Child Safe Tourism – spotlight on orphanages

by Amy McLoughlin

Orphanage Tourism

What is Orphanage Tourism? It can be most commonly found in Cambodia, where tourists may be approached by children, asking them to make a visit to their orphanage in exchange for a small donation towards the upkeep of their home (Friends-International). Controversially, an entire tourism industry has grown around this and now represents thousands of tourist visits.

Orphanage tourism is a burgeoning industry and attracting attention for a whole host of reasons. Most commonly because the children in question are exposed to exploitation and the begging culture does not equate to a sustainable future of the centre or its inhabitants. Shockingly, there have also been reports of some establishments where children have been bought from families to be placed into ‘fake’ orphanages to work in heartstring-tugging roles to generate money.
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Some things you should know about orphanages in Cambodia:

  1. According to the Alternative Care Report (2008) 75% of children living in orphanages, are not orphans.
  2. Many orphanages exploit children to raise money. They can be scams to attract donations, tourists and volunteers.
  3. Most orphanages do not have child protection policies in place and therefore are unsafe environments for children.

It doesn’t end with orphanages. Visitors across the world can be found visiting schools, slums or dump-sites  The Child Safe Network provides travellers with advice about visiting such sites; they suggest visiting these situations only further enforces inequality and poor living environments can often be maintained to trigger emotional giving from tourists.

Children are not Tourist Attractions

Children-are-not-tourist-attractions1In the late 2000′s, orphanage tourism had increased greatly, as had the number of orphanages across Cambodia. Friends-International had identified orphanage tourism as a growing concern for several years. As a result, in 2011 they launched the ‘Children are not Tourist Attractions’ campaign.

Expert in the field Luke Gracie from Friends-International, works with a network of NGOs to provide family based care to children living outside their families and to prevent abandonment of children. He shares his insights into this industry and its implications…

Orphanage tourism places a huge number of risks on kids, so reducing the number of tourists visiting orphanages will reduce the chances of child protection violations to kids, as well as contribute to breaking the business model of the orphanages that see kids as profit making entities.

There are a lot of negative impacts of people visiting orphanages. I find the process ethically offensive. Placing vulnerable children as a type of commodity that people pay money to visit and play with is a pretty poor foundation for a child centre to be working from.

With no checks on the people who are visiting many orphanages, it is an unacceptable risk to children that predators could potentially see where they live and interact with the kids. People shouldn’t support orphanages or child centres that place children at that level of risk.

It can be traumatising for children living in orphanages to make attachments to visitors and for them to leave after a short amount of time. It’s important for children to make attachments to care givers, a conveyer belt of people arriving and giving them attention is not a healthy experience for children.

We gave Luke the following scenario: I am a tourist being offered the chance to visit an orphanage and I really want to help. What shall I do? Can there be positive impacts of orphanage tourism? In a nutshell, he replies: “not really”. Luke suggests that visiting an orphanage is much like the temptation to give in to begging. Whilst he admits, the sensation of making a vulnerable child smile is tempting after giving them money in the street, people should be aware of what the longer term impact of giving or visiting an orphanage is. It can create a lifecycle of poor child care and can fund pro-longed dangerous living environments.

Orphanage Volunteers

Similar to visiting an orphanage as part of a holiday, those volunteering their time to help out in an orphanage are also gaining attention from the media. Under much criticism, ‘voluntourism’ in general has been put under the spotlight with many asking ‘a help of hindrance?’.

No child benefits from spending intimate time with a total stranger, especially those who are uneducated in social work and education
- Tessa Boudrie, a qualified social worker *

Some professionals in the sector have criticised volunteer opportunities for a lack of purpose and that many volunteers don’t possess the relevant skills or time commitment needed to make a real difference. Orphanages can often be desperate for help and will open their doors unwittingly to dangerous characters, putting children’s safety at risk. Children in orphanages can also be susceptible to emotional loss from the ever changing conveyor belt of volunteers.

On the other hand, volunteers are also open to exploitation and many volunteers engage with orphanages with a genuine desire to bring positive benefits yet are greeted by ‘fake’ or unethical establishments out to make a buck from willing foreigners.

