When I first started my research on turismo vivencial, or homestay tourism, I thought that Amigos de las Americas, the NGO I work for, was correct to not pay host families in cold hard cash for hosting volunteers for a summer. According to the traditional AMIGOS model, host families agree to house and occasionally feed volunteers for two months. In return, the volunteers work on behalf of the community. In most places, this means the volunteers hold educational activities and organize the community to support a development project funded in part by AMIGOS. In our Peruvian communities, this also meant that the volunteers did manual labor for various people in the community. Ideally, the entire community benefits from hosting the volunteers.
In addition, the theory goes that not paying host families benefits the volunteers by weeding out any family that would agree to host a volunteer just for the money. Since volunteers are sometimes as young as 15 years old, AMIGOS wants to select families who will act as families and provide cultural exchange, support and guidance during the summer. The idea is that if you don’t pay someone, they must be doing it out of the kindness of their heart and not for monetary gain.
After preliminary research on heritage tourism, I started thinking that the end result would be determined by whether or not host families were paid. I thought you could either pay to receive a service, which would be manufactured and sold as a packaged product and could therefore never be authentic. Or, you could not pay and get an experience, which would be authentic because someone was offering it to you but not trying to live up to your expectations as a paying guest. These were the only two possibilities, in my mind. But what my experience here in Peru has taught me is that there has to be some middle ground.
First of all, in our Peruvian communities, community leaders selected host families through a community asamblea process – in most cases, families did not volunteer. This meant that, at least until the families began to trust and like the volunteers after about two weeks of hosting them, they felt burdened by the volunteers – financially, spatially and otherwise. Even though AMIGOS provided the families with food baskets (rice, quinoa, sugar, salt, oil), the cost-benefit of hosting two U.S. volunteers wasn’t working out in favor of the families. Because, even though the volunteers were working in the community in a variety of ways, the individual host families were not receiving any sort of direct benefit. The community was benefitting but the entire community had not rearranged its house and uprooted its routine to find space for these people to sleep at night. Families asked AMIGOS for sprinkler systems and wooden beds in order to make the cost-benefit work for them.
And then what was the solution that our partner agencies came up with after the volunteers left? Pay the host families. AMIGOS has never paid host families but why doesn’t it start? As one of our contacts explained, they wouldn’t get paid enough to make money, but in a culture where you can’t say thank you, a symbolic sum of money would say thank you. But what if it changed the dynamic so much that the volunteers didn’t get the same experience? Well, maybe we need to stop thinking about the volunteers so much that we forget about why we say we are here in the first place – the community members. Shouldn’t they be our first priority? Things to think about.
Posted by Samantha Balaban – MA Candidate at CLACS / Global Journalism at NYU