Childhood studies and orphanage tourism in
University of Oregon, Department of International Studies, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403, USA
Received 23 October 2014
Revised 29 June 2015
Accepted 18 August 2015
Coordinating Editor: S. Wearing
Interacting with children is one of the most popular activities
among volunteer tourists, yet volunteer tourism research rarely is
informed by insights from childhood studies. This paper shows
how a greater understanding of the socially constructed nature of
many assumptions about children and childhood, as well as a more
accurate understanding of child development processes, can deepen
understanding of the phenomenon widely referred to as orphanage
tourism. Issues to be addressed include the deﬁnition and delin-
eation of orphanage tourism, motivations for and consequences of
orphanage tourism, and the anti-orphanage tourism campaign.
Main points will be illustrated with excerpts from a content analysis
of volunteers’ testimonials, blogs and other online sources.
Ó2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The nexus of childhood studies and tourism studies remains underexplored, under-theorized and
under-utilized despite the light it can shed on dimensions of tourism that are growing in importance
and complexity. The purpose of this paper is to use the lens provided by childhood studies to clarify
some of the underlying issues pertaining to orphanage tourism
and in so doing to illustrate how
childhood studies can illuminate the study of tourism more generally, using orphanage tourism and
the anti-orphanage tourism campaign in Cambodia as a case study. Wearing and McGehee (2013, p.
0160-7383/Ó2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Tel.: +1 (541) 346 3898; fax: +1 (541) 346 5041.
E-mail address: email@example.com
Despite the inherently value-laden nature of the term and the vagueness of its reference, the term ‘orphanage tourism’ will be
used in this paper even as it is critiqued, because it has become established as a conventional term in the literature.
Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27
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122) have called for ‘‘a broadening and setting of the research parameters” in the study of volunteer tour-
ism, and while, as pointed out by McGehee (2014, p. 849) ‘‘a broad spectrum of theoretical perspectives
have been applied to volunteer tourism,” so far the perspectives of childhood studies have yet to be
explored. This omission is somewhat puzzling, given that interacting with children is one of the most
popular volunteer tourism activities, as well as one of the most controversial (Conran, 2011).
Speciﬁc issues to be examined are: (1) the deﬁnition and delineation of orphanage tourism; (2)
motivations for orphanage voluntourism; (3) consequences of orphanage voluntourism; (4) the
anti-orphanage tourism campaign. These areas have been chosen because they all have generated sub-
stantial research interest yet remain incompletely understood because while they all pivot around
children empirically, the lens of childhood studies has yet to be added to the body of research inves-
The term ‘childhood studies’ encompasses two distinct approaches which together provide an
understanding of childhood as both socially constructed and biologically informed. Child development
focuses on maturational processes, highlighting children as ‘‘developing beings who are vulnerable
and in need of protection” (Bluebond-Langner & Korbin, 2007, p. 243). In addition, the term ‘childhood
studies’ has also been more narrowly used since the 1980s to refer to a new social studies of childhood
which emphasizes culturally constructed dimensions of childhood and a view of children as ‘‘in pos-
session of agency, capable and able to make interpretations of their worlds and act on them
(Bluebond-Langner & Korbin, 2007).” In this view, childhood can be viewed as a metaphorical space
as well as a biological stage, and so an overarching goal of childhood studies is to ‘‘resist universal def-
initions of children and childhood,” and to be skeptical of the ‘‘bright line” dividing childhood from
adulthood solely on the basis of years lived (Bluebond-Langner & Korbin, 2007, p. 242). While they
are in principle complementary, tension can arise between the two approaches and their proponents.
The social studies of childhood problematizes perceptions of childhood as a state of becoming rather
than a legitimate state of being in its own right, and maintains that viewing childhood as a temporary
state of preparation for adult life focuses attention on the outcomes of childhood experiences rather
than the lived experience of children. The view of childhood as primarily important insofar as it pre-
pares children for adulthood provides one explanation for the marginalization of children’s perspec-
tives throughout the social sciences. In contrast, focusing on childhood as a state of being in its
own right brings an added salience to children’s rights, both as an object of inquiry and as an ethical
guide to conducting research with children; methodological concerns are therefore another reason
that research concerning children is often scanty (Einarsdottir, 2007). Principles such as the best inter-
ests of the child are often elusive because they are guided by values and culturally informed assump-
tions about the ideal childhood and the ideal way to structure adult–child responsibilities and
interactions, issues that inevitably are contested in volunteer tourism, which frequently includes
encounters of foreign adults with the children of another society.
