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Tourism Abuse

Orphanage voluntourism:  Responsible tourism gone wrong

Nelson Alcantara, eTN editor-in-chief  Oct 28, 2013

Responsible tourism has an ugly side and you could very well be unknowingly feeding it. Picture this: You find yourself in a Third World country and you feel compelled to give something back. So, you volunteer at an orphanage. What could go wrong, right? Plenty, it seems.

Did you know that since 2005, Cambodia has seen a 75 percent increase in its number of orphanages? According to a report by Forbes, orphanage tourism has helped catapult the growth of tourism in Cambodia, with foreign arrivals skyrocketing to 250 percent in the same period. The moneymaker? Orphanages funded by foreign volunteers and their money.

“So what we have is this huge discrepancy between supply and demand,” Sean Looney, director of an organization called SISHA (which investigates human trafficking and living conditions in residential care centers), told Forbes. “Such a proliferation of orphanages in Cambodia makes you wonder, what’s the missing variable here? It’s Money.”

According to Forbes’ report, of the two million tourists who will pass through Cambodia this year, many aren’t aware that 71 percent of children in its orphanages still have living parents. “They aren’t orphans in fact, but have been recruited by the centers with promises to parents for better education and care.”

UK-based advocacy group Tourism Concern has recently supported this claim and is now spearheading a campaign to end the practice by tourists of volunteering in orphanages. It argues that tourists volunteering in orphanages in developing countries is “fueling the demand for orphans” and drives “the unnecessary separation of children from their families.”

According to Tourism Concern, the number of orphan children has declined worldwide in the past decade; however, the number of orphanages in many developing countries has risen in response to the demand from tourists and volunteers.

Tourism Concern executive director Mark Watson said: “Orphanages have become a tourist attraction and a ‘bucket list’ volunteering opportunity.”

Growing popularity
Consequently, the demand for volunteering placements is high. “Google finds 505,000 results for ‘volunteer orphanage aboard’ – most are marketed by holiday companies and tour operators,” Watson added. “In the UK, there are at least 30 tour operators sending volunteers to orphanages and we have written to them all urgently demanding that they stop sending tourists and unqualified volunteers to orphanages.”

Tourism Concern contends that orphanages should not be marketed by tour operators and deems volunteering overseas with vulnerable children as “inappropriate” in most cases.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child state clearly that the institutionalization of vulnerable children should be a last resort, and not a final solution, cited Tourism Concern. “Children do not belong in orphanages; they are highly damaging and dangerous institutions. Children belong with their family or another family-like situation if they can’t stay with their direct family.”

Tourism Concern is also worried that “many institutions are wholly inadequate to meet the complex needs and demands of childhood care and development, with untrained or unqualified staff, poor conditions, or a lack of child protection policies. In such institutions children are at risk of neglect, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Child rights may be further violated, and child safety jeopardized, by orphanages that allow visitors or un-vetted volunteers to spend time with children, or that send orphans out onto the streets to canvas for donations, often late at night.

“The often unregulated institutions have become a booming business. It is growing at a staggering rate and in tourist destinations, such as Bali and Cambodia, it seems to have doubled in 5 years, matching the rising numbers of tourists when the numbers of orphan children has almost halved.

“Unfortunately, many orphanages are run purely as a business where children are used for profit and conditions are kept in a dilapidated state to warrant donations from well-meaning donors and volunteers. Every day children are being unnecessarily separated from their families and orphanages are literally the last place children should end up.”

What’s the alternative?
Community-based care. According to Tourism Concern, a recent study in sub-Saharan Africa showed that institutional care can cost up to six times as much as alternative child care mechanisms. “Yet many donors would rather donate to orphanages, where they can see an actual child, build an emotional ‘relationship’, and feel that they know exactly where their donation is going. Better, more appropriate community based alternatives, that are more child-focused, rather than donor-focused, are all too often overlooked.”

For Tourism Concern, it has but one message: “While we appreciate that many well-meaning volunteers may wish to volunteer at an orphanage, our view is that looking after vulnerable children should be undertaken by local, full-time, professional staff and not by short-term volunteers, no matter how skilled or qualified.”

Accordingly, Tourism Concern has devised a petition and it wants your signature on it. “The petition will be presented to tour operators to demand an end to voluntarism placements in orphanages, which is why it is important that as many people as possible sign the petition. Please circulate the petition to your friends, family and professional networks and help us put an end to vulnerable children being used to sell ‘holidays’.” This petition is now available online via,

In short, volunteering in orphanages is bad for children. Tourism Concern has claimed that 75 percent in Cambodia’s orphanages are not in fact orphans. “In Ghana, the figure is as high as 90 percent.” These figures represent the harsh reality: orphans are now serving as pseudo commodity for volunteers in least developed countries. This issue isn’t on the agenda for many global travel and tourism industry conferences, let alone the subject of industry think-tanks. At least, not yet.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization has been for years trying to tackle the problem of exploitation of children through human trafficking and sex tourism. Orphanage tourism certainly should be included in future discourses, as it is brings out the ugly in responsible tourism. Tourists who mean well and children who can’t defend themselves are either baited or coerced to partake in a ruthless money-making scheme that exploits them. The worse offense in the name of responsible tourism yet? You decide.

eTN 2.0 wants your video responses! As well, if you have any videos exposing offenders, send them in. Get connected with Nelson Alcantara via email at to find out how you can help in putting an end to the growing problem that is called orphanage tourism.

Orphanage voluntourism:  Responsible tourism gone wrong
Image courtesy of Tourism Concern

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