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Orphanage Tourism


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Orphanage tourism refers to the practice of volunteering or visiting with children in residential care facilities usually located in less developed countries in the Global South. Orphanage tourism stems from the desire for more meaningful and ethical holiday experiences, and wanting to give back to the host communities that one visits. In this chapter we problematize the practice of orphanage tourism and explain seminal research in this space.
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Canosa, A. & K. E. van Doore (forthcoming 2022), Orphanage Tourism in D. Buhalis (ed.),
Encyclopedia of Tourism Management and Marketing, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton,
MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing. ISBN: 9781800377479
Orphanage Tourism
Orphanage tourism refers to the practice of volunteering or visiting with children in residential
care facilities usually located in less developed countries in the Global South. Orphanage
tourism stems from the desire for more meaningful and ethical holiday experiences, and
wanting to give back to the host communities that one visits. Orphanage tourism is a subsector
of volunteer tourism or ‘voluntourism’ which refers to travelling overseas to ‘do good’ in other
communities. Voluntourism is ‘a type of tourism where tourists pay to participate, often in
development or conservation projects’ (Guiney & Mostafanezhad, 2015, p. 133). A belief in
the transformative benefits of volunteering is the main motivation to engage in voluntourism,
and this is amplified when the volunteering activity involves the poor, the vulnerable, and
orphans often located in the Global South (Cheney & Rotabi, 2015).
Tourists who engage in orphanage tourism are predominantly from developed countries in the
Global North and are motivated by a desire to help vulnerable children by volunteering,
visiting, and/or donating money to orphanages. Richter and Norman first described orphan
tourism as individuals travelling to residential care facilities and volunteering for generally
short periods of time as caregivers’ (2010, p. 217). Since then, the definition of orphanage
tourism has evolved to include ‘the donation of money and goods, attending performances, or
volunteering on a short-term basis at orphanages as part of one’s holiday’ (Guiney and
Mostafanezhad, 2015, p. 133). The children and young people who live in these residential care
facilities are the recipients of the care and often affection of voluntourists who engage in
activities such as English classes, sports, games, art, concerts, and performances. These
establishments, which are commonly referred to as ‘orphanages,’ are residential care centres
where children receive full-time care without the involvement of parents or family members.
However, the children are not always ‘orphans’ and, in fact, in the majority of cases, there is
at least one living parent and/or family member who could care for them with support.
Paradoxically the very desire to do good and engage in what is perceived as a more ethical and
responsible form of travel is contributing to an orphanage industry. Child protection experts
advocate against the practice due to the short-term nature of visiting and volunteering, the
reliance on unskilled volunteers in positions responsible for vulnerable children, and the body
of research on the harms of institutionalisation for children which can lead to documented
negative impacts on children’s safety including abuse, neglect, exploitation and human
trafficking. Research published in The Lancet found that volunteering in orphanages elevated
the risks to resident children by unintentionally adding to the fragmented care that
institutionalised care is often characterized by (Goldman et al., 2020, 611).
Orphanage tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the majority of academic articles
published in the last decade. Much of the scholarly interest in the practice stems from the anti-
orphanage tourism campaigns that have dominated global discourses on orphanages and the
anti-slavery movement, which links orphanage tourism to child trafficking as a demand driver
to populate orphanages, which become attractions for visiting voluntourists (van Doore &
Nhep, 2019). Increasingly, links have been made between orphanage tourism, modern slavery,
the infringement of child rights, and the over-use of institutionalisation as a means of
addressing vulnerability in less developed countries. Media has at times conflated orphanage
tourism with modern slavery; however scholarly research has clarified that orphanage tourism
is not synonymous with modern slavery but can be a driver of demand for acts of modern
slavery such as orphanage trafficking (van Doore & Nhep, 2019, 120). In 2019, the United
Nations General Assembly Resolution on the Rights of the Child focused on Children without
Parental Care called for State Parties to take appropriate measures to both prevent and address
harms related to orphanage volunteering programmes in the context of tourism which could
lead to trafficking and exploitation.
Critical debates in scholarly research highlight that orphanage tourism is an ethically complex
phenomenon. Carpenter (2015), for example, demonstrates through participant observation in
one Cambodian orphanage that although the ‘orphanage boom’ has sparked widespread
concern, the children in the orphanage she observed were ‘faring well.’ The author challenges
the rights-based approach taken by humanitarian interventions and the anti-orphanage
movement, arguing that this is often in stark contrast with local practices and religious beliefs.
On the other hand, research conducted by Guiney across fifty-three orphanages in Cambodia
found ‘numerous issues of potential harm within orphanage tourism, with the potential for
abuse and corruption especially alarming’ (Guiney, 2015, p. 13).