That the child is largely absent from the tourism literature has been noted (Poria & Timothy, 2014;
Small, 2008) although calls for increased attention have thus far failed to gather signiﬁcant momen-
tum. The majority of references to children in tourism studies analyze the child as a consumer, most
frequently as a family member in research on family tourism, rather than on children per se (Kidron,
2013; Obrador, 2012). A small body of research focuses on children as members of the host commu-
nity, most notably Crick (1989) and Gamradt (1995). Rarest of all is research addressing the ways that
children themselves are perceived as tourist attractions (Guiney, 2012). The best articulated area of
research focused on this dimension of children and tourism addresses child sex tourism, although it
too remains undeveloped, perhaps due to the very uncomfortable nature of the topic; as
Montgomery (2008, p. 914) has written ‘‘it is hard to look at it objectively.”
While volunteer tourism has been lauded as a new kind of tourism (Wearing, 2001; Godfrey &
Wearing, 2012), often linked to 9/11 and the Asian tsunami (Wearing & McGehee, 2013), and as a
‘‘simply ...logical conclusion” of applying ethical concerns to the interest in traveling (Butcher &
Smith, 2010, p. 30), orphanage tourism can also be situated within the history of children’s institutions
and domestic volunteering, not just the history of tourism. In fact, as Guttentag (2009, p. 538) points
16 K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27
out ‘‘the most signiﬁcant growth in the volunteer tourism sector has occurred since 1990,” corre-
sponding closely with an increase in U.S. domestic volunteering spurred by the 1988 ‘‘thousand points
of light” speech by then-President Bush. However, orphanage volunteering was well established even
before that; from the mid-19th through mid-20th centuries, when orphan asylums were widespread
in the U.S., they relied heavily on volunteers (Pousson, n.d.). In the 1980s, many foreigners volunteered
in orphanages that had been set up inside the Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai border, cre-
ating a historical and conceptual foundation for volunteering in orphanages located inside Cambodia
after repatriation (Duchateau-Arminjon, 2013).
One of the ﬁrst discussions of orphanage tourism in the scholarly literature is Richter and Norman
(2010, p. 217) who report coining the term ‘‘orphan tourism” to mean ‘‘travel to residential care facil-
ities, volunteering for generally short periods of time as caregivers.” However, the term has been used
in Cambodia at least since the 2007 Phnom Penh Post headline ‘‘Orphanage tourism: a questionable
industry” (Shelton & Rith, 2007), to refer to a range of experiences, including being a spectator at chil-
dren’s dance performances, bringing donations, playing with children, giving formal or informal Eng-
lish classes, or just viewing the premises. In the scholarly literature, the requirement that the
experience be short-term is criterial. Reas (2013) stipulates that it refers to experiences lasting fewer
than six months, and Guiney & Mostafanezhad (2014, p. 2) deﬁne it as ‘‘the donation of money and
goods, attending performances or volunteering on a short-term basis at orphanages as part of one’s
holiday.” While the referential meaning of the term therefore varies, uses are linked by negative con-
notations, and most discussions in the scholarly literature are cautionary in nature (Verstraete, 2014).
While Richter and Norman (2010) emphasize the risk of attachment disorders for children who inter-
act with an ever-changing stream of transient volunteers, Reas (2013, p. 126) focuses her critique on
the commodiﬁcation of Cambodian orphans even as orphanage tourism fails to address the ‘‘funda-
mental inequalities between the needy and the benevolent.” Wilson (2015) stresses the inadequate
child protection policies and practices of many organizations that rely on volunteers, highlighting par-
ticularly the vulnerabilities that can be exacerbated by residential care, causing excessive potential for
child abuse and exploitation. Focusing primarily on sex abuse, she points out that not only are most
volunteers unfamiliar with appropriate ways to interact with children who are survivors of or at risk of
abuse, but volunteers themselves can be abusers. Guiney & Mostafanezhad (2014) show how an anti-
orphanage tourism campaign that has arisen in Cambodia can insightfully be analyzed as arising in
response to neoliberal forces commodifying children in a situation of double movement as proposed
by Polanyi (2001 ). Taking all these analyses as a point of departure, this paper will address
questions they leave unresolved, such as why the anti-orphanage tourism campaign has taken the
form it has, and why orphanages continue to proliferate despite the success of the campaign, by exam-
ining how implicit unquestioned assumptions about childhood have shaped both sides of the double
This research is primarily theoretical and exploratory, intercalating the lenses of childhood studies
with more established approaches to orphanage tourism. However, in order to ground it empirically
and to provide illustrations for purposes of clarity, a qualitative conventional content analysis (Hsieh,
2005) was conducted, using an inductive approach to identify themes that emerged as relevant to the
intersection of childhood and tourism studies. Using the search strings ‘volunteer orphanage Cambo-
dia,’ ‘orphanage Cambodia’ and ‘orphanage tourism Cambodia,’ a snowball approach was used to col-
lect texts from personal blogs, travel forums and orphanage, volunteer agency and NGO websites.
