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Abstract

In this paper, I discuss the social dynamics of international ‘voluntourism’ in Santa Catalina, a small town on the Pacific coast of Panama that has become a tourist mecca in the last two decades. Through my collection of documentary, interview, and ethnographic data, I contribute to on-going debates about the appropriateness and impact of volunteer tourism in developing countries (McGehee 2009, 2012; Palacios 2010; Tomazos and Butler 2012). While existing research tends to focus on the volunteers, here I focus on the complex relations between the volunteers and the ‘voluntoured’ (local Panamanians). My preliminary research shows significant parallels between secular international volunteers and short-term missionaries (often disparaged as partaking in ‘Christian tourism’ rather than genuine religious service). Specifically, both types of volunteers tend to exude a similar missionary zeal and the dual goal of enriching (or even ‘transforming’) their own lives while ‘helping others;’ both envision themselves as embarking on sacred journeys (Cohen 1979; Graburn 1989). In addition to empirically addressing questions about privilege and power, and whether (or how) international volunteering inadvertently perpetuates global inequalities, this research illuminates the difficulties in negotiating respect across unequal social positions and in interactions between seemingly agnostic local hosts and foreign guests on sacred journeys.

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