Friday, June 14, 2013

Children as tourist attractions

Tuk-tuk on Phnom Penh riverfront. Orphanages and other tourist attractions.

I have been railing online against orphanage tourism in Cambodia for almost a decade, particularly back in the mid/late-2000s when the orphanage tourism game was taking off big-time. In 2010 I posted a compilation of some of my early arguments on this blog under the post 'The Pity Industry.'

In 2011 UNICEF released a report showing a radical increase in the number of orphanages in Cambodia over the last decade and that most of the so-called 'orphans' in fact still had at least one living parent - the implication being that Cambodian orphanages had become an exploitative moneymaking business driven by foreign tourism and 'charity.' This prompted the Cambodian government to begin investigating orphanages here. Shortly thereafter the NGO Friends-International/ChildSafe launched its brilliant 'Children are not tourist attractions' campaign, which I wholeheartedly endorse. In my casual observation the word is getting out and the orphanage tourism business does seem to be leveling off, if not suffering a bit for these efforts.

Yet some people still don't get it, including some who should know better.

Two weeks ago an article appeared in Forbes online: 'Cambodia's Booming New Industry: Orphanage Tourism.' Leaving aside that the industry is not new and probably not as booming as it was, this article completely misunderstands the problem of orphanage tourism.

It casts the problem of orphanage tourism as one of holiday planning for the tourist:

"The problem is finding (an orphanage) that isn’t a scam."

Wrong. Dead wrong. The problem is not "finding an orphanage that is not a scam." The problem is orphanage tourism.

The article draws its version of the orphanage tourism problem from its formulation of the tourist's holiday dilemma:

"It’s the end of your three week vacation in Southeast Asia. You did good. You managed to hit all the locations on the backpacker’s circuit; lounging on the tropical Islands off the Thai Peninsula, experiencing the street food of Bangkok, exploring the temples of Siem Reap, and shopping on the floating markets of the Mekong River. Now, with just a few days left before your flight home, you’d like to do something selfless, something worthwhile. You decide to volunteer in one of Cambodia’s orphanages."

Herein lay the misunderstanding, (if it can be labeled a 'misunderstanding.) Cambodian orphanages and 'orphans,' i.e. children, are categorized in with street food, beaches and shopping. On this description, orphans - like gems shops and temple tours - are tourist attractions. Most travelers have heard of Thai gem scams and overpriced tuktuks and ways to avoid these scams. Similarly, for tourists the problem with orphanages becomes finding one that isn't a scam. And bizarrely, the article actually cites the 'Children are not tourist attractions' website as a guide to how to identify a ‘non-scam’ orphanage where the tourist can treat children as tourist attractions.

So let's try to be really really clear here for those who somehow missed the meaning of the name of the campaign and pretty much every bit of advice it gives. Perhaps large font, bold and all caps will help:


This is a categorical statement, not one of degree, nor is it qualified. If tourists treat children as attractions, the children are tourist attractions regardless of how well they are treated, or how nice the orphanage, or how good the tourist imagines her intentions to be. Orphanage tourism, by its nature, treats children as tourist attractions.

The reasons it is bad to treat children/orphans as tourist attractions are myriad. It drives an exploitative industry, it violates the rights and privacy of the children, it endangers the children, it teaches the children the wrong message, ect. This has all been very well covered in other articles. See The Pity Industry for my take on why voluntourists are not really helping at orphanages and fueling the exploitation of children. See ChildSafe Traveler Tips to understand why orphanage tourism is both dangerous to the children and a violation of their human rights. Also see Al-Jazeera's recent report for a general look at orphanage tourism in Cambodia. And for some alternative points of view on the subject see The Cambodia Daily's 'Tourism Sector a Boon to Orphanage ‘Business’'

So, you want to visit or volunteer at an orphanage? Don't do it. Full stop. Why? Because children are not tourist attractions.

