20 November 2012 ~ 4 Comments

Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (And Tell All Tour Companies to Do the Same)

I just posted a new piece on Huffington Post Impact about the orphanage tourism issue in Cambodia. Check it out below:

Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (And Tell All Tour Companies to Do the Same)

The piece relates to a new website released by Siem Reap residents who are upset at the increase of orphanage tourism, orphanage corruption, and the proliferation of the institutionalization of kids in orphanages (when child rights documents globally & in Cambodia state a focus should be on family-based care as a first resort). The new website is called orphanages.no – please read it, share it, tweet it, etc. This piece comes after Unicef’s report this year that 76% of Cambodian children living in “orphanages” have one or more living parents.

Help stop well-meaning tourists from fueling the separation of children and their families!


  • Anonymous

    This discussion has also continued on the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) website: http://www.adventuretravelnews.com/why-you-should-say-no-to-orphanage-tourism-and-tell-all-tour-companies-to-do-the-same

    This is a comment I posted there:Thank you for your comments, Luc. The first orphanage I ever volunteered at was one of Mother Teresa’s in India, so I appreciate your sentiment. I went for a day visit, playing with kids, with a group of other students, and the “service” certainly has a big impact on all of us, though I’m not so sure what impact we had for the organization.I also appreciate your questions about development work in general. During the six years I lived in Cambodia I went from a belief in “doing something is better than doing nothing” to my current thoughts of “you have to learn before you act to ensure that the something you do is causing more good than harm.” Along the way I have of course questioned many of the things you touched on: Does “development work” matter if unfair trade continues? Does the IMF real “help”, or does it hinder long-term growth? If a community isn’t making enough to feed their families, how can they focus on other things like child’s rights? What is the point of working in an NGO if you come across governmental corruption that hinders the long-term success of the work?These are indeed all important questions, and I am not sure if the debate you are tired of is around all those big things, or just the orphanage situation in general. Or is it tourism? My article, and the groups I linked to, are not opposed to tourism. As you say, it’s a major source of income for some areas…. but tourism growth that is positive is what we should be striving for, and I am sure you agree. Like your Bolivia case, many tourists to Cambodia don’t even realize it, but they travel in a way that is less beneficial then it could be to the country. They travel with foreign tour operators, stay in foreign owned hotels, much of their tourist quality food is imported from Thailand, and internal “taxing” by government check points of produce combined with preferred treatment for the elite with import rights can even sometimes make local food ends up being more expensive than the imported ones. Having a positive impact takes research on where you spend your money, as you pointed like – like one of the many voluntourism groups I met with who were eager to come “help”, but didn’t realize they were staying in the hotel owned by an infamously corrupt government leader.The same goes for where/how you give your time. I beg to counter your argument about orphanages, and though I had volunteered all over Asia before moving to Cambodia, I can only speak from the perspective I gained from a longer timeline in Siem Reap. As you might already know, Cambodia has one of the highest NGO to population ratios, so it’s an easy petri dish to examine all that could go wrong in aid. In the case of many Cambodian orphanages, that the orphaanges.no website and the ChildSafe THINK campaign speak to, it is often NOT the case that these are parents who “gave their kids up” in the way we sometimes think about it. Keep in mind, the UNICEF report, and the stats showing a growth of ORPHANAGES proportional to the rate in the growth of TOURISM (during a period of time when their was a real decline in “orphans.”)Tourism dollars bring a substantial amount of money to orphanages in Cambodia (and anyone who has been to the temples in the last 5 years would have seen dozens of signs for orphanages, chances to “stop and see an orphanage dance show”, orphanage art sales lining the road into Angkor Wat, etc). In many of the more corrupt establishments, the proprietors of the orphanage have gone to parents and offered to “take their children to a the city, to a place where they will get educated by westerners.” My mother always asks when we talk about orphanages “Who would abandon their child? They must be so desperate to do that.” but the thing is, in some of these cases the parents are not “abandoning” their children. They are handing them over to a corrupt orphanage owner who promises the kids will get a better life. Taught by whom? You and I. Now, I don’t know you Luc, and perhaps you’d be a better voluntourist than I would be, but I sure don’t think my services via one day or week or month plus trips to an orphanage are a better replacement for family based care.The argument isn’t black and white – as in “volunteering is bad” or “volunteering is good”. As it’s 99% in the grey area, and that means we need to give travelers and wanna-be-voluntourists the tools they need to discern the dark grey from the light grey. “Orphanage dance shows”, half day visits to “help” vulnerable children, and giving money to the most persuasive orphanage sales man, without looking into family based care programs in the area, or doing research to know if you’re actually fueling the separation of families of the kids you claim to be helping are all pretty close to black. And a problem now, I believe, is that people take an “innocent until proven guilty” approach. They want to believe that all of the aid groups they hear about are innately good – and since we all know that some are not, I think it is better for the world if people lean more towards a “guilty until proven innocent” approach – thereby needing to do some research before they give their time and money.I think we are working towards the same thing – you want to focus on solutions, yes? I think a BIG solution that needs to happen is that more tourists and future tourists need to know about these issues, because if it was so obvious to everyone, as it is now to you and I, then there wouldn’t be a continuing growth of these types of damaging facilities in places like Cambodia. They are fueled by tourists – and yes, we do want tourists to travel the world, spend their money in local areas, and fuel high impact development work, but in order to do that, discussions like these, that give people the tools to being to discern where to and not to give, need to spread far and wide.The ATTA does indeed seem to be a group of the “converted” – people who have spent considerable time traveling the world have probably given funds in many places, learned how to better sense corruption, found programs they have been able to monitor and see long term impact from, etc. But then it’s our job, as a tourism sector, to get these conversations far outside of our doors. As sadly, this “obvious” problem, isn’t obvious enough to most. I’m tired of this debate too. It seems to be that if tourists stopped giving to groups that were exploiting children and using them as fundraising tools, more kids would be able to go back to their families, and the organizations that were doing the best work for the ones who do need it most, with long-term well-trained staff, would get more funding from a better educated donor base. Having just touched back down in Cambodia today, knowing that many more children are being used by orphanages to raise funds tonight than there were 10 years ago, I too hope this discussion is not needed for much longer into the future.Thanks again for contributing your thoughts & fueling this discussion!

  • Annie Wells

    What an interesting article – I only wish i’d read a post like this prior to volunteering in Thailand a few summers ago – my lack or prior contemplation has left sickened with guilt by the realisation I made the situation worse for the children I wanted to help. I recently wrote about my experience in the hope that I could catch even a few people before they went ahead with it. Check it out: http://liveasifitsthelast.com/?p=248 

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for the note, Annie. I just put your link up on Twitter. I have volunteered in orphanages myself, and that guilt of realizing you are part of a system which overall is having large negative impacts can really be tough when you had intended to do good! That said, I think you should be proud that you were self-reflective enough to reconsider your past actions, and the best thing we can all do is speak/write/share about these issues so that others don’t follow suit. Put your comments up on the Huffington Post piece as well if you want: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniela-papi/cambodia-orphanages-_b_2164385.html

  • Anonymous

    Hello there, sorry for the late response…

    Thank you for that, I’ve been reading a few of your posts and your insight is refreshing. Until I was prompted to search for such issues I wasn’t even aware campaigns against such practices/companies even existed…I had assumed it was a silent battle that would never have the man power to affect these companies. Light at the end of the tunnel I would say.

    Regards, Annie :)