Although Cambodia is a popular destination for Asian tourists and, increasingly, volunteers, in this
research only the anglophone media has been examined. Collection of texts was begun in 2011 and
has continued through 2015. Since Google’s search algorithm precludes any assumption of random-
ness in the sample of texts, a large number were targeted for analysis, under the assumption that this
would ensure representativeness, if not randomness. In all, a total of 100 texts, 50 testimonials of
returned volunteers and 50 criticisms of volunteering, were ﬁrst read in order to identify relevant
themes. In order to be added to the corpus, both criticisms and testimonials were required to be spon-
taneous, unprompted, and unrenumerated. In other words, volunteer testimonials were not added to
K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27 17
the collection if they were prompted with speciﬁc questions, as is common on some user reviews, and
reports from formal media, such as online newspapers, were not part of the collection. Some keyword
searches were conducted to quantify how many texts contained particular themes and will be pro-
vided where relevant, but they are meant only as an indication of the salience of particular themes,
and are not intended to imply statistical signiﬁcance; excerpts are meant to serve primarily as illus-
trations. The analysis of primary data from online sources, known as digital ethnography (Underberg &
Zorn, 2013) or netnography (Mkono & Markwell, 2014), has the virtues of comprehensiveness, authen-
ticity and verbatim accuracy. Online communities’ ‘‘candor and richness” (Mkono & Markwell, 2014, p.
290) reveal what posters choose to disclose, reﬂecting subjective importance, rather than what a
researcher might think to ask them. It has been convincingly argued that ‘‘weblogs do not represent
a radical departure from more established media of communication” (Haas, 2005), but the relationship
between how people express themselves on blogs and how they communicate in more established
modes of communication remain a topic for further research. Although all excerpts used for illustra-
tion are part of the public record, names and sources have been removed for purposes of
This purposive sampling of online texts was originally inspired by the author’s previous research
project pertaining to the lived experience of children in Siem Reap orphanages, done through
participant-observation in four separate visits over three years. In the course of conducting that study,
it became clear that tourists and volunteers were important factors in the children’s lives because they
interacted regularly with the children and because the resources they provided were essential for the
operating costs of several orphanages. While the results of that study are not directly relevant to the
current investigation, they provided an initial point of entry as well as motivation for pursuing this
research in the ﬁrst place.
Deﬁnition and delineation of orphanage tourism
The deﬁnitional boundary between ‘volunteering’ and ‘orphanage tourism’ is complicated by
socially constructed norms concerning appropriate adult interaction with children (Lancy, 2010),
including a privileging of particularistic models of how children learn and the prevalent Western belief
that childhood is a state of preparation, rather than a legitimate state of being in its own right
(Uprichard, 2008). As discussed above, whereas the scholarly literature focuses on short duration as
criterial in distinguishing between orphanage tourism and volunteering, even very short-term visitors
do not refer to themselves as orphanage tourists. In popular discourse, the activities performed, rather
than the length of time, are criterial. In particular, visitors who spend their time playing with the chil-
dren consider themselves to be legitimate volunteers and speak proudly of the time they spend play-
ing. The theme of play was very salient in volunteers’ testimonials, with 26 out of the 50 using the
word ‘play’ when describing their experiences, as illustrated in the following excerpts:
‘‘I know it’s important,” [name of volunteer] said. ‘‘They don’t have family, so I like to just play with
them. I took every opportunity I could before we had to leave.”
‘‘In fact the greatest highlights were simply being with children and the friendships I made. I hope
though, that by being with them, reading stories, playing games, talking and generally caring for
and taking an interest in them, that they can enjoy being children a bit longer.”
‘‘My favourite moment was playing with the kids outside in the afternoons and seeing them
‘‘We spent around 3 or 4 hours playing with them, we were absolutely sweating in 30+ heat run-
ning around with kids on our shoulders! We all had so much fun together. It’s a lovely feeling
knowing we enriched their lives as they enriched ours.”
At the same time, a belief in childhood as primarily a time of preparation, rather than a way of
being in the world in its own right, leads to the evaluation of children’s activities in terms of how well
they position children for adulthood rather than whether or not children ﬁnd playing with the visitors
fun, leading to critics’ perception that volunteers who play with children are motivated by self-
18 K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27
indulgence and are not performing legitimate volunteer activities, as illustrated in the excerpt below,
which explicitly criticizes the fact that volunteers spend their time playing with the children rather
than performing more putatively valuable activities with them:
‘‘If you know anything about the voluntourism trend, you know that 99.999% of the tourists have
absolutely no credentials whatsoever. And if you work with children then you should also know
that having tourists pop in to play with the kids for a week or two does absolutely nothing for
the children and is simply done to give the tourist the warm fuzzies.”