(Yes, I know that medical professionals, child care specialists, construction engineers and such can be helpful in certain special circumstances, but I'm going to skip past that because it just encourages the wrong sort to misunderstand and do the wrong thing.)

It's stuff like the contorted logic in the Forbes article that makes me question the motivations of those who would volunteer at orphanages in Cambodia. Commentators more generous than myself argue that orphanage voluntourists are well intentioned but misguided/misinformed. I have my doubts about that. I think many, even most are motivated by fad and self interest - the desire to see themselves as saviors, as heroes, to feel fulfilled, as someone who 'gives back' - with little consideration given to whether they are actually helping.

Look at the penultimate sentence in the paragraph quoted above. After listing all the fun stuff you've been doing in Southeast Asia, "now, with just a few days left before your flight home, you’d like to do something selfless, something worthwhile." It is about doing what YOU would like to do, amongst all the other stuff you liked doing. It is about the western fantasy of putting on a cape and playing superhero for a day. It is, in part, about assuaging YOUR guilt over having fun amongst the poverty that surrounded you here. It is about buying Indulgences in the form of hugging brown children. It is about treating third-world children as a means to your end. It is about you, not them. And the seeming willful blindness that allows the unambiguous meaning of five simple words - children are not tourist attractions - to be contorted into a holiday planning problem leads me to conclude the intentions of orphanage voluntourists are not good and selfless, but culpably self-serving.

Sermon over.

I also suggest reading the 'Children are not tourist attractions' website and the articles at 'Good intentions are not enough.' They are far less harsh and judgmental than me, and perhaps more convincing.


  1. As a parent, I'm sure this issue strikes close to home for you. Cheers for one of the most succinct round-ups yet.

    1. Thank you very much for your understanding John. I am sure that being a parent does have an effect on my attitude, but that aside I have always found the exploitation of children here, especially very young children, to be absolutely maddening. The situation that has been driving me to Twitter rants of late is the trafficking and exploitation of very young kids, including even infants, for use as street beggars, beggar props and flower sellers in tourist areas and street corners in Phnom Penh and the tourist towns. It’s all so out in the open, so prevalent, so obvious and easy to find. I could easily locate more than a dozen pre-pubescent trafficked children begging in the tourist areas of Phnom Penh on any given afternoon. It’s driving me batty that so little seems to be being done about it, especially when so much attention and money is being poured into other trafficking issues that have exponentially fewer victims. But I don’t fully understand the situation and would like to learn more so I can express so sort of informed, constructive opinion here on this blog. I hope to be able to find the time to learn more.

  2. What if I'm donating to (or thinking of donating to) an orphanage but I want to see the facility and the alleged orphans first before plunking down my money? Is that unreasonable? Donations to Cambodian charities are a good thing, right? Well, some people don't want to donate until they see that the orphanage actually exists. I don't see the harm in bringing some Westerners around under controlled circumstances and hitting them up for donations.

    1. Given the current abusive situation in the orphanage game in Cambodia, I would say, ‘yes’ it is unreasonable. And a reasonable, responsible, ethical person who has done her research about Cambodian orphanages (as this donator supposed wants to do by visiting an orphanage) should already understand. Further, by visiting an orphanage for a short time, she still wouldn’t know the real situation or even that it exists. (Back in 2004 or 2005 one of the first scam orphanages I ran across was in Siem Reap where the ‘orphans’ were only shipped in during the day for the tourists to see and generate donations, and would be sent home at night.) For those who aren’t willing to help orphans without making them dance for their dinner, the orphanage may just have to do without their money. The rights and dignity of the children exceeds the donator’s desire to see the kids.

      All that said, I would grant that there sometimes exceptional situations, such as the cases of doctors and child care professional volunteers noted above, and perhaps some other donor situations you can imagine, but exceptional situations make for poor general principles. And I am dealing here in a general principle.

  3. It is about WHAT when should be about WHY
    Thank you for making us question about ourselves