When eco-tourism first emerged as a buzzword in the 90s, this was universally accepted to be a good thing. Demand by affluent travellers for authentic first-hand experience of pristine jungles, mountains and beaches caused local communities to see their natural resources as a source of tourist income. They were incentivised to work harder to protect those resources. A range of new jobs that depended on conservation efforts were created.
At the outset of the millennium we are now seeing the rise of ‘voluntourism.’ Not dissimilar from eco-tourism in some ways, this is driven by demand by affluent travellers from the developed world looking for first-hand experience volunteering to alleviate poverty. The experience typically lasts between one day and four weeks, with tourists carrying out low-skilled work such as caregiving in orphanages or constructing temporary housing for displaced persons. As a result, providing experiences assisting highly visible people in need becomes a source of income.
It does not take an economist to recognise that market demand for ‘helping experiences’ creates perverse incentives. The most troubling of these is the phenomenon of ‘orphan demand.’