The critique of volunteers who just play represents an ongoing contestation concerning the chang-
ing social construction of childhood. As children have been disconnected from the workplace during
the 19th and 20th centuries, children’s play has been reinterpreted to have critical functions beyond
amusement, crystalized into the widely repeated dictum ‘‘play is children’s work” (Rivera, 2009, p. 17).
Adult play with children has become highly valorised as a legitimate form of care provision, elevating
it ‘‘to the level of an exportable social good” (Lancy, 2007, p. 273). Foreign visitors to orphanages often
note negatively that staff rarely play with children (Wang, 2010), and providers and parents are
advised that ‘‘Children often need adult help ...to play” so adults should not just observe, but should
‘‘participate” and ‘‘model” ideal forms of play (Extension, 2014). Thus, it can be seen that even the
choice to use the term ‘orphanage tourist’ rather than ‘volunteer’, reveals as much about the implicit
assumptions about childhood borne by the speaker as it does about objective circumstances.
Motivations for orphanage tourism
Motivation has been called the social sciences’ ‘‘most vexed question” (Dann, 2005; quoting Weber,
1968), and this question is especially vexed in the case of Cambodian orphanage tourism. As the num-
ber of children without living parents has decreased, orphanage tourism has increased. Why is it gath-
ering momentum just as the need for orphanages in Cambodia appears to be dwindling? Like
volunteer tourism in general, orphanage tourism is richly overdetermined, because, in addition to fac-
tors driving volunteer tourism more generally such as altruism, the search for a transformative expe-
rience, self-healing and intimacy (Alomari, 2002; McGehee, 2014; Wearing & McGehee, 2013),
orphanage tourism is also motivated by perceptions of childhood, with a historical trajectory separate
from, but overlapping with, the history of tourism.
The quest for a transformative experience is often considered a primary motivation for volun-
tourism (Knollenberg, McGehee, Bynum Boley, & Clemmons, 2014) and this is ampliﬁed when the vol-
unteering involves orphans, who are themselves one of the most potent symbols of transformation in
Western literature. Although typically characterized as materially and socially vulnerable, orphans are
paradoxically powerful in their ability to effect a transformation, because by helping orphans, adults
become better people, morally and emotionally (Avery, 1994; Kimball, 1999). Many volunteer testi-
monials conform very closely to the schema of the adult who is transformed into a better human being
through helping orphans, and the expectation of this transformation probably motivates many volun-
teers. The following excerpts illustrate how explicit the theme of transformation is in volunteers’ tes-
timonials, which was found in 36% of them:
‘‘We taught English at an orphanage and the School for Orphans. Although we were there to teach
the children, we found that the values we learnt from them are ones that we will carry with us for
the rest of our lives.”
‘‘I taught English there for a time, but it seems that the children taught me a few things also, they
taught me the true meaning of life & love, & what it is to be human. I will remember those kids &
their lessons for the rest of my life.”
‘‘...the children truly touched my heart and altered my direction in life.”
Adults’ use of orphans as instruments of transformation is an example of the kind of affective con-
tribution that has increasingly come to replace the economic contributions that children once made.
As Zelizer has famously pointed out, the modern child has become at once economically ‘‘useless”, but
K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27 19
emotionally ‘‘priceless” (Zelizer, 1994). Consequently, children’s economic contributions to household
ﬁnances, once considered routine, are now considered exploitative while the affective contributions
expected from children have become more important. Since the 19th century, the trope of childhood
innocence has become dominant, but this automatic association of childhood, and especially orphan-
hood, with innocence is by no means globally ubiquitous (Lancy, 2008). The centrality of innocence to
constructions of childhood helps foreigners to reconcile the dissonance they experience
when their internalized ideology of individual accountability is confronted with majority world poverty
for the ﬁrst time. Raised to hold individuals rather than historical and structural factors as primary deter-
minants of success or failure, at the same time young travelers cannot help but be moved by poverty, a
response that is capitalized on explicitly in imagery used to market volunteer opportunities by agencies
(Zeddies, 2013). They are invited to help children, who because they are innocent, cannot be held
accountable for their own poverty. Calkin (2014, p. 34) speaks of the ‘‘deep ambivalence volunteers feel
toward poverty” as a ‘‘marker of authenticity and otherness”; volunteering with orphans is a way to rec-
oncile some of the tensions inherent in that ambivalence.
Motivations can become conventionalized over time so that reasons that were meaningful to pre-
vious visitors are sometimes unexamined by later ones, particularly when they bolster cultural scripts
that are already well-developed, such as the largely unquestioned expectation that one should volun-
teer, which is particularly well developed in the current cohort of teenagers and twenty-somethings.
