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Orphanage Tourism - Who benefits?

February 22, 2015

Image: dan lundmark, Flickr


I have worked in the child welfare field since 1987, both in Australia and in ‘developing’ countries, and there are several issues that often generate vigorous debate. Surrogacy, international adoptions, institutional care, short term missions and ‘orphanage tourism’, all raise passionate discussion amongst individuals, organisations, governments and churches. In this February newsletter I would like to focus on so called ‘orphanage tourism’ and in the March Newsletter review orphanage short term volunteering.
When traveling through a developing country, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the situation of poverty. The children we see are dirty, hungry and seem unloved.  Compassionate people feel they want to make a difference and to take immediate action. Often, visiting an orphanage for a few hours is seen as helping the children already in care. We would all agree though that it is important that we do not add to existing problems or create an environment where children are made more vulnerable!

Orphanage Tourism raises for me many questions…
What motivates adults to visit orphanages? What are the short and long term benefits for them and the children? Are the visits preplanned (part of a holiday, gap year or mission trip) or done spontaneously? Are individuals screened to stop child abuse? What is a reasonable time….an hour, a day? Why do orphanages allow strangers to visit? How are the gifts distributed? How do the children feel? Does it cause further mistrust of adults? What activities are acceptable: maintenance, building a fish pond, buying and planting fruit trees to make the orphanage more sustainable? How about direct contact with the children; playing, reading stories or providing daily care?
A Google search of orphanage tourism and volunteerism resulted in over 400,000 hits. Hundreds of websites share stories and comments such as:

  • The children are always thrilled to see visitors, come and visit for a day! They will welcome you with open arms

  • Visit our children who have no-one, they are lonely and have a desire to get to know you

  • Our children love to sing and dance, let them show you! It is a joy to sit, play and talk with our little ones

  • Come and visit a working orphanage, let us make your trip unforgettable. See how happy and adjusted our children are, and your generosity will help us

  • Our children will be so eager to meet you, just as if you are a relative who hasn’t visited for a long time

Yes, we can visit orphanages across the globe, but who really benefits?
While its popularity is expanding, it a debatable phenomenon and is highly controversial. In fact, it has been called "pet-an-orphan” (1) and a ‘third world moment” (2).
The debate about the ethics of this form of tourism involves a wide range of interest groups, from the large children’s agencies (e.g. UNICEF), travel and tour operators, orphanage directors and NGOs. Many visitors find the whole experience emotive and uplifting and believe their donation of time, energy (and money?) benefits the children. However others perceive unregulated visitation leaves the children open to further exploitation, supports and promotes orphanages as a model of care, and encourages local corruption.  
Progress has been made over the last few years in debating the issues, spreading awareness of unethical practices, and developing guidelines and services that help people to practice ethical voluntourism.


Image: International Disaster Volunteers, Flickr


This includes ResponsibleTravel.com which was established in 2001. In July 2013, ResponsibleTravel.com removed all orphanage voluntourism packages from its website; a move that has led other package tour providers to do the same. (3)

The NGO Friends-International has launched a campaign pushing tourists to end orphanage tourism in Cambodia. They state: “Travelers care for Cambodia and are often disturbed by the perceived situation of children. It is essential for them to understand the real situation and what positive actions they can take to effectively protect and support these children. Orphanages must be a safe place for children and not a tourist destination. We cannot just go and visit orphanages in our own countries, so why in Cambodia? For tourists who believe they are doing good by visiting the children directly, major findings show that visiting orphanages impacts negatively on children’s development and supports a system that is contributing to the separation of families. Visiting so-called orphanages can only lead to situation of further marginalization or even abuse for Cambodian children. Children are not tourist attractions.” (4)
Excellent resources on this topic are the ChildSafe Initiative which has been active in promoting child protection through its 7 tips campaign (5) and the Better Care Network (6).

So what is ethical volunteerism and how can we practice it? Next Generation Nepal defines 'ethical voluntourism' as voluntourism practices that do not harm the host community in any way and that, ideally, improve the lives of the people in the host community alongside the personal development of the volunteer. (7)

Points for Reflection:

  • Research now shows that orphanages are a last option for children in need, unless for temporary and emergency care. Could rising visitor numbers be one factor that is driving a dramatic increase in the number of orphanages? (UNICEF: 65% rise in the number of orphanages in Cambodia since 2005)

  • Locals and others can observe that setting up an orphanage and marketing it can be a profitable business, with money from visitor donations and volunteer fees. Therefore, not all are doing it in the best interests of the children.

