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In-depth Investigation: The Inside Story of “International Volunteers” in Bali

Author: Wei Yi, Tengyao Zeng from China House

Translated by Dan Gan, Yifei Zhu

  • Introduction

Around 2015, a number of travel agencies that offer people an opportunity to be international volunteers sprung up in China, sending Chinese to overseas to protect animals or do voluntary teaching. These “international volunteers” were then hailed as saviors and ambassadors of justice, carrying out a mission to the third world countries; but after that, somehow, they fell from the throne and were blamed as hypocritical “fake volunteers but real tourists”. They build their auto-affection on others’ poverty. 

In that way, what is the truth about these international volunteers? 

Our research team went to Bali, one of the most popular destinations for international volunteer travel, visited the “work base” of the volunteers, such as Turtle Conservation Base, orphanages, schools, etc., and interviewed the volunteers who participated in different types of projects. We also got the opinions from government officials, scholars, NGOs and industry insiders, managing to understand the current situation, problems and opportunities of Chinese international volunteer travel to Bali.

Penny, a white-collar worker, is one of the volunteers from Bali project. She told me secretly: “This project is not what you expect.”

She took one more day off on the basis of National Day holiday, and spent nearly ¥3000 to join the “Bali turtle conservation international volunteers” project by a domestic volunteer travel company. Even though she fought with her family many times about this adventure, Penny still endeavored to make her own way to Bali.

At the beginning, she expected to do many meaningful stuff and gain an unforgettable experience. However, after arrived at Bali, she found the project was completely different from what she had expected.

In the one-week project, a group of Chinese volunteers only came to the sea Turtle Conservation Base to “work” every morning. The “morning” refers to about two hours of doing “trivial things that can be done in 30 minutes”: cleaning the pool, cutting up food for feeding baby turtles, and picking up garbage on the beach.

[Figure 1] Chinese volunteers at the Turtle Conservation Base TCEC — chopping up the food and feeding the baby turtles

Figure 2: Chinese volunteers in Turtle Conservation Base TCEC — a certificate from domestic volunteer travel agency

[Figure 3] Chinese volunteers in the Turtle Conservation Base TCEC — a participation certificate from a volunteer who traveled to Bali Island
  • Chinese volunteers across Bali

With the drastic reduction in the threshold of outbound tourism and the continuous increase in national income, Chinese tourists flock all over the world. According to data from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the number of outbound tourists of Chinese citizens was nearly 150 million in 2018. Indonesia rank the top five destination countries that are most popular with Chinese tourists, and Bali has the most attractive tourist attraction. In 2018, the number of Chinese tourists entering Indonesia from Bali was 1,361,500, accounting for 22.43% of the total. Today, China is the largest group among foreign tourists in Bali.

Among all of the Chinese visitors to Bali, “international volunteers”, or “international volunteer & travelers” are more than 5,000. They usually do not call themselves “tourists”, but “volunteers”. Part of their itinerary in Bali was  to do voluntary activities in some local charity organizations. Besides, they also travel as ordinary tourists.

Internationally, this kind of activity has its name,”volunteerism”, which refers to promote local public services, meanwhile travel without compensation or even need-to-pay. This special form of tourism in western countries has been popular for many years, and got popularized in China in recent years.

These days, Chinese international volunteers have become important visitors in the eyes of local charity organizations in Bali.

A dangerous formalism ran through the whole journey. It seems that all of the events are about “buying an experience”, leaving these “international volunteers” in confusion. There was even a case when they were asked to stay outside for a certain amount of time after the day’s work was done, as if to gather together enough volunteer credits.

The last part back to the base is to receive two certificates that all “international volunteers” would have, one is from the domestic volunteer travel company A and the other the Bali Turtle Conservation Base. Till now, this project is finished.

