Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (And Tell All Tour Companies to Do the Same)

Assistant Editor’s Note: The following Op-Ed piece is by Daniela Papi, Founder of PEPY and PEPY Tours, and was originally published on HuffPost Impact. It is re-posted here with her permission. Op-Eds run in AdventureTravelNews do not necessarily reflect ATTA’s official stance on any given issue or set if issues, but merely serve as a vehicle to draw light to important industry viewpoints.

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: 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 prey. 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, 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.

54 Comments to Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (And Tell All Tour Companies to Do the Same)

  1. I think it is unfair to say ban all orphanage charity tourism. I think it would be more fair to highlight the issues and make customers aware to only volunteer with companies that are genuinely helping people and that do not allow corruption. Our charity Share the Load Foundation Does not send money to the people we support. All money gets spent on buying educational equipment for the children in the school. We do not let the teachers or local staff handle money. We ask them what they need and we buy it for them as long as it is a reasonable request. Shame on the tour operators that maintain no control over the charities they are supporting and charge an exorbitant fee to tourists who give up their valuable time to help people. There is a culture of getting as many people as possible onto trips and taking no care as to what the tourist will be doing. I make regular trips to our school we are supporting and make sure there is no dodgy behavior occurring. Charities will be abused in the third world where corruption is common place so when setting up a charity use people you trust and have a tight reign on things. Simple!

    Richard Goodey
    Director of Lost Earth Adventures and the Share the Load Foundation

  2. Luc Lapointe

    Good thing Mother Teresa is no longer here on earth…can you just imagine? She would be dilapidated in public for her work with orphans and letting these very bad travelers see the work she is doing and even worth…touching kids.

    I think we all agree that in everything that has to be with being alive, we will find a spectrum of good…and not as good because it’s not quite a perfect world. So who is to blame…(and yes by the way I am not defending the one that are being crucified by the various voices our there).

    So …the first question that comes to mind is…the chicken or the egg causality dilemma. What creates the condition in these countries for people to be in the situation that they have to give up their children for adoption …or at least to some programs for financial support? It this situation aggravated by travelers or volunteers or in fact by the lack of ability for governments to generate enough financial resources to put in place social programs?!?

    So…how can government generate more money? Beg IMF and other international institutions or find a way to put in place PPP to support social programs? If this is the case? Who license who? if the power is with the community? could there big cases of extortion or corruption? i.e. …if you want us to approve your program…you could leave a brown envelope somewhere.

    So let’s say this campaign works very well and the world decides that travelers should not support any social programs unless it is by sending a nice payment via the internet….how would you measure progress? is the situation better? worst? What did you really change?

    We all agree that the children are far better off with their parents but do you tell these parents when they have to make tough decisions about survival? Jeopardize the whole family? or that they should use protection next time.

    I am personally tired of this debate because, once again, it doesn’t offer any solutions for the people that are the most affected. Like everything else…find a low hanging fruit….bring him in the public place…shame the programs and volunteers to death …all this without any solutions.

    Maybe this subject is not getting as much attention exactly for that reason…same old and no solutions. Do traveling thousands of miles to save turtle make any sense?

    Developing countries depend (like we do) on foreign income and the choices are extremely limited…tourism, agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, and charity. I think that passing by tourism is far from being the solution. I don’t think that taxation alone is the solution and charity even less.

    I am writing this response from Bolivia. Last weekend I was in this very remote village that has an increasing tourism potential. Every day ..this little girl was sitting in front of the hotel…she had parents so not an orphan. People walked by every day…travelers with income. Speaking with the mayor and other community leaders, this was nothing new, but he mentioned that most of the packages to his community were sold outside of his community so people arrived in bus, in jeeps with their own food, water ….and the end of the day left little behind to support this community. This little girl faith and chance in life will never be changed by increased volume of travelers but this could change with a connected industry that engages all actors in supporting development ….where tools exist to understand the collective impact of various actions.

    Let’s work on solutions rather than focus on obvious problems..let’s offer tools to help improve programs through transparency and accountability process.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Luc. The first orphanage I ever volunteered at was one of Mother Teresa’s in India, so I appreciate your sentiment. I went for a day visit, playing with kids, with a group of other students, and the “service” certainly has a big impact on all of us, though I’m not so sure what impact we had for the organization.

    I also appreciate your questions about development work in general. During the six years I lived in Cambodia I went from a belief in “doing something is better than doing nothing” to my current thoughts of “you have to learn before you act to ensure that the something you do is causing more good than harm.” Along the way I have of course questioned many of the things you touched on: Does “development work” matter if unfair trade continues? Does the IMF real “help”, or does it hinder long-term growth? If a community isn’t making enough to feed their families, how can they focus on other things like child’s rights? What is the point of working in an NGO if you come across governmental corruption that hinders the long-term success of the work?

