Home » Why we’re rethinking orphanage tourism

Why we’re rethinking orphanage tourism

written by Intrepid Travel January 13, 2017

There are about eight million kids living in orphanages and residential care facilities around the world. Here’s the thing, though: four out of five of them have a living parent or family member. In Cambodia, the number of orphanages has grown by 75% over the past decade, yet technically, the number of orphans has decreased. How is this possible?

Most children living in residential care facilities – especially in developing nations like Cambodia and Indonesia – are not orphans at all. Often, they’re simply kids from poor backgrounds. Families in remote communities are coerced into believing that sending their child away will give them a better education, a better life. In rural Nepal and Uganda, kids are taken by ‘recruiters’ to ‘boarding schools’ in the city, only to be sold into institutions as ‘orphans’, their papers falsified. Children have become a commodity.

What has travel got to do with this?

Alarmingly, tourism is a major contributor to this cycle of abuse and trafficking. In fact, ‘orphanage tourism’ and ‘voluntourism’ have become lucrative industries – and demand is growing. Keeping more and more kids in run-down residential institutions – underfed, sickly, without toys and proper clothing – is good for business, as it elicits sympathy from volunteers and visiting travellers and thus, more money. The thing is, most travellers, donors and volunteers just want to help. They have no idea this is happening.


Of course, not all orphanages are corrupt. Some do great work in providing vulnerable kids with a safe place to eat, sleep and learn. But institutionalisation itself is harmful. Kids brought up in residential care suffer learning and developmental difficulties, as well as attachment problems stemming from instability and a lack of one-on-one attention. One study suggests that children who grow up in residential care are 500 times more likely to take their own lives and 50 times more likely to end up involved in crime, drug use and/or prostitution. The effects of institutionalisation are life-long and intergenerational.

So what, then?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix. There will always be children in need of support. But what’s the best way to take care of them? This is where ReThink Orphanages steps in. ReThink Orphanages is a cross-sector network striving to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children by changing the way we think about overseas aid, development and tourism. Their focus is on permanent solutions that ensure all children are able to grow up in a family.

For all children, permanency planning is an important part of assessing family care options. UNICEF defines permanency planning as a process to ensure stability, continuity, and a sense of belonging to a family. Permanency planning is critical to prevent the separation of children from their families, to reconnect children in care with their original family, or to place children within a permanent family through a relative who obtains custody, guardianship, or adoption. Short-term alternative care options are used only as a step in the process toward permanency. Once a child has been separated from parental care, family-based care options should be given priority over residential care.

Poverty offers huge challenges to children’s wellbeing, but it’s not a justification for separating them from their families and communities. Instead, we should be directing our support into community-based projects that fight poverty, family violence and addiction at the roots, work to improve local education and employment opportunities, and most importantly, seek to reunite kids with their families.

What is Intrepid doing to help?

For one, we’re getting the word out there. While in the past some of our tours visited organisations that had residential care as part of their programs, the decision was made to no longer visit out of concern for the impact frequent visitation could have.

Through the Intrepid Foundation we support grass-roots organisations across Africa, Asia and Latin America that provide vulnerable kids with healthcare, counselling, education and other vital support services through our Foundation. There’s Blue Dragon in Vietnam, for example, an NGO that rescues kids in need – disabled kids, victims of human trafficking and slavery – and aims to reunite them with their families, while providing ongoing services for recovery, self-sufficiency and growth.  The Amani Children’s Home provides similar support services for children in need in Tanzania.Orphanage_tourism_tanzania_amani_teddy-and-agnesiWe need to establish a clear framework that determines the best way for tourism and children’s support services to work together and preserve the rights of kids around the world.  In collaboration with ReThink Orphanages, we’ll be working closely with our partners to help them develop best practice and alternative models of care within their programs.

What can you do?

Plenty. You can help us get the word out about orphanage tourism. Learn more about it. Tell your friends. Share this blog. When travelling, don’t visit orphanages or use tour companies that do. It might seem hard to tell what’s what, but a simple rule of thumb is that there should never be any interaction with kids in any kind of residential care institution. These places go by many different names: orphanage, children’s village, children’s home, shelter, home, boarding school etc.  That doesn’t mean you can’t visit other NGOs and projects, of course. Just make sure you’re among adults and there to learn about sustainable, well-vetted initiatives – like the Seven Women handicraft workshop in Nepal, for example.

Secondly, if you do want to volunteer overseas, do your research. Observe. Ask yourself: are you really helping? Who’s actually benefitting here? Remember that you don’t have to be a volunteer to do good. By being a socially conscious, locally minded traveller, you can invest in local communities and help fight issues from the ground up. Spend your money at local markets and shops. Buy street food and use local transport. Stay at locally owned guesthouses.

Finally, if you’d like to donate, direct your money into programs that focus on community development and local, family-based care – organisations that provide vital services like education, health and counselling, and, where possible, work to keep children with their relatives.