And, while Calkin (2014) proposes that volunteer tourism ‘‘assigns a homogeneous otherness to all
destination countries” (p. 37), patterns can be destination-speciﬁc as well. For example, while tourism
and voluntourism have both been critiqued for involving an element of voyeurism (Scheyvens, 2010),
Hughes (2008) argues that visitors to Cambodia in the late 1990s were provoked by the paucity of
interpretive materials into interpreting their own experience as an act of bearing witness rather than
one of entertainment, stimulating an orientation toward Cambodia distinct from consumption in the
conventional sense. Hughes’ interviewees spoke of a ‘‘moral imperative” to visit unpleasant sites,
framing their relationship to Cambodia in terms of ‘‘duty,” often as a prelude to ‘‘the shuttling from
a tourist subjectivity to that of a humanitarian actor” (p. 327). This reorientation encouraged many
visitors to genocide memorials to seek volunteer opportunities in sites such as orphanages. However,
many of the insights experienced ﬁrsthand by Hughes’ interviewees are today fossilized as a conven-
tional perception of Cambodia which has led to a proliferation of, and intense competition among,
development organizations and aid workers, in addition to volunteers. A striking aspect of prospective
volunteers’ inquiries online is how often no motivation or justiﬁcation for volunteering in an orphan-
age is provided – out of the 50 testimonials analyzed, only three gave any kind of explanation or moti-
vation. Just as conventionalized Western narratives of Cambodia construct the ‘‘tourist gaze” (Urry,
1990) as an act of bearing witness and construct Cambodia as a site for humanitarian intervention,
so do conventionalized Western perceptions of orphans construct them as sites for adult intervention;
the conﬂuence of the two narratives leads to an unquestioned perception of volunteering in a Cambo-
dian orphanage as simply what one does. The following examples of inquiries from prospective vol-
unteers on travel forums reﬂect how volunteering has become a normalized expectation among
young people (Friedland & Morimoto, 2005, p. 16) who ‘‘simply assume that these activities are what
they should do, and need to do” (Friedland & Morimoto, 2005, p. 11):
‘‘Has anyone had any experience with this? I was looking at going back to Cambodia in July and
thought I might as well volunteer rather than just travel.”
‘‘I will have a free month in Cambodia or Thailand and I was thinking to do some volunteering work
during this time.”
For many young travelers the overseas volunteer experience is a logical sequel to volunteering they
have been doing at home, with rates as high as 70% among U.S. high school seniors (Bound, Hershbein,
& Long, 2009). In other words, volunteering while traveling internationally shares continuities with a
In much of the childhood studies literature, it is customary to use the term ‘minority world’ for countries that are also referred
to as high HDI, wealthy, Western, Global North and/or developed. Countries referred to as low HDI, less wealthy, non-Western,
Global South and/or developing are referred to as ‘majority world’.
20 K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27
popular domestic pastime, consonant with a recent recognition of the importance of ‘‘ordinary expe-
riences” that has gained more attention in studies of tourism (Blichfeldt & Mikkelsen, 2014), in con-
trast to a tradition of research which is focused on the allure of difference for travelers (McCabe,
2002). Critics of orphanage tourism often use prompts such as ‘‘If you want to work with children
in Cambodia, ﬁrst, ask yourself if you are qualiﬁed to work with children at home?” (Goldberg,
2013) to elicit a voluntary decision to cancel volunteering plans, but their point is lost on many young
travelers who already have internalized volunteering with children as the unmarked case.
Consequences of orphanage tourism
The potential consequences of orphanage tourism are particularly concerning to its critics. It is gen-
erally accepted that visitors’ eagerness to volunteer and make donations encourages the proliferation
of new orphanages as an entrepreneurial niche (Tuovinen, 2014), undermining Cambodian families by
pulling children into residential care unnecessarily (Clark, 2014). The Cambodian government reports
that three-fourths of children residing in orphanages have at least one living parent (NGOCRC, 2013;
UNICEF, 2009), a ﬁgure generally interpreted as evidence of widespread deception. However, just as
childhood is a social construction as much as it is a biological reality, the word ‘orphan’ is also cultur-
ally informed and does not map perfectly from one language into another. In Khmer, kamprea, usually
translated as ‘orphan’, is closer in meaning to ‘waif’ or ‘foundling’, that is, a child who lacks parental
care for whatever reason, not necessarily because both parents are dead. This discrepancy in usage
accounts for a mismatch in expectations that underlies some of the controversy over the pull factors
created by orphanage tourism. Cambodians can use it in good faith to refer to children with one or two
living parents, even as foreigners feel that deception or corruption is involved.
