Earlier this month, at World Travel Mart Responsible Tourism Day, many of the world's leading travel operators got together to discuss sustainability and impact issues fueled by the travel sector. There were an array of discussions including sessions covering child protection, wildlife tourism, local business development and a heated discussion around volunteer travel.
The sessions on wildlife and child protection were running concurrently, and it was interesting to see that the wildlife protection session had more than double the participants of the session on child protection. Is that because the tourism professionals or tourists themselves care more about animal's rights? Or is it because most people are unaware of the staggering amount of child rights violations being perpetrated every day by global tourism operators?
I believe the later to be true. While living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, one of the hotbeds of volunteer travel, I watched the growth of child's rights violations increase, fueled by the good intentions of travelers. During the six years I lived in Cambodia, the number of orphanage tourism offerings, and number of orphanages themselves grew as the number of tourists grew. In fact, according to a recent UNICEF report, three out of every four children in Cambodian "orphanages" have one or more living parents. A well-meaning tourism sector is spawning some horrible orphanages, fueling the separation of children and parents, keeping kids out of school to entertain tourists and aiding corruption by adults who are using these children to profiteer, all in the name of "service."
A group in Siem Reap, Cambodia, recently released a comprehensive website detailing many of the issues relating to orphanage tourism and the institutionalization of children: orphanages.no. They explore the realities I also saw in Cambodia on a day-to-day basis: men with signs saying "visit our orphanage" dragging children through streets of tourist-filled bars, gathering the next day's emotional pray. The visits are listed as "free orphanage tourism dance shows" or "please volunteer for our children in need," and once the travelers arrive the experience can be quite scripted:
The cutest young girl runs out grab the hand of the visiting traveler. The foreigners are allowed to walk through the center, even enter young kids rooms, usually unsupervised. A dance show is performed.
In a recent Al Jazeera micro-documentary on the issue, "Cambodia's Orphanage Business," explores the orphanage tourism and volunteer travel issues in Cambodia and in the film you can see how easy it is for children to be harmed (the film maker is allowed to walk into an orphanage and remove a few children to play with for a day, like one would check-out a library book). The volunteer travel sector is profiteering from these "pet-an-orphan" type travel opportunities. I questioned the American manager of one of the major volunteer sending companies in Siem Reap, who had approached me to find more English teaching placements for his volunteers in schools and orphanages, asking why he didn't look for other volunteer opportunities for travelers. His response was "Everyone wants to play with kids. It's the biggest seller. We need to find more placements for these people since there is so much demand for it."
Did that "pet-an-orphan" phrasing bother you? It should. I assure you it would bother you even more if you watched it day after day, fueled by the good intentions of travelers who are unaware that they have a double standard about child's rights. When travelers to Cambodia ask me "Well which orphanage is good that I could visit today," my answer is "Any orphanage that will let you walk in off the street and subjects children to a revolving door of visiting volunteers is not one you want to support." This demand for child tourism is the tail wagging the dog, yet these global volunteers traveling from all around the world thinking they are coming to "help" have no idea they are fueling this harm.
I was one of them. I have volunteered and visited orphanages in a number of countries, and I even set up my own volunteer travel company in Cambodia seven years ago. It wasn't until I stayed around longer and realized the long-term harm many of these volunteer practices were fueling that I began to realize the extent of the problem. I shared what I learned in a recent TEDx talk, "What's Wrong With Volunteer Travel?" in the hopes of preventing other well-intentioned travelers from making the same mistakes I did.
It's time the tourism sector and travelers themselves became aware of these issues as, and in order to stop this problem, you too can help by:
1) Spreading the word. Put this article, orphanages.no and a website by Friends International highlighting the fact that "Children are not tourist attractions" on your Facebook, Twitter and blog pages and pass these links on to people you know are traveling in emerging markets where orphanage tourism is prevalent.
2) Write to tour operators and ask them to remove orphanage tours from their offerings and tell them you won't use their services if they continue to offer orphanage tours.
c) If you are in London at the end of this month, join this debate screening Al Jazeera's documentary about Cambodian orphanage tourism with a discussion panel including the founder of Projects Abroad, one of the large volunteer sending organizations accused of abusing child rights in this documentary for their poor vetting practices when it comes to volunteer placement partners.
And, if you find yourself in a place where someone is offering you a "free visit to an orphanage" and you want to help, seek out the organizations working to protect child's rights with a focus on family based care and support them instead. Hopefully, with your help, tourists will stop demanding orphanage tourism and next year's WTM session on protecting children will be at least as well attended as those protecting the children in the rest of the animal kingdom.