While orphanage tourism is still popular, particularly among young student travellers, several
awareness campaigns have aimed to educate potential volunteers and visitors on the harms
associated with the practice. Campaigns such as the ‘Children are not Tourist Attractions’ by
Friends International (see Figure 1), the ‘Love you Give’ campaign by the Better Care
Network, and #HelpingNotHelping by Lumos have all contributed to raising awareness of the
potential harms of orphanage tourism. In addition, the ReThink Orphanages Network (formerly
Better Volunteering, Better Care) was established as a global cross-sector coalition working to
prevent family separation and the unnecessary institutionalization of children by shifting the
way countries engage with overseas aid and development, particularly via orphanage tourism.
What is really needed is more research on ethical tourism involving children in order to develop
local and global child-centred responses to keep children safe in tourism destinations and
promote child safe tourism practices (Canosa & Graham, 2016). Many scholars call for
increased child protection in orphanage tourism. Guiney (2015) recommends the formalisation
of sector-wide child protection policies to prevent situations of abuse and exploitation related
to orphanage tourism occurring, and van Doore and Nhep (2019) advocate for criminal
sanctions for people who participate in the exploitation and/or trafficking of children via
orphanage tourism. However, it should be noted that such a focus on criminal sanctions must
be coupled with social welfare reforms addressing child vulnerability to reduce the reliance of
less developed countries in the Global South on institutional care. Whilst some scholars
conducting studies where children express positive experiences of the practice call for a more
balanced approach to orphanage tourism, child protection experts, including UNICEF, are
actively campaigning for an end to the practice.
Keywords: orphanage tourism; voluntourism; children; child safe tourism; child
trafficking; modern slavery
Figure 1: The ‘Children are not Tourist Attractions’ campaign, reproduced with permission © 2011 -2021
Friends-International/ChildSafe Movement.
Canosa, A., & Graham, A. (2016). Ethical tourism research involving children. Annals of Tourism Research, 61,
Carpenter, K. (2015). Continuity, complexity and reciprocity in a Cambodian orphanage. Children & Society,
29(2), 85-94.
Cheney, K., & Rotabi, K. S. (2015). Addicted to orphans: How the global orphan industrial complex jeopardizes
local child protection systems. Conflict, Violence and Peace, 1-19.
Goldman, P. et al (2020. Institutionalisation and deinstitutionalisation of children 2: policy and practice
recommendations for global, national, and local actors. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health 4(8) 606.
Guiney, T., & Mostafanezhad, M. (2015). The political economy of orphanage tourism in Cambodia. Tourist
Studies, 15(2), 132-155.
Guiney, T. (2015). Orphanage tourism: The need for protection and policy. In C. Freeman, P. Tranter, & T. Skelton
(Eds.) Risk, protection, provision and policy (pp. 121). Singapore: Springer Singapore.
Richter, L.M., & Norman, A. (2010). AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care.
Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies 5(3) 217.
van Doore, K., & Nhep, R. (2019). Orphanage Trafficking, Modern Slavery and the Australian Response. Griffith
Journal of Law & Human Dignity, 7(2) 115-138.
This article maps and critically discusses the intersection of childhood, human rights and tourism in scholarly research. Findings reveal this area of scholarship has received little attention beyond “adultist” and “protectionist” approaches, which construct children as too vulnerable to participate in tourism research, policy and practice. Through a systematic scoping review of relevant peer-reviewed scholarly articles, we argue for more child-centred, rights-based, and participatory approaches to engaging children in research about their lives in an area where their voices are often neglected. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (uncrc) was an important milestone in realising children’s rights, and while much has been achieved during this time, children’s rights research and scholarship must address certain fundamental issues to move into the future. This paper aims to respond to the recent call for more interdisciplinary efforts focused on children’s rights in the context of global development and tourism.
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There has been considerable recent interest concerning children in tourism research, with studies arguing that children’s voices have often been neglected (Carpenter, 2015; Poria & Timothy, 2014), particularly in the areas of family tourism (Schänzel, 2010), holiday experiences (Small, 2008) and children as members of host communities (Buzinde & Manuel-Navarrete, 2013; Canosa, Wilson, & Graham, 2016). Such debates mirror the discourse around children’s participation in research in other applied fields, although Tourism Studies has been slow to engage. While the absence of children in Tourism Studies may be attributable to the methodological challenges faced by researchers (Khoo-Lattimore, 2015), we suggest that assumptions about children’s competency, along with perceptions about the ethical complexity of involving them, likely pose greater barriers and deterrents. In this research note, we draw attention to the established interdisciplinary field of Childhood Studies (Prout & James, 1990), and a recent major international ethics initiative (Graham, Powell, Taylor, Anderson, & Fitzgerald, 2013), to highlight some of the evidence upon which tourism researchers might build in progressing high quality and ethically sound research involving children. Prevalent assumptions frame children as immature, vulnerable, incompetent, and hence in need of being gate-kept out of research (Graham et al., 2013). However, this reflects a narrow, developmentally-determined approach to understanding children’s capability and agency that is rarely justified within or across any social or cultural context, since children of the same age can demonstrate remarkably divergent skills, responsibilities, and social and emotional abilities. Over the past 25 years, Childhood Studies has challenged entrenched assumptions about the ways in which children and childhood are constructed, advocating quite explicitly for a competent-child paradigm (Prout & James, 1990).