Luke stresses that:

Volunteering can be a great thing and provide fantastic benefits to organisations. People increasingly see the injustice of the world, how it’s not a fair world and they want to do something to prevent or mitigate that in some small way. That’s a really great mind-set to have.

Kate JordanKate Jordan from the USA has spent two four month stints volunteering in orphanages in Nepal and Guatemala. She was motivated to volunteer in orphanages because she loves working with children, with a dream of a career in international social welfare.

Kate pursued working with paid volunteer opportunities to be assured that she was travelling with a reputable organisation. Generally, she felt confident that this money was being spent to support the projects where she was working, such as supplies needed by the orphanage. However, at the orphanage in a rural Nepali village, Kate reports it was very evident that the owner of the orphanage was selling these supplies in order to fund her own comparatively lavish life style.

It was extremely difficult to see that [children] living at the orphanage were being neglected…my supervisor conveyed to me that it was better that they were receiving the care of volunteers, albeit while being denied their rightful resources, rather than receiving no care from volunteers at all. My inability to affect large changes was especially frustrating when I felt that the children were being treated in an unjust manner.

The campaign ‘Orphanages: Not the Solution’ states that “few tourists or volunteers are qualified to interact with traumatized or vulnerable children”. Kate agrees, and when applying to work with children, the only major requirement was that she was over eighteen years. Whilst her education is in social care, Kate believes that there should definitely be more of a screening process for potential volunteers. In general Kate’s experiences were life-changing and heart-warming yet she expressed how difficult it was dealing with children who had experienced hardship at such a young age.

Whilst she admits she will never know if she made a lasting impact on the lives of the children she worked with, the children have made an indelible impact on her life. For Kate, it was important that her time spent in those communities was more long lasting than just the four months spent there. Inspirationally, she recently succeeded in fundraising $10,000 to purchase an ambulance for the rural Nepali village where she worked. She did this in response to the challenges the children faced due to a fluid population of volunteers in orphanages.

[Children] have grown used to the constant coming and going of volunteers and tend to see new volunteers as little more than deliverers of gifts, sweets, and constant attention. I frequently felt that the benefit of having foreign volunteers was outweighed by the negative impact that over-attachment has on the lives of children without parents or families.

We asked Luke what he would recommend to anyone considering visiting or volunteering at an orphanage.

Think…is it really necessary and what help are they actually providing to the children in the centre? Are they actually orphans? If not, why not support an organisation that is helping kids get back with their families or is helping families remain strong so the whole issue of kids being removed from their families never happens in the first place.

If you’d like to make a donation to support the work of Friends-International, you can contribute online here.

Useful Links

  • Wild Asia – We’re proud supporters of the Child Safe Network and share guidelines on our website: link
  • Al-Jazeera - Documentary about ‘Cambodia’s orphan business’ for more information: link 
  • Child Safe Network - Child safe tourism tips for travellers and tourism businesses: link
  • Orphanages No - Discover why supporting orphanages as a ‘solution’ fuels the ‘problem’: link
  • Good Intentions - Learn more about ‘smart aid’: link
  • PEPY – Learning Service volunteer guidelines for those seeking to make a real difference: link 

* Quote taken from Expat Living article “Should you or shouldn’t you volunteer at a Cambodian orphanage?” 

(Photographs provided by Kate Jordan)

Tourism & Conservation in Malaysia

Seeing a turtle, a tiger or any other animal in its wild natural habitat is a breathtaking experience not only for a nature lover, but anyone easily enthralled by pure beauty. Unfortunately opportunities to do so worldwide are getting smaller and smaller as both turtles and tigers are under the threat of extinction in many locations, including Malaysia.

Fortunately for us and the wildlife there is a lot that can be done to preserve both of these beautiful animals on Malaysian land. A variety of organisations aware of the preservation issues have put a lot of effort to support the environment and made it possible for others, including tourists, to get in involved. Anyone, regardless of their skills, can get involved in a number of conservation projects across the country.

Joining a programme like these enables you to not only learn about the wildlife of Malaysia but you also get a chance to help preserve them, this is Ecotourism at its best. - Daniel Quilter, Ecoteer founder


Photo taken from

One of few organisations who realised the need for action is Ecoteer Responsible Travel having established a variety of conservation projects in partnership with credible NGOs such as MYCAT and local stakeholders in order to help preserve the best of Malaysian wildlife. Now tourists can be part of several conservation projects in Malaysia while on holiday.

