is volunteering within tourism important?

The tourism sector involves a wide range of individuals and groups as volunteers. I am including volunteer tourism here as a sub-sector but not a focus. Volunteer tourism – since being delineated by Stephen Wearing (2001) – has become a very popular topic for researchers but unfortunately most of these studies research are siloed within tourism studies. There is a substantial body of ‘volunteer tourism’ research within the not for profit literature more broadly. A key distinction is that outside of tourism, the focus is on international volunteers – people who travel to volunteer, but are not primarily tourists. These are typically longer term volunteers involved in development projects and are often skilled (Devereux & Holmes, 2018). This contrasts with the shorter term, unskilled volunteer tourism packages that are targeted at a typically young market (Holmes, 2014a).

The role of volunteers in providing tourism experiences for others rarely receives attention from researchers. Perhaps this is because these people often get involved in volunteer activities as an extension of their work and are therefore not perceived as volunteers either by themselves or others? Within this category we can include all of the unpaid board members of tourism associations and enterprises. These volunteers are typically people either working in tourism already or who are keen to promote their home town. They organise membership associations for tourism businesses; they establish networks to support each other in their careers, such as the Women in Tourism network; they establish new, communal business opportunities such as farmers markets. In regional areas, must tourism activity relies on these individuals and their groups. As such it is surprising how little research attention is given to these individuals (Alonso & Liu, 2013).

The other category of volunteers are those who directly interact with tourists through meet and greet programs, as tour guides, campground hosts or emergency services within the destination. These are operational volunteers. My work with colleagues Karen Smith and Leonie Lockstone-Binney among others has highlighted the wide range of operational activities that involve volunteers. We can divide these into destination services, attractions, and events and festivals. Destination services is the most diverse and least researched category and includes:

  • Destination associations
  • Visitor information centres, which are often entirely voluntary;
  • Meet and greet programs at major transport hubs including airports, ports and train stations;
  • Destination tour guides;
  • Campground hosts, which are popular in Australia and the US, where volunteers run campgrounds in national parks.
  • Emergency and rescue services.

Many attractions are entirely volunteer-run or were established with volunteers only and have more recently employed paid staff. Attractions can be any attraction such as:

  • Aquaria and zoos;
  • Art galleries, museums and science centres;
  • National parks;
  • Other heritage attractions including steam railways and windmills.

Events and festivals involve large numbers of volunteers and again are often entirely volunteer-run. These can range from small community festivals through to mega-events such as the Olympic Games with thousands of volunteers. There have been many studies about event volunteers, especially focusing on motivation and related variables (Smith et al., 2014).

The final category of tourism volunteers are, of course, volunteer tourists. People who chose to travel to volunteer for a range of motives, which most typically include personal development and the chance to do something worthwhile with their leisure holiday (Holmes, 2014a). This is by far the most researched form of tourism volunteering with the focus of previous studies examining the volunteers themselves and the nature of the phenomenon.

It is clear from this overview that the tourism sector is heavily dependent on volunteers at a range of levels. Some of the services provided by volunteers are not specific to tourism, such as surf life-saving and mountain rescue, but tourists and tourism businesses both benefit from a safer destination.

What do we know about tourism volunteering?  

Most research on volunteering more widely is about volunteer motivation. Why do people do activities that benefit others for free? This has fascinated researchers from a wide range of disciplines, particularly economics, management, psychology and sociology (Lockstone-Binney et al, 2010). The general conclusion from this broad body of literature is that volunteer motivation is complex and different people are motivated by different factors. Motivation is often examined on a spectrum between altruism and instrumentalism, with instrumental motives included volunteering to enhance one’s resume. Tourism volunteering would typically fall somewhere in the middle. Most people volunteer in a tourism context because they enjoy (or hope to enjoy) the actual activity. Other key motives include pride in their home town and the social connections with other volunteers who have shared interests. Some volunteer programs have long waiting lists – such as Perth Zoo (Holmes & Smith, 2009) and high demands from their volunteers in terms of training programs and out of pocket expenses. Perth Zoo docents program, for example, requires new volunteers to undertake a rigorous training program about the zoo and its animals and to pay for their uniform. This will prepare them for a role where they will mostly be answering visitors’ queries about the nearest toilets.

While good practice in volunteer management recommends that volunteers are not left out of pocket, for example with travel costs, tourism volunteer programs rarely refund expenses. The benefits for volunteers are mostly intangible – the joy and prestige of volunteering where they do, the opportunities to meet people from all over the world and form social bonds with other volunteers, and pride in their home town (Holmes, 2014b).

We do know a lot about mega-event volunteering, which has been a popular topic within tourism studies and we probably do not need any more quantitative scale studies on the motivation of Olympic volunteers – though see below about cultural differences. There has been less research on smaller events though, which are often key drivers of tourism within a community and fewer studies examining the different ways in which event volunteer programs operate (Lockstone-Binney et al, 2015). Large events such as the Olympics use what is called the program management approach, which is a top down, functional model for a volunteer program that largely replicates human resource management practices for paid staff (Meijs & Karr, 2003). While this is an efficient way of establishing a largescale temporary volunteer program, there are many drawbacks with this approach for the volunteers (Holmes et al., 2018). For example, each volunteer is treated as an individual when they may wish to apply to volunteer with a friend or family member. There are several alternative models (Lockstone-Binney et al., 2018) but most papers on event volunteering do not consider these, even when they are investigating variables related to volunteer management such as motivation and satisfaction.