“Chinese volunteers appeared almost three years ago. At the very beginning, it was a Chinese organization which sent volunteers here, and then two, three, and more each year.” Dodi, the contact person of international volunteers and TCEC, the largest sea turtle conservation base in Bali said, nowadays, Chinese account for 70% of all their international volunteers. It was totally opposite five or six years ago, when the foreign volunteers were mainly European and American.

“Maybe all the American and European volunteers then go to Africa.” Dodi laughed.

In Dodi’s opinion, the significant difference between Chinese and western volunteers is that Chinese volunteers come here mostly on tourist visas and only stay for a short period of time, while the latter would always stay for about a few months on social work visas; Chinese volunteers usually come with a group brought by an intermediary (a company that runs volunteer travel), while the westerners often apply independently as individuals or groups.

Besides sea turtle protection, voluntary teaching is also one of the main choices for Chinese on their volunteer trips to Bali.

“We accept about 700 foreign volunteers a year, among which 4/7 are Chinese.” Astra, the head of an orphanage called Seeds of Hope in Bali told us. It was three years ago when they started receiving Chinese volunteers. 

[Table 1] Indonesian Visa for Chinese citizens – Socio-cultural visa vs Tourist Visa

The projects Chinese volunteers do usually last for a week: on the first two afternoons, the volunteers teach the children English, Chinese and/or art; On the third afternoon, the orphans share what they have learned; Fourth and fifth day are tour days; The next day, volunteers return home.

[Table 2] Information from some Volunteer travel companies in China about their Projects in Bali
Table 3: China Volunteer Travel Company has three operation modes of cooperating with local people in Bali island

  • “International volunteer” craze of Chinese youngsters

 “Having touched sea turtles for a few days, picked up litter from the beach for an hour, and taught local children two or three words of English will really help their college applications? How dare they?” Luo, a student from an international high school, claimed that he has many friends who have or would love to take part in such international volunteers travel project. “They sometimes go to southeast Asia, and some go to some Africa or South America. They either choose animals protection or teach lessons, but just a short period of time, usually one week.”

Figure 4: Chinese volunteers teaching in local schools

Middle school and college students are the main participants of international volunteers in China while there are also many professionals. It turns out that these volunteers’ motivation can be divided into two reasons: “utility” or “experience”: “utility” mainly refers to the optimizing of resume for the applications for studying abroad; “Experience”, as its name implies, this kind of volunteers join the projects out of the pure interest in public welfare, the expectation of tourism and leisure activities, and the dissatisfaction with general package tour or independent travel.

“My study abroad agency recommended me to take part in the program, and I just wanted to have fun or something. So, just pay for a certificate.” Gao from a university in Nanjing said. He plans to pursue graduate studies in New York University.

In the process of applying for overseas study, Chinese students usually have high GPA. Therefore, the competition in “extracurricular activities” and “background improvement” have become part of the applicants’ plan for further study. “In the past, the common samples of Chinese students’ extracurricular activities were model United Nations, debate competition and domestic voluntary teaching. Nevertheless, when people did them too often, new tricks came, such as ‘volunteering in Africa ‘.” Mr. Hu, a consultant of a well-known study abroad agency in Shanghai thinks so. He told us that since schools abroad value public welfare experience, many Chinese students and their parents believe volunteering in Africa, India and Bali will help improve their success rate of admission.

As for some professionals, “I don’t think ordinary travel offers such opportunities to interact with the local people and deeply experience the local culture.” Xia, a programmer, took advantage of the National Day holidays to participate in a 5-day volunteer teaching project in Bali. He even spent two months learning Indonesian before leaving. However, Anna said she was happy with the fun part of the trip, but was disappointed by the charity part: “The volunteer part is so little. I wanted to do more volunteer work, actually.”

  • Sincerity or hypocrisy? Business or welfare?

“The volunteer travel program not equal to the real VOLUNTEERS , the short-term program is more unlikely to serve the purpose of helping the overseas study application.” Said Hongxiang Huang, the founder of China House. This organization also runs project about youngsters, including the in-depth research and some volunteer travel projects. In his opinion, volunteer travel is neither as good nor as bad as some people think, the point is that one should understand what it is all about before taking part.