Tiger conservation at Merapoh, on the borders of Taman Negara, is one of such important programmes run by Ecoteer. The aim of the project is to maintain the wildlife corridor between Taman Negara and main mountain range used by tigers to pass through. The corridor is there to allow migration of wildlife while avoiding isolation and preserving the continuity of number of species, including (apart from tigers) elephants, rhinos, sun bears and leopards. Protecting and improving the corridor is the daily duty of many volunteers who decided to participate to make a difference. Find out more about the Tiger Trail.

The Merapoh programme is something special, in a 2 day expedition the Ecoteer Team managed to find tracks of Sun Bear, Elephant and 2 leopards, plus we deactivated 2 snares and whilst collecting camera traps we captured photos of Sun Bear, Tapir, Golden Cat and a Tiger.  The animals are out there and so too are the poachers, join this programme and do the best thing you can do for Tiger conservation and remove a snare!

Alongside rainforest, Malaysian marine wildlife is another focal point of conservation projects based on the coast. Country’s famous green sea turtles are being monitored in Perthentian Islands by volunteers who have a unique chance to experience underwater wildlife protection whilst learning about the process and educating others, including tourists in the location.

The Perhentian islands are paradise, however many issues still exist like waste disposal and poaching of turtles eggs.  By Joining this programme you are helping to protect one out of 4 key nesting sites in the Perhentians.

Volunteering on conservation projects does not only benefit the wildlife, but also people involved. Programmes like the one in Taman Negara, are a great opportunity to discover the richness and learn about the complexity of rainforest ecosystem as well as difficulties involved in protection of such a vast natural area. Jungle trekking or diving with turtles are firsthand experiences not to be missed by nature lovers and all those concerned about environmental protection. After all it is the wildlife and people who make these places special. Travel & make a difference – support tiger and turtle conservation in Malaysia.

Rethink Voluntourism

As voluntourism gains ground among travellers who hope to do something good while globe trotting, along with it comes detrimental impacts. Gopinath, our friend and fellow partner in the industry shares his views on voluntourism from his experience as a travel professional and social entrepreneur.

A growing number of travelers are volunteering on their vacations, but they sometimes end up doing more harm than good. - Dorinda Elliot from Conde nast Traveler.

After dabbling a little bit in this ‘volunteering’ business, here is our take away.

  • Look for solutions locally
  • Build up strengths of local community.
  • Promote ‘local’ volunteering enabling ‘compassionate destinations’.
  • Facilitate that instead of ‘going to save people’ in another exotic destination.
  • Look in your own backyard and see if your volunteering can make a difference there before flying out.
  • None of this is a utopian idea.

The world has changed a lot, and there are loads of resources available locally that can be channeled effectively. This isn’t the time of missionaries running around saving children left and right. (Although unfortunately such places still do exist!) Decades of funding and volunteering hasn’t brought the sustainable solutions to the suffering that they were promised. Yes, a country that was devastated might need intervention from elsewhere, I agree. However the volunteering we are talking about is either delivered few years post that or in destinations where there isn’t any major ‘crisis’.

So what do I mean by these ‘local solutions’? In my home state of Kerala, for example, local communities run a neighbourhood network called the Pain and Palliative Care Society. Along with its associated organisations today its runs more than 800 palliative clinics. (Actually the majority now are run by Government after they saw this as a successful model reducing tremendous stress on Government or other (almost non-existent) private infrastructure in Palliative Care.)

These clinics have catered to more than 45,000 terminally ill patients. They are run by more than 42,000 local volunteers. Micro-donations are raised locally by students and other volunteers and well wishers. And all this was built up – without international volunteers – from a one room clinic with two doctors, nurses and two volunteers 20 years ago.

