Voluntourism and Protecting Children in the Travel and Tourism Industry

22 January 2024

January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and as travel industry professionals, there are steps you can take today to ensure your entire supply chain is aware of the risks, warning signs, and strategies to protect children.

While volunteering is a valuable way to contribute to society that can benefit both communities and individuals, packaged voluntourism trips and visits can lead to harmful consequences on children’s well-being and development. They can also increase the risk of child sexual exploitation. 

If a business is sending volunteers into an international or domestic community without taking specific following precautions, they might be causing harm without realizing it.

According to the United Nations, “The post pandemic recovery has resulted to a significant rise in travel and tourism, and this has exposed children to risks, particularly within the largely unregulated voluntourism sector,” said Mama Fatima Singhateh, UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and exploitation of children in her report to the General Assembly.

Tour operators and their partner organizations can ensure ethical engagement by taking steps to raise awareness among their employees and travelers about the risks linked to voluntourism. They must ensure that the protection of children is their paramount concern, and evaluate the impact of any of their activities on the well-being and safety of children. 

Any tourism business offering visits or activities at orphanages or residential care facilities that involves any direct contact with children should stop this practice. Instead, travelers should be encouraged to undertake sustainable activities such as nature care, remodeling community infrastructure, and support other initiatives where children remain with their family. 

All other voluntourism opportunities that include interactions with children must adhere to the following child protection standards:

  • Criminal record checks as strict requirements for working in direct contact with children
  • Access to a national mechanism for centrally registering sex offenders
  • Regulating and monitoring volunteers in all settings and activities that involve direct contact with children, particularly by prohibiting visits to orphanages and residential care settings and redirecting the industry towards solutions that support community-based care.

© PACT / Tina Floersch

In 2012, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) partnered with PACT and simultaneously became the first trade association in the United States to sign “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism.” The Code is the world’s first and only voluntary set of business principles for travel companies to prevent child sexual exploitation and trafficking. The Code provides awareness, tools, and support to the travel and hospitality industry through collaboration between the private sector and PACT. More recently, as part of their commitment to eradicating human trafficking and exploitation, the ATTA has implemented the PACT Travel Professional Training course as a requirement for all employees.

Steps you can take:

Everyone in the ATTA community is strongly encouraged to take this free 25-minute online training about “Preventing & Responding to Human Trafficking & The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children”. While this e-training is tailored specifically for travel professionals in the travel management industry, corporate travel managers, and those in the meeting and events industry, PACT also encourages all professionals who travel to enroll in it, as it provides a comprehensive overview of human trafficking. This training addresses the issues of human trafficking and discusses the intersections between human trafficking and the travel industry. Upon completion of this training, individuals will know what to look out for and how to respond to suspected instances of trafficking. This PACT e-training is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. 

For tour guides, the Regional Action Group of the Americas has introduced an Action Protocol Model. This model aims to enhance the skills of tour guides and offer practical guidelines for preventing, identifying, and reporting cases of child exploitation and sexual abuse. The associated Decalogue for Tour Guides is designed to dissuade travelers from participating in volunteer activities that involve unregulated and unsupervised interaction with children.

Destinations can use ECPAT’s Legal Checklist, which has been designed for governments to improve their national legal and policy frameworks to address the sexual exploitation of children in the context of travel and tourism 

Travel and tourism organizations can assess their business and understand their potential risks in relation to child sexual exploitation and trafficking by using the risk assessment tool designed by ECPAT International. 

Additional resources are available to further contribute to eliminating human trafficking:

About PACT:

PACT is the leading anti-child trafficking organization in the United States seeking to end child sexual exploitation and trafficking through education, private sector engagement, and legislative advocacy. PACT is a member of ECPAT International, a global network with one common mission: to eliminate the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children around the world.