What Is The Orphanage Tourism Business?
Updated: Feb 2
I have been researching and blogging about orphanage tourism and responsible travel ethics throughout my time in Southeast Asia. I have learnt that there are multiple areas of concern that travellers really need to be aware of when it comes to the issue of child exploitation. Orphanage Tourism is the reason why I started my responsible tourism blog Travel For Change and in this article I hope to highlight some areas of concern.
Recently, #orphanagetourism has come to the attention of many human rights activists, tourism companies and education groups. In Cambodia where a large volume of orphanages is highly unregulated, and children are exploited for tourism dollars - day trips or short-term volunteering seems to be an expected part of the travel itinerary or at least a daily activity that anyone can partake in.
It is important that the good intentions of volunteers align with their personal skills to work as a volunteer, that they are educated enough to avoid organisations that don't protect the rights of the child and that they are making a lasting and positive impact.
The sad reality is that children who end up living in care facilities are now being used as attractions to promote a high level of income for those who are running unregistered operations where children who have families are marketed as #orphans.
It is time to start researching and reconsidering the moral and ethical concerns which orphanages in Southeast Asia present to the tourism industry. Here in this article I share one of my personal stories and recommend my advice to anyone who wants to visit an orphanage or work with children in Cambodia.
Volunteering at an Orphanage
I started out as a volunteer English Teacher with a local not-for-profit in #Cambodia which operated as an orphanage for poor and disabled children. This orphanage was not in a remote location, it was just outside a busy tourist hub, frequented by daily visitors and advertised in local hostels as a place to offer your time.
My role was to attend the attached classrooms each day in the morning to teach English and again in the afternoon for additional studies. I would play sports with the students, eat lunch and dinner with them and leave at 8 pm to return to my accommodation.
#Teaching hours where often changed, or cancelled, depending on the number of tourists who wanted to 'meet' the children instead of allowing them to be in class. Students had a hard time concentrating, many were exhausted from a late night where they would be performing Khmer dance shows or puppet shows to raise further income for the orphanage.
I eventually learnt that many of these children had existing families or next of kin who were willing and able to care for them at home. For a variety of reasons, the children ended up in the orphanage often because the families were ensured their children would gain a high standard of education.
I also learnt that sometimes parents who have many children bring some of their children to the orphanage due to financial stress back home which inevitably separates the siblings. Other times the children are rescued off the street or are obtained through other areas of organised crime as the children have no papers to show where they originally came from.
Those who managed the orphanage business would often explain to #volunteers that the children come to the orphanage in the city because it offers a better life than that in the poorer village towns and at the time I understood this to be true. While children are often rescued from working on the street corners or living in unstable home environments and taken to orphanages - the thing to remember is that there are a number of great organisations who are working to help the children in Cambodia. As a tourist, it is about understanding how to identify them, what questions to ask before donating time and money and ask yourself why it is you are really wanting to be there too.
I eventually wore tired of seeing volunteers who had no educational training, little cultural awareness and next to no background in child protection, showing up to volunteer with the children for a day or two and then leave. The mismanagement of volunteers made me question if the children were actually better off here than at home. In my class time the children were often unable to concentrate, emotionally dependant on the comfort of volunteers and the school area was poorly maintained and lacking in resources.
Volunteers were expected to pay a fee to participate which was said to cover the costs of the materials, meals and drinking water. I saw a very poor level of education being delivered and felt it was not what the business model claimed to offer the students.
As volunteers routinely arrived and #tourists continued to walk around the facility as if it were a tourist attraction, more and more money was being donated and my concerns continued to develop. Who were these visitors really helping? How is cuddling the children and passing them around to each foreign volunteer healthy for them? Is this something I want to participate in for the long-term?
I had so many conflicting moments but continued to remind myself that I was providing the students with an opportunity to learn English and felt if I left my role the children would feel they did something wrong. I didn't want to abandon them, and I felt incredibly torn between the children who appeared helpless and the misrepresentation of the work I was meant to be doing.
Overall, I felt disappointed that the children were clearly being exploited for profit. The not-for-profit had around 80 children in its care, including infants, and you could no longer turn away from the stark reality that they could bring in larger donations based on how poor and vulnerable the orphanage could make them look.
The orphanage business is only possible when there are enough children involved to provide tourists with an opportunity to ‘visit them for a day’ and I no longer wanted to donate my money to this ongoing cycle of emotional abuse. Many volunteers started to explain to the staff that they were not satisfied, some volunteers stayed, and others decided to leave.