We do invite international volunteers to come and work with us, but not to come and ‘save us’. I know this might sound pretty arrogant (especially coming from a person whose country still has 400 million poor people wondering how to get out of the mess they are in!), but this is my experience of working in disaster zones – as well as doing a fair amount of work in community based health care… and running a travel company for the last 8 years…

Here’s what we do instead. During 2013, The Blue Yonder is inviting about 100 international volunteers to India. They pay 500 USD for two weeks of ‘learning’ with us. As a result they learn how local people with limited resources and huge constraints built the world’s largest network of palliative care volunteers (chosen by the W.H.O as it’s first Collaborating Centre outside the so called ‘Developed World’).

We are not looking at these ‘volunteers’ as people who can come and save us. But we are happy to have people who can work with us. And with the money they spend, we can recruit another five local doctors specialised in palliative care who can work in the peripherals of Calicut city.

So what do the volunteers ‘get’ out of it? Ask someone like Kerrie Noonan, who volunteered here and was inspired enough to go back to her home country and set up another social enterprise called GroundsWell project. Shouldn’t international volunteers be trying to do that? Learn from a destination and see how they can take that learning to build a system in their home country / state / neighbourhood?

I know it might not be as dramatic a story as saving India or Indonesia or Haiti, but please just don’t tell me that Rotterdam doesn’t have crazy drug problems among squatters (I have lived with them!); that London doesn’t have it’s own share of crime; or that Berlin or Paris don’t have their own social problems needing dire intervention? And who better to solve these problems than locals living in those cities? They wouldn’t expect a bunch of us Indians to come over on holiday to ‘fix their problems’…

Volunteering can be tremendous fun for both travellers and locals, if the attitude is more about ‘learning’ from locals than what Dorinda in this article is mentioning as “White Man coming to save us”.

So for me the big question is: How can we all channel our energy towards cleaning our neighbourhoods first – before we set off flying 3,000 miles to ‘save the world’? I urge all well-meaning travel volunteers to think about this for a second before plunging into ‘saving the world’ and making another tour company in the source market rich at the expense of some poor community elsewhere!

Volunteering can be tremendous fun for both travellers and locals, if the attitude is more about ‘learning’ from locals than what Dorinda in this article is mentioning as “White Man coming to save us”. (or an Urban kid coming from a city like Delhi or Bangalore to ‘save’ rural Indians’). Think about ‘what’ happens thanks to your volunteering, and after you have gone? Are you building a system that can be sustained? Or as the author mentions here what if “Construction stops whenever funds or volunteers run out”?

If travellers are looking for rewarding ‘experiential’ travel, then do so, by chosing a company like Socialtours Nepal or Spiti Ecosphere or Ethical Travel Portal in Norway – or one of the many other like-minded companies that will help you travel through destinations where sustainable development projects are promoted, pioneered and supported. Just don’t call it volunteering. It’s an immersive travel experience. Isn’t it?

The other day I met a well-meaning Dutch man (living in France) on a yoga course in Pondicherry. On meeting one of the trustees of Aurobindo Society, he was so touched about the good work going around that he asked ‘How can I come in and volunteer’.

It was a well-meaning question. But the experiments of Auroville and wonderful initiatives of Aurobindo Ashram can not be scaled up if their system is ‘burdened’ with ‘well-meaning’ foreign volunteers. If the system (and the well intentional foreign volunteers) can get ‘locals’ to volunteer, then that’s where the change will happen. If this wonderful Dutchman could ‘learn’ from this experience and go home and spread his knowledge, then that’s fruitful too. He can even call it a spiritual quest of ‘finding himself’.

But if this is not the result, then volunteers will keep coming with their skills, voluntourists will keep spending their money with some tour operator, and one day soon we will forget that this was all started in the name of some poor community somewhere in the world. What if, in our selfish quest for ‘answers’ or for checking off a list of things to do before one dies, we might be crushing the possibility of any progress in these communities?

Please, don’t underestimate the intelligence and resourcefulness of local people (whether in Haiti or Uganda or my own village). Please, don’t make another local person a lazy one waiting for her hand out thanks to your ‘wanting’ to save the world. And support our efforts if you can, otherwise for God’s sake, just stay home!

I am happy people like Dorinda travel to find out what the reality is. We need to give a big cheers to such people who keep on reporting back.

Original article written by Dorinda is here. Permission was given by Gopi to re-publish this article on Wild Asia’s website.