  • Unregistered and unmonitored orphanages can be a haven for sexual abusers. While many have been prosecuted for abusing children, most abusers are undetected.

  • The children may experience mistrust and even long-term psychological damage from visitors coming and going. (7)

  • The vast majority of children in orphanages are not ‘orphans’. It is estimated that 70-90% of children have a living and traceable relative. (At least 75% or more children in Cambodian orphanages are not strictly orphans: they may have one or both parent - but these families are unable to provide the food and care that the children need) (2)

  • Would the resources of visitors be better used to support the families to keep their children? (2)

  • Visits destabilise the home life of the children who need structure, rather than a parade of strangers coming and going and taking their photos. Visitors violate the privacy of the children, especially if photos are taken.

  • Visiting orphanages means supporting a system of human trafficking - whereby unscrupulous directors need to ‘fill’ their orphanages to get funds from visitors(2)

Image: International Disaster Volunteers, Flickr


If you are planning a visit to an orphanage, the following may assist you:

  • Is the orphanage legally registered with the government?

  •  Does the orphanage have a child protection policy?

  •  Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision?

  •  Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage?

  •  Is there long-term, trained and well-supervised staff?

  •  Are sibling groups kept together?

  •  Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program?

  •  Is the orphanage located in the same community that the child previously lived in?

  •  Is the orphanage set up to replicate family living or small groups?

  •  Does the orphanage respect and accommodate children's background and religious beliefs? (5)

Suggested personal strategies:

  • Plan your visit, don’t just  ‘knock at the orphanage door’

  • Don’t visit any orphanage without thoroughly investigating it

  • An orphanage that actively ‘advertises’ their children on the web may have ulterior motives-stay clear!

  • To make a worthwhile contribution to the lives of the children, instead of visiting for a day/week, make a longer commitment

  • Think about the skills that will ensure your valuable time is giving the most beneft.E.g. teaching carpentry, in comparison to teaching children how to sing songs

  • Working and supporting the local staff may be more productive. E.g. training in child care practice rather than bathing and feeding the children

  • Do not hand over large amounts of money, gifts etc. Rather be aware where the money will benefit the children, not in the staff’s pockets. Instead, buys school books or stationary, pay school fees

When I am discussing orphanage tourism in the training room, I ask the conference participants to ask themselves:

  • What is my motive for the visit?

  • Is my visit for my benefit or the children’s?

  • Is my visit helping to make the lives of the children better, in the long term?

  • Would I be prepared to leave my camera behind?  

  • Would I allow a stranger to come into my home to visit and play with my children?

  • Would strangers be allowed to visit foster homes etc. in my country?

  • Are people allowed to take photos of others children in my country?

 We then do a role play that involves a ‘stranger’ knocking at a family’s door, coming in and cuddling the children! It is a powerful but simple exercise that brings home the reality of how children may feel when visited and expected to entertain visitors! Training in 2015 (please note change of dates)! 

  • Melbourne, Australia- Surrender: 15: Making Things Right Conference. 20-22nd March 2015

  • Pakkred, Nonthaburi, Thailand- - International Train the Trainer Seminar (10 days). 11-22nd May 2015

  • Kota Kinabalu, Sabah North Borneo, Malaysia. -Train The Trainer Seminar and Conference. 29th July-4th August 2015

  • Mae Sot and Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand- Train The Trainer Seminars and Conferences. 9th -22nd September 2015

  • Pune, Maharashtra, India- Train The Trainer Seminar. 9th-14th November 2015- Conference.


Please contact us for more details about our training. I look forward to your thoughts and comments on Orphanage Tourism!

  • http://www.tripadvisor.com.au

  • http://www.responsibletravel.co

  • http://www.friends-international.org

  • www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting

  • Better Care Network: www.bettercarenetwork.org

  • Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering (www.nextgenerationnepal.org)

  • Other  links:ChildWise: www.childwise.org.auLonely Planet: www.lonelyplanet.comUNICEF: www.unicef.org.au www.huffingtonpost.com/.../cambodia-orphanage



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