I still wanted to make a difference and work abroad so after leaving the project at the orphanage I started working as a teacher for established International Schools in both Thailand and Cambodia. I volunteered at local community-based projects with greater transparency, stricter #volunteer rules and higher expectations. Travel For Change is my platform where I encourage travellers to seek out responsible and child safe projects.
The Voluntourism Industry
This the idea of tourists engaging in short-term volunteer work during their trips abroad. This seemingly harmless concept has seen a boom to meet the demand of tourists who are looking for the altruistic experience. Whilst there are many organisations which are fantastic to work for, it is crucial that we are aware of the complexities of the industry.
When working with organisations which support children and families it is the volunteer’s responsibility to decide on the level of support they are willing and able to offer. This can be a difficult choice to make because we often assume that children who are in the care of adults are being treated appropriately and that #volunteering with them will bring happiness and hope. Unfortunately, not all care facilities including orphanages are maintaining a suitable standard of care and the children are at times vulnerable and at risk of exploitation.
In Cambodia, between 2005 - 2015 orphanages increased by over 75% with most centres located in the tourist cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. This rise in unregulated orphanages appeared during the time when tourism was increasing to the region raising concerns for social welfare groups and child protection workers. It is important to remember that when we work with #children at a care facility, education centre or in any other setting that we are the ones who are imposing ourselves on their daily lives.
Children who live in orphanages often see multiple volunteer groups per day who all want to entertain them, play games and take photographs. The sudden appearance and then disappointing farewell of volunteers has shown through evidence-based research to cause emotional and psychological harm to young children, create attachment disorders and even promote developmental delays for those in care.
#Voluntourism, when not properly managed leaves children exposed to the potential risk of abuse, neglect and child-trafficking. These are just some of the reasons why we must consider where we volunteer and who we support. When it comes to alternative care, it should only be made when it is in the best interest of the welfare of the child and when it is possible and safe to do so, a child should be reunified with their family.
When volunteering, aim to commit a long-term stay so that you can understand your role and fulfil it to the best of your ability. If you are just passing through, consider alternative ways in which you can support the needs of the local community.
A great way to do this is to support social enterprises which train or employ young people such as cafes, restaurants, classes, guided tours, beauty salons, art galleries and much more! If you are serious about making an impact you may opt to engage in alternative options for employment at a school or registered organisation.
Research is Key
This is something I can’t say enough! Showing up at the door of an organisation offering your time and money to a project without a comprehensive understanding of their ethics and standards of care is not helping anyone. It might sound blunt, but you really could be doing more harm than good.
Aim to find out the organisations ethos and values, their child protection standards including the volunteer background check process and the allocation or purpose of donated funds. This information will help you to make comprehensive and safe choices when working with children.
Research has concluded several relevant risk factors for children who are residing in orphanages in South East Asia. There are more than 8 million children living in care across the world and over 80% of these children are not orphans. For more information please visit the Child Safe Movement website and read further before volunteering at an orphanage.
Culture shock can creep up on the most open-minded and seasoned traveller. I learnt first-hand that it isn’t just about the exposure to a new culture or way of life; but the unfamiliar feelings that go with the work. Compassion fatigue, exhaustion, homesickness, a sense of having left reality, seeming misunderstood and questioning your own abilities are just some ways you may experience a new destination. Therefore, it is important to take care of your well being when you are away.
Surround yourself with other #volunteers, enjoy the days off to explore the region, take a cooking class, practice yoga and enjoy photographing, writing and blogging about your work. Aim to read about the country you are visiting or attend local tourist attractions that educate you on the history and culture of the destination.
Volunteering is a great way to gain a new perspective on a local community so acknowledge your feelings, immerse and apply yourself to the work and stay positive because you will be surprised at how you manage to adapt! You are building new coping skills and developing relationships which will last a lifetime.
As you can see there are many important steps to take prior to volunteering and everyone has their own journey when it comes to working out where to invest their time and money.
Cambodia has some incredible opportunities for community development, training and environmental projects and trained professionals are always needed in the field of medicine and education. Giving back to a local community is an incredible blessing and advocating for organisations to ensure the protection of children is something we should all work towards.
This article was originally posted as a guest post for travel blogger Plant-Based Kate.