This article was originally published by The Intrepid Foundation.
It’s a trend that doesn’t get talked about much in travel brochures: as tourist numbers increase, particularly in developing countries, so do the number of orphanages. Not orphans, but orphanages. You can trace the two graphs side by side. They mirror each other, like matching mountains.
In Cambodia, the number of orphanages has grown 75 per cent over the last 10 years, despite the number of actual orphans decreasing. There are about eight million kids living in orphanages around the world, and according to the best data currently available, about 80 per cent of them aren’t orphans at all. They have families back home: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins and aunties.
Why is this happening? There’s a complicated web of politics and vested interests, but it really boils down to the fact that ‘orphanage tourism’ is worth money. Big money. About $2.6 billion a year, according to Save The Children Australia. Traffickers or ‘child collectors’ head into rural communities in Nepal, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, approach vulnerable families, and offer an alluring opportunity (usually the false promise of education and future employment) and payment in exchange for children, who are then brought back to ‘orphanages’ and essentially trafficked for profit – with volunteer travellers unwittingly providing the cashflow.
The practise has become so widespread that UNICEF doesn’t even like to use the word ‘orphanage’ anymore – they prefer ‘residential care’. Governments are also starting to wake up: in 2018, Australia included orphanage trafficking in its official definition of slavery (the first country to do so).
As part of the travel industry – and as a company that used to promote orphanage tourism – Intrepid Travel is doing its bit to get the word out there. The Intrepid Foundation partnered with not-for-profit Forget Me Not, co-founded by Dr. Kate van Doore, an international children’s rights lawyer and academic at Griffith Law School. Forget Me Not is currently working in Nepal, India and Uganda to stamp out child trafficking through grassroots programs, reuniting children with their families and educating travellers on the dangers of orphanage tourism.
“Children are often trafficked from rural and remote communities into orphanages, mostly in popular tourist hubs,” Forget Me Not says. “The orphan trade is fuelled by ‘voluntourists’ (including schools, churches, businesses and sporting groups) who unwittingly cause significant harm to children through a mix of money, good intentions and lack of cultural knowledge.”
Forget Me Not tackles orphanage tourism in a few different ways. Prevention is a big one – cutting traffickers off at the source. Through education programs like projectHELP, they’ve helped families in Delhi’s Kalyanpuri Slum to become more self-sustainable. Their Nanna Project in Uganda helps ease the burden on grandparents and guardians, providing school fees, meals, stationery supplies and uniforms. They offer shelter too, through projects like Home For Life, which keeps Ugandan families together, delivering homes, sanitation and basic household items like mattresses and cooking utensils.
Forget Me Not’s current project (which is still in development) is the Ethical Tourism Collective. We’re hoping it’ll be an exciting turning point for the travel industry. Backed up by The Intrepid Foundation, the Ethical Tourism Collective will design and deliver five sustainable alternatives to voluntourism – projects that actually make a positive impact on local communities. It’ll become the blueprint for a whole new kind of travel experience.
The Ethical Tourism Collective will be rolled out first in Kathmandu, Nepal, thanks to Forget Me Not’s ‘Fab 5’: Dinesh, Alisha, Ruma, Toya (the Team Leader), Anisha and Barma. Each member of the team has actually experienced orphanage tourism, having been institutionalised from an early age – now they’ll be the ones to design and deliver an ethical alternative. Something that rewards the generosity of travellers, rather than exploiting it.
The Intrepid Foundation will be tracking the progress of the Ethical Tourism Collective, the the plan to integrate these experiences into Intrepid’s existing Nepal trips, and (with the help of Forget Me Not) eventually unleash the Collective around the world, designing a new wave of sustainable tourism.
The Intrepid Foundation is the not-for-profit arm of Intrepid Group, helping travellers give back to the places they visit. Since 2002, the Foundation has raised more than $7.5 million dollars for over 125 organisations around the world. From empowering vulnerable youth to helping refugees get back on their feet, The Intrepid Foundation supports life-changing projects that make places better to travel to and live in.