In addition to concerns about the undermining of families, there is also the concern that orphanage
tourism, especially visitors’ donations, may be creating dependency and may be unsustainable
(McGehee, 2012), especially in the context of Cambodia’s already heavy dependence on foreign aid
(Ear, 2012). These concerns inform perceptions of the popular volunteer activity of teaching English
to children in orphanages. Criticisms revolve around both the volunteers’ lack of professionalism
and their preference for teaching children rather than adult English teachers (Holmberg, 2014;
Lancy, 2010; Tuovinen, 2014), as shown in the criticisms below:
Do think hard about what skills you have that will make a difference to the children; teaching them
to sing nursery rhymes in English is not going to do much for their future.
Even teaching English to kids (a popular short-term stint) has been proven conclusively to be at
best mildly entertaining, and at worst a waste of everybody’s time.
However, these criticisms do not reﬂect current scholarship on how language is best learned. Most
interactions among volunteers and resident children are marked by the characteristics of immersion
learning, namely language which ‘‘is used for real communication in meaningful, contextually-rich
settings” (Cummins & Swain, 2014, p. 57). Immersion language learning can be very effective for chil-
dren, especially in a setting that is marked with fun and playful interactions with slightly older com-
panions, such as the youth who are the majority of volunteer English teachers at orphanages. Although
volunteers are often advised that for their efforts to be truly sustainable, they should teach English to
adult Cambodian teachers rather than to children (ConCERT, n.d.), an important practical considera-
tion is that children usually learn a new language more effectively than adults (Gursoy & Akin, 2013).
Volunteer testimonials consistently report that English proﬁciency is on average higher among
children in orphanages than it is among children who have only studied in the public school system,
and the following observations, while anecdotal, suggest that progress is being made in the children’s
acquisition of English even though many of the teachers are inexperienced and turnover is high:
‘‘The children speak better English than some of the staff.”
‘‘We had such an amazing time, singing songs, playing games and, at the same time, learning
K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27 21
‘‘Most of the work was dictation which, as a future teacher, seemed quite boring a lot of the time. I
would usually mix it up by adding in a few word games, drawing games, etc, which the kids loved!”
‘‘Thus, our structured time with the orphans focused on development of English skills. (Name) and I
did not speak a lick of Khmer, so even our free time spent with them pushed along this agenda.”
‘‘Unfortunately, the kids here may have a better chance of succeeding than kids who come from
solid family backgrounds.”
Despite the certainty with which critics dismiss the value of volunteer efforts to engage children
using English, the arguments are based on implicit values and assumptions about child development,
rather than objective evidence. No formal research has compared English skills of resident and non-
resident Cambodian children, although there is evidence from the domain of reading tutoring that
minimally trained college students, enlisted in many cases simply because they needed the income
rather than any altruistic motivation, can signiﬁcantly improve the reading outcomes of at-risk chil-
dren (Fitzgerald, 2001).
An additional contribution that can be made by applying a more thorough knowledge of child
development to the study of orphanage tourism pertains to the risk of attachment disorders due to
high turnover and short duration of most visits. This concern has been repeated relatively uncritically
in anti-orphanage tourism literature (Richter & Norman, 2010; Walker & Hartley, 2013) but the usage
reﬂects some misunderstanding. Attachment disorder refers to permanent deﬁcits due to care depri-
vation or instability in the ﬁrst three years of life, and its causes, symptoms and prevalence are in fact
quite controversial (Quinn & Mageo, 2013). However, the attachment literature is very clear that it is
children under the age of three who are at risk, and attachment disorder should be diagnosable by age
ﬁve (Zeanah & Gleason, 2010). It is not a risk for children who are placed in institutions after age ﬁve,
as is usually the case in Cambodia because that is when the lack of educational opportunities in rural
areas becomes an issue. Children may become very fond of volunteers, and they may be sad when they
leave, but it is not accurate to refer to this sadness as attachment disorder, nor to assume that it is
Cambodia’s anti-orphanage tourism campaign
Since much debate concerning volunteer tourism surrounds its potential to contribute to host soci-
eties’ wellbeing weighted against the ways it may be inherently commodifying and even destructive
(Butcher & Smith, 2010; Godfrey & Wearing, 2012), the need for research into evaluation and regula-
tion of volunteer tourism is widely recognized (Taplin, Dredge, & Scherrer, 2014), consonant with
McGehee’s (2014, p. 849) call for ‘‘criteria to strive for in order to curb the example of irresponsible
and unethical volunteer tourism.” Although common approaches to monitoring emphasize the role
of formal regulation (Fee & Mdee, 2010, chap. 15), an anti-orphanage tourism campaign that has
arisen in Cambodia provides an alternative model of self-regulation among orphanages, volunteer
agencies and visitors themselves. The campaign has been analyzed by Guiney & Mostafanezhad
(2014) as an example of double movement, based on Polanyi’s prediction that resistance will sponta-
neously arise in response to the dislocations caused by unregulated economic interests encroaching
into the personal and affective sphere. This analysis explains how effective regulation can originate
outside of formal state policies. However, it raises the more basic question of how any regulation
can appropriately determine best practices across different cultural settings, particularly in a domain
as contested and affectively charged as childhood. To illustrate, I will ﬁrst give a brief history of the
anti-orphanage tourism campaign, then show how it is based on a universalization and naturalization
of particularistic social constructions of childhood.