To support The Intrepid Foundation’s collaboration with ReThink Orphanages and help make these programs ever better and more accountable, click here.

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Responsible Volunteering May 30, 2019 - 6:47 am

Since Intrepid Travel and World Challange stopped working with orphanages, a lot has happened. Not even IVHQ, the market leader, was able to ignore this trend. It was a great step that improved the whole industry. The Domino effect has just started: https://www.responsible-volunteering.com/2018/02/the-domino-effect-in-voluntourism-ivhq-might-stop-orphanage-trips/

George Allard December 21, 2017 - 6:59 pm

I worked in a place in northern Cambodia. It didn’t refer to itself as an orphanage. It was a place for disadvantaged children.
The organisation satisfied me before I started. I had to have a Criminal Records Check and a TESOL certificate. I was also asked to attend at my cost a short seminar on recognising exploitation of children. The only money I was asked for was my meal costs during the day. Subsequently I have given them money but it was never a condition.

There were pluses and minues for the children.
On the plus they had to go to school
They received 3 good meals a day
They received specific skills training
Where possible they were encouraged to see their parents or other members of family
They received good medical care

On the minus they were obviously institutionalised. Their living conditions were so much better than they would have received in a fractured family
They also had to perform for tourists – maybe once a fortnight. This was at least controlled viewing from a single tour group who did bring useful gifts
As part of my volunteer experience I was expected to teach English in a village school twice a week.

All in all and I have read so many articles about how bad some of these places are I believe that my month long stay (although perhaps a month too short) was mutually rewarding – including children, staff, other volunteers and fund raisers in Australia.

I understand Intrepid’s position but as I said one Australian tour company only was involved. As well as visiting they helped raise funds and awareness in Australia. Perhaps Intrepid could find one such organisation which is genuinely acting to benefit the children. Set down realistic ground rules for volunteers, monitor closely and fund raise.

One last thing. I didnt have to pay any money to be a volunteer except for my air fare and living costs

My email is here if you would like to discuss in more detail

Laura August 14, 2017 - 6:38 pm

I’m pleased to hear about this re-think to visit orphanages. Children should not be a tourist attraction and the fact that visiting adults have access to children without police checks etc. is disturbing. Imagine if regular groups of random adults could visit group homes or kindergartens in Australia! Unfortunately exploitation is so easy when people are so vulnerable. You don’t need to visit to make a difference: you would donate to children’s charities in western countries without meeting the children first-hand. Well done Intrepid. I hope many more tourism agencies follow your lead.

Sarah May 1, 2017 - 2:45 am

Thank goodness that someone is waking up to this. I’ve spent many years teaching troubled children with attachment disorder (which is an extremely serious psychological condition) and I’ve long believed that orphanage visits and voluntourism create the exact conditions needed to form a person with the disorder.
I’ve come across so many youngsters believing that they’re doing something useful by volunteering in these places, as I’ve been travelling. I’ve really had to bite my tongue, as it’s not their fault – but spread the word where i can..
More power to you, intrepid, for taking this stance. I very much hope that this will spread to other companies.

Ben March 4, 2017 - 10:25 am

I’m also very supportive of this direction. The psychological impact on these children is not often realised. The constant and transient attachment, and then loss can have a negative longer term psychological impact.

Anna February 27, 2017 - 8:16 am

Hi. I too was on a tour in China with Intrepid and we were taken to an orphanage. While the children were undeniably exploited (performed in front of us, which was just wrong), I too felt exploited, especially to make a monetary contribution. We had no choice as to whether we attended. I donate to reputable charities and we should never be made to feel like that. Like this article says, the best way to make a difference to the children and their families is to shop local, very local when away. Take pens, pencils, paper, old clothes and toiletries and give them away.

Barbara February 26, 2017 - 9:56 am

I am so glad that you have seen the light. I was on a trip,in Kenya and the tour took us to a filthy orphanage where the couple running it were more interested in knowing where we were all from. She was challenging us with a response to say “I have been there”. My thoughts were that more care should have been given to the children and less money spent on her travels.

Unfortunately it was a school,day so we didn’t see too many children at that place

The little boy she singled out for us to see was wearing girls clothes, wet and dirty shorts. We were told he was a 7year old with stunted growth. Anyway I am glad you have adjusted your thoughts on these places.

Jo-Jo February 20, 2017 - 12:36 pm

I generally agree with this article. A few of these orphanages are genuine but a majority are not. Myanmar is one place to be very wary of when it comes to privately run ‘orphanages.’ I supported one in Yangon and a few years later discovered it was receiving funding from lots of different groups in various countries but hid the fact. The owners were land rich but the kids in the ‘orphanage’ barely benefited and were abused and half starved. In Myanmar thousands of impoverished children live lives of quiet desperation in monastery schools; they are lucky if they get one meal a day and a majority are severely growth stunted and have health problems. Their parents are too poor to support them or they have no schools where they live. Myanmar has so many rich generals and fancy international schools, the country should be ashamed of itself.