    These are indeed all important questions, and I am not sure if the debate you are tired of is around all those big things, or just the orphanage situation in general. Or is it tourism? My article, and the groups I linked to, are not opposed to tourism. As you say, it’s a major source of income for some areas…. but tourism growth that is positive is what we should be striving for, and I am sure you agree. Like your Bolivia case, many tourists to Cambodia don’t even realize it, but they travel in a way that is less beneficial then it could be to the country. They travel with foreign tour operators, stay in foreign owned hotels, much of their tourist quality food is imported from Thailand, and internal “taxing” by government check points of produce combined with preferred treatment for the elite with import rights can even sometimes make local food ends up being more expensive than the imported ones. Having a positive impact takes research on where you spend your money, as you pointed like – like one of the many voluntourism groups I met with who were eager to come “help”, but didn’t realize they were staying in the hotel owned by an infamously corrupt government leader.

    The same goes for where/how you give your time. I beg to counter your argument about orphanages, and though I had volunteered all over Asia before moving to Cambodia, I can only speak from the perspective I gained from a longer timeline in Siem Reap. As you might already know, Cambodia has one of the highest NGO to population ratios, so it’s an easy petri dish to examine all that could go wrong in aid. In the case of many Cambodian orphanages, that the website and the ChildSafe THINK campaign speak to, it is often NOT the case that these are parents who “gave their kids up” in the way we sometimes think about it. Keep in mind, the UNICEF report, and the stats showing a growth of ORPHANAGES proportional to the rate in the growth of TOURISM (during a period of time when their was a real decline in “orphans.”)

    Tourism dollars bring a substantial amount of money to orphanages in Cambodia (and anyone who has been to the temples in the last 5 years would have seen dozens of signs for orphanages, chances to “stop and see an orphanage dance show”, orphanage art sales lining the road into Angkor Wat, etc). In many of the more corrupt establishments, the proprietors of the orphanage have gone to parents and offered to “take their children to a the city, to a place where they will get educated by westerners.” My mother always asks when we talk about orphanages “Who would abandon their child? They must be so desperate to do that.” but the thing is, in some of these cases the parents are not “abandoning” their children. They are handing them over to a corrupt orphanage owner who promises the kids will get a better life. Taught by whom? You and I. Now, I don’t know you Luc, and perhaps you’d be a better voluntourist than I would be, but I sure don’t think my services via one day or week or month plus trips to an orphanage are a better replacement for family based care.

    The argument isn’t black and white – as in “volunteering is bad” or “volunteering is good”. As it’s 99% in the grey area, and that means we need to give travelers and wanna-be-voluntourists the tools they need to discern the dark grey from the light grey. “Orphanage dance shows”, half day visits to “help” vulnerable children, and giving money to the most persuasive orphanage sales man, without looking into family based care programs in the area, or doing research to know if you’re actually fueling the separation of families of the kids you claim to be helping are all pretty close to black. And a problem now, I believe, is that people take an “innocent until proven guilty” approach. They want to believe that all of the aid groups they hear about are innately good – and since we all know that some are not, I think it is better for the world if people lean more towards a “guilty until proven innocent” approach – thereby needing to do some research before they give their time and money.

    I think we are working towards the same thing – you want to focus on solutions, yes? I think a BIG solution that needs to happen is that more tourists and future tourists need to know about these issues, because if it was so obvious to everyone, as it is now to you and I, then there wouldn’t be a continuing growth of these types of damaging facilities in places like Cambodia. They are fueled by tourists – and yes, we do want tourists to travel the world, spend their money in local areas, and fuel high impact development work, but in order to do that, discussions like these, that give people the tools to being to discern where to and not to give, need to spread far and wide.

    The ATTA does indeed seem to be a group of the “converted” – people who have spent considerable time traveling the world have probably given funds in many places, learned how to better sense corruption, found programs they have been able to monitor and see long term impact from, etc. But then it’s our job, as a tourism sector, to get these conversations far outside of our doors. As sadly, this “obvious” problem, isn’t obvious enough to most. I’m tired of this debate too. It seems to be that if tourists stopped giving to groups that were exploiting children and using them as fundraising tools, more kids would be able to go back to their families, and the organizations that were doing the best work for the ones who do need it most, with long-term well-trained staff, would get more funding from a better educated donor base. Having just touched back down in Cambodia today, knowing that many more children are being used by orphanages to raise funds tonight than there were 10 years ago, I too hope this discussion is not needed for much longer into the future.

    Thanks again for contributing your thoughts & fueling this discussion!

  4. As much as hearing about the Cambodian orphanages horrified me (they let random people off the street take children away for a day????) I would like to point out that it is not like this in every developing country.

    I have been living in Guatemala for over a year, working closely with a few development organizations and the orphanage here is nothing close to what is described in the Cambodian orphanages.

    There is ONE orphanage in the city, and it is public (run by the government). There is a strict 2-week wait for volunteers to be allowed in – they keep track of who is going in and out and seek permission from the capital city before allowing anyone through the doors. The children are either orphans, or have abusive parents, and because of the very small amount of staff they really appreciate any help they can get. No dance shows are given, and volunteers are kept busy cleaning, changing diapers, and supervising activities for the older children. The volunteers that are proficient in Spanish help the kids out with their schoolwork as most of them are several years behind and really benefit from one-on-one help that they don’t get otherwise.

    This is just one example, but I would encourage people to do research about specific orphanages and places before going on a crusade to remove all orphanages from tour company listings. Some of them really can use the help and are not such toxic environments for children.

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