Strictly speaking, a short volunteer trip is like a tour indeed. According to the project introduction information of popular volunteer travel companies in China, public welfare activities account for only 20%-40% of the whole trip, while tourism activities account for 60%-80%.

“We have two kinds of certificates, one is participation certificate and the other is volunteer certificate. The latter one will only be issued to people who have participated for more than one month.” The certificates that Chinese volunteers receive are usually the first type, according to Dodi. The real volunteer are supposed to stay for at least a month to learn and familiarize themselves with the work before they can really offer some help.

“Some Chinese volunteers don’t listen carefully to the instructions and result in various mistakes, such as touching sea turtles after wearing sunscreen.” Wayou, another staff member at TCEC, was slightly critical of the Chinese volunteers for not following instructions or guidance. “A lot of people leave Bali not knowing exactly how many kinds of turtles there are.” He felt angry but also amused. “They sometimes make the turtles unhappy, uncomfortable or even hurt.”

I have seen a promotional video shared by a staff of a domestic volunteer travel company B on Moments. That was about how the Chinese volunteers in Bali this National Day holiday released baby turtles– they did it by throwing them directly to the shallow beach.

(the video mentioned above)

“It’s dead wrong! It will reduce the turtle’s survival rate.” Dodi was furious when he heard about it. 

Figure 5 inappropriate behavior of Chinese volunteers and evaluation of turtle Center staff
[Figure 6] Inappropriate behavior of Chinese volunteers and evaluation by staff of the Turtle Center
[Figure 6] Inappropriate behavior of Chinese volunteers and evaluation by staff of the Turtle Center

“Firstly, these events about one week or two is not really a volunteer activity. It certainly won’t help students with their overseas study applications. On the contrary, it tends to be like a show-off without true practice.” Said Mr. Hu. The study abroad agency industry is a mixture of both good and bad, and many low-level agencies themselves do not understand what volunteer travel is and whether it is useful for applying.

  • Retrospect and prospect

Even though volunteer travel is not really volunteer work, it could be meaningful to some extent.

Dodi believes that Chinese volunteers bring in a number of income to support TCEC’s operations.

An international volunteer pays 150,000 Rupiah (75 yuan) for half a day’s work, namely, 750,000 rupiah (375 yuan) each week (workdays). During the summer peak, a Chinese volunteer travel company can send up to 50 to 100 Chinese volunteers to TCEC every week. “Ou base maintain the operation with donations, and Chinese volunteers make up 70% of all volunteers here every year. Such a huge income is essential for us.”

Astra feels the same way. Each international volunteer pays about two million rupees ( around 1,000 yuan) for a one-week project, including part of food and transportation, but not accommodation. 60% of the orphanage’s annual revenue is contributed and donated by volunteers from around the world, among which Chinese volunteers’ payment account for 60% of the total volunteer income.

Volunteer travel, as a new form of tourism, also has some advantages compared with traditional ones in addition to bringing economic income to local public welfare organizations. Generally speaking, compared to the normal Chinese tourists, the travel volunteers could behave themselves and understand and respect local culture.

Besides, China House is also planning some volunteer programs in Bali recently, which set a relatively high requirement for volunteers and will be in cooperation with Bali Tourism Bureau.

“We should not allow these scenes happen and be seen by foreign tourists any more: Chinese tourists stepping on coral or throwing baby turtles.” Huang hongxiang gave a wry smile. 

  1. Source: 2018 Big Data Report on Chinese Tourists Outbound Travel,
  2. the data source: xinhua,
  3. Organize and estimate according to field research information
  4. data source: Bali Indonesia visa and immigration website,
  5. the data source: Bali Indonesia visa and immigration website,
  6. Information comes from field research

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