In 2005 Friends-International, a respected NGO serving children living and/or working on the
streets of Phnom Penh, began an initiative called ChildSafe, which offered training to drivers, hotel
staff and others employed in tourism so they could respond to child exploitation and endangerment
(Friends-International, 2007a). Orphanages were not the original focus, but were included as places
where it was particularly easy for predators to gain access to children. Volunteers and tourists were
enlisted as allies in efforts to prevent exploitation, and were educated to patronize only individuals
22 K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27
and establishments that had made the ChildSafe commitment. While volunteer tourists still tend to
see themselves as central to the solution, many resident aid workers have come to see them as central
to the problem instead, and as the campaign has gathered momentum, the focus has shifted from con-
cerns about the potential for sexual exploitation in orphanages to concerns about orphanages per se. In
2011, Friends-International launched the ‘‘Children are not tourist attractions” campaign, speciﬁcally
targeting orphanage tourism and drawing on a children’s rights-based framework, with a particular
focus on the child’s right to privacy and dignity.
As a model for self-regulation in the absence of effective government enforcement of minimum
standards, the campaign has been quite successful, but it is vital to recognize how fundamentally
the campaign relies on imported minority world ideas about childhood. Rather than arising as a spon-
taneous social movement as predicted by Polanyi, it was intentionally designed by expatriate aid
workers in Western NGOs (Guiney & Mostafanezhad (2014)), and it remains thinly grafted onto Cam-
bodian society. Cambodian voices are largely missing from the campaign, as expatriate aid workers
use their own constructions of childhood, children’s rights, and the best interests of the child to inform
its goals and strategies. For example, research conducted by UNICEF and the Cambodian government
found that 92% of Cambodian family members agreed that a poor family should send a child to an
orphanage for education (UNICEF, 2011), suggesting that out-of-home residence is viewed somewhat
differently in Cambodia from how it is in the West (Carpenter, 2013, 2014). While poverty is widely
regarded as the driving force behind orphanage placements of children with living parents, the same
study indicates that fewer than half are placed solely because of poverty. In Cambodia, the primary
reason families place their children in orphanages is that they believe that children’s educational
opportunities will be greater there, and, as several research projects have documented, they often
are (Emond, 2009; Whetten et al., 2009).
The anti-orphanage tourism campaign is largely inspired by a rights-based approach as formalized
in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially the guiding principle of best interests of the
child, which is subject to a great deal of individual and cultural interpretation. In particular, although
all rights are intended to be inalienable with none privileged with respect to any other, in complex
situations they necessarily come into conﬂict, and the choice of which to prioritize in cases of conﬂict
inevitably is based on culture-speciﬁc values. For example, the anti-orphanage tourism campaign sin-
gles out the right to privacy as paramount, and violations of children’s dignity are seen as especially
egregious (Friends-International, 2007b). However, in situations of educational deprivation, the right
to privacy may not be as important to stakeholders as the right to education is, and dignity can be
accrued in many different ways. The right to dignity is interpreted in anti-orphanage tourism narra-
tives as primarily a right not to ‘‘be exposed to strangers in their own home” (ChildSafe Traveler Tips,
n.d.), rather than, say, a right to the dignity that comes from working as a contributing member of a
family and community (Alcala et al., 2014), such as performing as dancers in orphanage fundraisers. In
the idealized minority world childhood, responsibility ﬂows in only one direction, from the parent to
the child, thus pathologizing children’s own contributions, but this is far from universal. In many parts
of the world, it is believed that contributing to household resources may be not only necessary, but
even that ‘‘working is good for children” (Sinervo, 2011, p. 170). Children’s work is not universally
viewed as exploitation, and children can derive satisfaction and dignity from being able to contribute
to their own and others’ wellbeing.
Similarly, the campaign’s interpretation of the child’s right to family care privileges certain ideals of
family conﬁguration over others. The view of family as a mother, a father and their minor dependent
children residing under one roof precludes the possibility of a longer-term view allowing for the fam-
ily to be strengthened rather than undermined if children leave home in order to enhance their abil-
ities to make contributions later on. Article 47 of the Cambodian constitution frames children’s rights
in a reciprocal, lifelong manner: ‘‘Parents shall have the duty to take care of and educate their children
to become good citizens. Children shall have the duty to take good care of their elderly parents accord-
ing to Khmer customs.” For many families, prioritizing the child’s right to education, along with the
reciprocal nature of responsibility to the family unit, logically leads to residential care as a desirable
choice, and the many young foreigners who enthusiastically practice English with their children are
seen as a tremendous boon.