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A recent Aljazeera report on ‘Cambodia’s Orphan Business’ explains ‘how “voluntourism” could be fuelling the exploitation of Cambodian children’. Anti-orphanage tourism movements have emerged to resist the growth of Cambodia’s contested orphanage tourism industry, which is blamed for widespread corruption and the exploitation of children for profit. Taking a Polanyian political economy approach, this article illustrates how the emergence of and response to the orphanage tourism industry represent, in Karl Polanyi’s words, a ‘double movement’ between the neoliberalization of orphanages and the corollary protective countermovement by anti-orphanage tourism campaigns that challenge the industry’s morality and legitimacy. It argues that while resistance to the commodification of orphanages under the newly neoliberalized Cambodian economy reflects Polanyi’s double movement thesis, the limits of this resistance are also indicative of how countermovements are challenged by the broader political economy in which they operate.
Worldwide, millions of children live in institutions, which runs counter to both the UN-recognised right of children to be raised in a family environment, and the findings of our accompanying systematic review of the physical, neurobiological, psychological, and mental health costs of institutionalisation and the benefits of deinstitutionalisation of child welfare systems. In this part of the Commission, international experts in reforming care for children identified evidence-based policy recommendations to promote family-based alternatives to institutionalisation. Family-based care refers to caregiving by extended family or foster, kafalah (the practice of guardianship of orphaned children in Islam), or adoptive family, preferably in close physical proximity to the biological family to facilitate the continued contact of children with important individuals in their life when this is in their best interest. 14 key recommendations are addressed to multinational agencies, national governments, local authorities, and institutions. These recommendations prioritise the role of families in the lives of children to prevent child separation and to strengthen families, to protect children without parental care by providing high-quality family-based alternatives, and to strengthen systems for the protection and care of separated children. Momentum for a shift from institutional to family-based care is growing internationally—our recommendations provide a template for further action and criteria against which progress can be assessed.
Orphanage tourism in Cambodia is an important niche tourism form within the wider tourism trends of voluntourism and poverty tourism. It is increasing rapidly internationally, but in some nations more than Others. Cambodia is a particularly popular orphanage tourism destination. Although orphanage tourism is often assumed to be a beneficial phenomenon that gives back to host populations, increasingly the potential child protection issues within the trend have become apparent and focused upon within media and literature. This chapter outlines some of the threats to child protection within Cambodian orphanages encouraged and heightened by orphanage tourism. Orphanage tourism can result in abuse, especially sexual, of children, and issues of corruption and exploitation are prominent. Increasingly, there have been calls for increased protection of children within these spaces, further enforcement of existing policies relating to residential care, and the development of legislation directly relating to tourism within these spaces, spaces that are meant to protect children in need. The chapter, therefore, explores some of the concerns around this issue, highlighting the need for the Cambodian Government to take a lead in sector-wide child protection policies to ensure the protection of vulnerable Cambodian children at orphanages.
Although Cambodia's ‘orphanage boom’ has sparked widespread concern, the children in Cambodia's orphanages are often faring well. Participant-observation research reveals distinctive elements of one Cambodian orphanage that may contribute to the well-being of the resident children. These include the complexity of the environment, its continuity with the surrounding community and reciprocity of access, which not only makes community resources available to the resident children but also makes orphanage resources available to the community.
The dominant global perception that sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing an “AIDS orphan crisis”, coupled with growing trends in international voluntourism, has fostered a potentially high-risk situation for already vulnerable young children in the region. This article reviews the current discourse on what is being called a crisis of care for children, as well as literature on out-of-home/family care and its adverse impacts on child development. We also describe an emerging “AIDS orphan tourism”, and show how short-term attachments formed between children in group residential care and volunteers may worsen known impacts of institutional care. This article advocates against the exploitation of especially vulnerable young children in sub-Saharan Africa for commercial gain by tour operators in the current growth of “AIDS orphan tourism”. We instead propose that young people who wish to volunteer their time and talents to assist children less fortunate than themselves be properly informed about children's development and attachments to others, as well of the vulnerabilities and rights of young children, especially those outside of family care.
Addicted to orphans: How the global orphan industrial complex jeopardizes local child protection systems
  • K Cheney
  • K S Rotabi
Cheney, K., & Rotabi, K. S. (2015). Addicted to orphans: How the global orphan industrial complex jeopardizes local child protection systems. Conflict, Violence and Peace, 1-19.
Orphanage Trafficking, Modern Slavery and the Australian Response
  • K Doore
  • R Nhep
Doore, K., & Nhep, R. (2019). Orphanage Trafficking, Modern Slavery and the Australian Response. Griffith Journal of Law & Human Dignity, 7(2) 115-138.