Visiting an orphanage to donate time and money to vulnerable children would appear to epitomise giving back to the community.
Yet clients who take part in such a trip could be doing far more harm than good, says Intrepid Travel.
The adventure tour operator is leading the charge against orphanage tourism, and removed
orphanage visits from all itineraries in May 2016.
Intrepid has worked with child protection experts to educate travellers about the reality and implications of supporting overseas orphanages for a number of years.
The company is now working with charities to lobby the Australian government and make it the first country in the world to declare visits to overseas orphanages illegal, and it hopes other countries including the UK will follow suit.
“Visiting and volunteering at orphanages has become an increasingly popular activity for travellers wanting to give back,” says Liz Manning, responsible business manager for Intrepid Travel. “Unfortunately, this demand has led to the commodification of children, where they are turned into tourist attractions by often well-meaning travellers.”
While there are more than eight million children living in orphanages and residential care facilities around the world, four out of five children actually has a living parent or family member.
“In rural Nepal and Uganda, for example, families are often coerced into believing that sending their child away will give them a better education and a better life at ‘boarding schools’, only to be sold into institutions as ‘orphans’,” explains Manning, who says those children could end up being mistreated or abused.
Intrepid has recently partnered with Australian child protection charity Forget Me Not, donating more than £50,000 via not-for-profit organisation the Intrepid Foundation.
The money raised will go towards Forget Me Not’s work in Nepal, which includes rescuing children from orphanages and providing rehabilitation and support services, and reuniting children with their families.
Intrepid is also acting as the tourism industry representative for ReThink Orphanages, a cross-sector network of organisations that works to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children.
“Intrepid is working with ReThink to raise awareness among travellers and the travel industry about the role our industry has in driving the demand for orphanage tourism and the impact it has on children and communities,” explains Manning.
How can agents help?
Agents can play a crucial role in informing clients about the impacts of volunteering with orphans.
“This isn’t something that would be permitted in the UK, and it’s not something that we should be encouraging them to do overseas,” warns Manning.
Together Intrepid and ReThink Orphanages have created a set of Child Protection Guidelines to help agents inform clients about the impact of visiting orphanages, which are available to view on the Intrepid website.
“We’d definitely encourage agents to be part of the solution,” says Manning. “Most travellers want to do the right thing, so it’s a good opportunity for agencies to show that they’re an ethical business.”
“There are a lot of great organisations that work to keep families together through skill-training opportunities that empower local communities, so it’s good to support those,” suggests Manning.
If clients are keen to give something back, she suggests recommending one of Urban Adventures’
In Focus tours, which give travellers the chance to visit local non-profits and social enterprises, meeting local people to learn how they are tackling real issues.
An example is Urban Adventures’ cooking class in Thailand with Courageous Kitchen, which uses proceeds from the class to teach skills to impoverished local children.
“By joining these tours, travellers can still have engaging, exciting and immersive experiences by spending time with locals and supporting local businesses, which can often be more impactful than short-term volunteering activities,” she says.
Clients can also donate money directly to the Intrepid Foundation, which tackles a range of community issues around the world and also helps to fight exploitation.