We also know that volunteering is culturally specific. Rochester et al (2010) argues that volunteering can be conceptualised in three ways: unpaid work, civil action, and serious leisure. In Anglo countries, where I have conducted most of my research, it is typically viewed as unpaid work. Given that the value of a job is often based on the person’s salary, this means that volunteering and volunteers are frequently undervalued. While they are unpaid, volunteers need their contribution to be well-organised and managed. Stebbins (1996) concept of serious leisure is very relevant to tourism volunteering. Most of these activities take place in wonderful locations, often doing fun activities (Holmes, 2014). The role primarily involves helping to create the leisure experiences of others. Serious leisure provides an understanding of how some work-like activities such as volunteering can be leisure-like for the participants. However, the concept acknowledges that volunteering can be hard work and place obligations and demands upon the volunteer such as the need to learn about the destination for tour guides or a difficult rescue for a surf life-saver.

Most research on volunteering in tourism has been conducted within Anglo countries or with Anglo cohorts of volunteer tourists. We are starting to see some insightful studies emerging from other countries and cultures, for example some recent papers on volunteering in China (for example, Qi et al., 2018), which is very different from the Anglo experience. These differences are also evident in research on mega-events. The Olympic volunteer programs in Beijing, Sochi and Pyeongyang relied primarily on younger, student volunteers either as a deliberate strategy or as a reflection of the volunteer culture in that country (Qi et al., 2018). This is significantly different from European and Anglo countries, where the Olympic volunteer programs attract a wide range of demographics (Dickson et al., 2014) and has implications for the organisation and management of these huge programs.

What do we still need to know?

The statistics and data on tourism volunteering are patchy. While volunteer tourism and mega-event volunteering have been widely studied there still remain key questions. It is hard, for example, to track trends in volunteer tourism due to the predominance of small-scale qualitative studies. In contrast, event volunteer studies are mostly quantitative – surveys of. Beyond a handful of studies, we know little about the networks of volunteers within destinations. Both in-depth, destination level studies and macro level overviews of the national or international phenomena are missing.

Given the enormity of what volunteers do to create and support tourism, why has there been so little research on this topic? The net-cost perception of volunteering helps shed light on this. The net-cost perception of volunteering was developed by administering a survey instrument across six countries to compare respondents’ ideas of what constitutes volunteering. There was general agreement on what activities could be classified as volunteering and that the greater the perceived cost to the volunteer, the more like volunteering it was perceived to be. This means that where the volunteer benefits from their activities, either because it helps their business or because they actually enjoy the activity, it is considered to be less like volunteering. The net-cost perception contrasts with the rise in reflexive volunteering (Hustinx and Lammertyn, 2004), whereby volunteering has become much more individualised and individuals seek specific volunteer roles that will meet their needs.

In not-for-profit studies researchers have been documenting a shift in volunteer participation towards these more reflexive forms. We have also seen a rise in newer ways of volunteering such as online, informal and episodic forms (Haski-Leventhal et al., 2020). These trends pose challenges to many tourism businesses and services, which rely on volunteers in face to face service roles. There is also a long term decline in volunteer participation generally across most Anglo countries. It is a testing time for volunteer-involving organisations as they grapple with these challenges but full of opportunities for researchers in this field.


Written by Kirsten Holmes, Curtin University, Australia
Read Kirsten’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


Alonso, A. & Liu, Yi. (2013). Local community, volunteering and tourism development: the case of the Blackwood River Valley, Western Australia. Current Issues in Tourism, 16(1), 47-62.

Devereux, P. & Holmes, K. (2018). Voluntourism and the SDGs. In Liburd, J.J. & Edwards, D. (Eds.). Collaborations for Sustainable Tourism Development. Oxford, UK: Goodfellow Publishers (pp. 93-111).

Dickson, T., Benson, A., & Terwiel, A. (2014). Mega-event volunteers, similar or different? Vancouver 2010 vs London 2012. International Journal of Event and Festival Management, 5(2), 164-179.

Haski-Leventhal, D., Alony, I., Lockstone-Binney, L. Holmes, K., Meijs, L. & Oppenheimer, M. (2020). Online volunteering at DigiVol: An innovative crowd-sourcing approach for heritage tourism artefacts preservation. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 15(1), 14-26.

Holmes, K., Nichols, G. & Ralston, R. (2018). ‘It’s a once in a lifetime experience and opportunity-deal with it’: volunteer perceptions of the management of the volunteer experience at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Event Management, 22(3), 389-403.

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Rochester, C., Ellis Paine, A. & Howlett, S. (2010). Volunteering and society in the 21st century. Baskingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, K., Baum, T., Holmes, K. & Lockstone-Binney, L. (2014). Introduction to event volunteering. In Lockstone-Binney, L., Holmes, K., Smith, K.A. & Baum, T. (Eds). Event volunteering: International perspectives on the event volunteering experience. London: Routledge. (pp1-15).

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Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: Experiences that make a difference. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.


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