On World Responsible Tourism Day in 2011 Michael Horton from ConCERT in Cambodia spoke about the concerns that there are in Cambodia about orphanage tourism, and the many orphanages that attract tourists as visitors and volunteers. As Michael pointed out:
“Emotions run high when visitors are faced with children living in difficult conditions. Holiday packages that include visits to and voluntary work in orphanages have a wide appeal, from gap-year teenagers to middle-aged professionals who wish to do good during their holidays, and the numbers continue to grow.”
UNICEF has expressed concern that orphanage tourism Cambodia had become so lucrative that the “demand” from tourists and volunteers had created supply and that tourism was unwittingly financing the creation of orphanages populated by children who were not in fact orphans.
ConCERT found that many centres were being run primarily as a means of providing an income for the founders and that some centres get 100 per cent of their funding from tourists. Consequently children are often coerced/forced into fundraising activities – giving out flyers at night in the street, dancing for tourists, working for the owners in some other way; and children are deliberately kept looking dirty, scruffy and malnourished to elicit maximum sympathy – and donations – from tourists. When extremely vulnerable children are brought from distant provinces, breaking links with their families, and then used to make money for “orphanage” owners, their movement amounts to internal human trafficking.
Michael Horton challenged the orphanage tourism industry to address these unintended consequences of misguided and poorly managed engagement between tourists and vulnerable children in orphanages. I chaired that panel discussion and shared the shock evident in the room – we were reminded that all too often the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We returned to the issue of orphanage tourism in 2012 and Michael Horton spoke about the issue again. We had begun to raise the issue more widely and it became clear that this unintended consequence of the industry taking insufficient care over how it engages with orphans and children is having serious negative impacts in many more countries than just Cambodia. There is a lively Facebook page where irresponsible practices are reported and discussed. Michael also attended the volunteering panel and asked questions from the floor.
Justin Francis from Responsible Travel was in the audience and was obviously concerned about the issue. The concern has turned to action.
“After a lot of thought, research and consultation we have taken the difficult decision to temporarily remove all volunteering trips to orphanages from responsibletravel.com,” explains Justin. “This is a total of ten trips from 6 operators. We will not be taking on any new ones for the time being.
“The removal of trips is a temporary measure, whilst, over the coming weeks we work with industry leaders to develop best practice guidelines and criteria for the child-focussed volunteer trips we offer via responsibletravel.com.
“We want to ensure we only market volunteer trips that we have 100% trust in and that, as a community of responsible operators, we are leading the way and raising standards around best practice in this industry. We hope that by being independently created, the new criteria will help sustain the exemplary operators while removing those that may potentially tarnish the sector. Fingers crossed we can create some real positive change and help raise the standards of volunteer trips with children.” Anyone wishing to support these efforts should click on Orphanage volunteering holidays removed and express their support for the campaign – we need to improve our practice.
Child protection is on the agenda at WTM again this year. The panel is chaired by CEO of ABTA Mark Tanzer; Krissy Roe of responsibletravel.com will be reporting on the action they have taken; the UK Border Force will be there to describe the action they are taking against child trafficking; the new CEO of ECPAT UK Bharti Patel will be reporting on their child protection work; and Stephanie Ossenbach of Kuoni will talking about what a tour operator can do.
Responsibletravel.com has shown leadership. There will be debate on Tuesday at WTM. But there is a lot more to be done for the orphanage tourism industry to be able to hold its head high and say convincingly that it is not – even inadvertently – contributing to child trafficking and increasing the vulnerability of children to all kinds of exploitation.