Jonathan February 20, 2017 - 2:12 am

While I am happy to hear that Intrepid is taking this matter seriously, and investigating orphanages, I take issue with your article. I think it’s misleading when you write that “four out of five[ orphans] have a living parent or relative”, implying that children placed in this kind of care should have been with parents instead. I have friends who grew up in the institutions you are describing. Their father could not support 5 children after their mother passed, and he looked for support for his children. Thankfully, their were organizations like those you are maligning that provided the children with food, shelter, education, and a trade to survive in a difficult life. He visited them almost every week, but without that orphanage and the volunteers who funded it, those children would have been homeless. The alternatives you are supporting may be inadequate to deal with the very real issues of child homelessness and poverty around the world. I appreciate that you wish to prevent child exploitation, and think that orphanages and tourism do not mix well, but please be thoughtful in your writing on this topic; just because some orphanages are exploitative, does not mean that all are. The good ones deserve better than this.

Cora August 3, 2017 - 8:08 am

I agree with what you are saying. We have to make our choices in life, travel and consciously based on our own investigation into who we socialize with travel with, etc. I have always been a backpacker with my daughter, and our way of giving is to source a school ahead of time where we bring a craft to do with a class, and bring supplies. It is a nice way to connect and help youth.

That being said, the ONE time I did a “tour” was with Intrepid two summers ago to Kenya/Tanzania for financial and logistical reasons. My daughter was 15. We visited the orphanage in
Kenya when we were heading south. Personally, for myself, my daughter and several fellow travelers who I am still in contact with, it was a highlight. The kids were awesome, and there were a lot of them. The women who started and runs the home depends on the help and donations and items that people like us bring. It costs a lot to run a facility with that number of children. Some orphaned, some with parents unable to support or keep their child(ren) fed/educated, etc.

I think there are likely many orphanages which are staged. To me, I did my research ahead of time, and felt good about the values of this place, and how I felt the impact after we were there.

To each their own. It is hard to get everything right all of the time, but any day that any of us help someone other than ourselves, it is a good day in my opinion.

Grant February 9, 2017 - 3:31 pm

It’s a shame that by wanting to volunteer in an orphanage as im planning to go to Nepal at the end of this year or early next year I’m now made to feel guilty or labeled as a bad person. There will always be those people who will abuse children for there own gain but there will be even more who are doing the best they can to help those in need. We should be identifying those ones and helping them and not critise them for the good they do. Most do it out of love and not for reward

James Shackell February 10, 2017 - 4:49 pm

Hi Grant, we agree 100%. We’re working really hard to vet organisations around the world and identify those that are legitimately making a difference. Unfortunately, the average traveller doesn’t have the time or the means to investigate, and often ends up volunteering at less scrupulous establishments. Those are the places we’re trying to move away from. Regardless, you should never be made to feel like a ‘bad’ person for wanting to help. Apologies if that was the case here. We’re not saying don’t help, we’re saying look closely at which organisations you choose to support. Hope this clarifies.


Kezza February 19, 2017 - 11:32 pm

Hi Grant,
In the end it’s not about us but about what is best for the children. Even if you find a good home for kids, they will be good because they don’t expose their kids to short term volunteers. Children in these institutions suffer being exposed constantly to people coming and going from their lives. A good home will recognize that and protect their kids from ending up with attachment issues. It may sound tough but like I said this is about providing those kids who may need to be in care with the best possible care and preparing them for the world, not making them vulnerable to more abuse or exploitation. Don’t feel like a bad person for wanting to help but maybe find a different way to do so or else commit to something more long term. I hope you have a great time in Nepal.

Sue January 25, 2017 - 7:57 pm

Are there any organisations in Indonesia. I also felt the same when on organized tours in Vietnam and Cambodia. I also felt uncomfortable about visiting orphanages . I now travel mostly in Indonesia, and would like to help if I can

Jenna January 20, 2017 - 7:50 am

Thank you for realising this. I was taken to one in Thailand and it felt exploitative and wrong. Good job.

Andrea Saul January 17, 2017 - 9:18 am

Finally! I actually stopped traveling with Intrepid a few years despite really enjoying the experiences ago after the overland tour I was on stopped at an orphanage in a less than responsible way. I wrote about my concerns and sent clear research to the Intrepid Foundation noting these same concerns. I was sad that the practice continued as long as it did, but am glad that good practice and child best interest have been embraced with this decision…. and loving Intrepid tours, plan to come back around now that the foundation has taken this important step.

Johanna Lowe January 16, 2017 - 12:47 pm

I’m very glad to hear of your decision to rethink Orphanage visits in your tours. Having been on several visits over the years with my trips with intrepid I was of the same opinion. Well done for being at the forefront of change as usual. THank you!


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