K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27 23
The Cambodian anti-orphanage tourism campaign has come to dominate the global discourse on
orphanages. However, as it has spread through the global media, some themes have been selectively
ampliﬁed, while others have become less salient. The original Friends-International campaign focused
on the inherent exploitativeness of strangers’ access to children’s place of residence, and to the prob-
lem of families being misled into believing that their children’s material and educational circum-
stances will be improved. However, secondary reports, especially in the media, tend to focus on the
way that the volunteers are being duped because resident children are often revealed to have at least
one living parent, framing naive volunteers as the victims, rather than the children. Headlines such as
‘‘Scambodia ‘fake’ orphans” (Cambodia Forum, 2011), ‘‘Cambodia’s orphanages target the wallets of
well-meaning tourists” (Carmichael, 2011) and ‘‘In Cambodia, fake orphanages soak up donations
by duping tourists” (Hruby, 2014) all appear to cast the volunteers as the ones who are being exploited
because the resident children are not real orphans. Why does the fact that many resident children
have at least one living parent disturb foreigners so much, particularly since, as previously discussed,
the Khmer word that translates as ‘orphan’ contains no requirement that both of the child’s parents be
deceased? The answer has to do with the orphan trope and its value to volunteers. Seeking a transfor-
mative experience, visitors feel duped because fake orphans are not transformative. Foreigners posi-
tion themselves as the true victims in the scenario, because they were duped into feeling sorry for
children who are not real orphans, and who therefore cannot provide the kind of transformative expe-
rience that they are expecting.
This paper has shown several ways in which childhood studies can contribute to a deeper under-
standing of important issues in volunteer tourism. In particular, it has shown how naturalizing and
universalizing socially constructed values and beliefs about childhood contribute to both the wide-
spread desire to volunteer with children, and to the strong reaction against widespread volunteering
with children. Understanding all stakeholders’, especially prospective volunteers’, cultural schemata
of childhood can also shed light on complex issues that have been recognized throughout the volun-
teer tourism literature as needing further elucidation, such as motivations. Prospective volunteers in
Cambodian orphanages are motivated by belief in orphans’ transformative power, and by the ability of
childhood innocence to reconcile conﬂicting perceptions of poverty and individual accountability.
Similarly, critics of orphanage tourism often assume idealized family compositions and roles and
responsibilities based on minority world constructions of childhood and children’s rights. In addition,
understanding and not overgeneralizing constructs from child development, such as attachment the-
ory and language acquisition, can lead to a more accurate understanding of the consequences of
This paper has necessarily opted for breadth over depth, thus paving the way for future research
investigating all of these areas in greater depth and detail. For example, while in this paper it has been
proposed that common metaphorical and literary uses of childhood inﬂuence both the decision to vol-
unteer and the meaning with which that experience is afterwards imbued, conducting interviews to
complement the online sources would provide greater insight into the extent to which this is signif-
icant. Anecdotal reports concerning the relative effectiveness of playful immersion with volunteers
compared with more didactic approaches to teaching English need to be veriﬁed with research to
resolve whether or not untrained volunteers are really wasting children’s time, or whether they are
really enhancing children’s English language proﬁciency. In addition, while volunteer tourism has
been widely analyzed as a historical outgrowth from tourism more generally, the extent to which it
shares historical continuities with other phenomena, such as domestic volunteering and local models
of children’s services provision, could provide new ways of thinking about volunteer tourism more
To question implicit and deeply held assumptions about the nature of childhood does not entail a
lack of concern for the vulnerabilities of children, nor a lack of compassion for the lived experience of
the many children in Cambodia who grapple with the challenges caused by poverty and other social
problems that arise in post-conﬂict societies. However, implicit assumptions need to be recognized
24 K. Carpenter / Annals of Tourism Research 55 (2015) 15–27
and interrogated dispassionately precisely because discussions of children generate so much emotion.
Certainly, there is much that is concerning about the rise of unregulated orphanage tourism and the
potential for harm that accompanies it. But critiques are more credible when they are anchored ﬁrmly
in accurate understandings of phenomena and their actual consequences, and concerns about chil-
dren’s wellbeing are best served when one is as informed as possible about childhood and child
The author wishes to thank the Center for Khmer Studies for the Senior Faculty Research Fellow-
ship that made this research possible, as well as the many children, staff and community members
in Cambodia who remain anonymous to preserve their privacy, but whose generous sharing of time
and insights provides the foundation for this study.
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