Travel company drops orphanage volunteering trips, cites ethical concerns

Children at an orphanage in Vietnam.
Children at an orphanage in Vietnam.
Tormod Sandtorv

Ten travel itineraries disappeared from the travel website Responsibletravel.com. The trips mostly involved volunteering at international orphanages. Ethical concerns over some problems with orphanages led to the decision ahead of the time when many UK students embark on their gap year before heading off to university next fall.

The Telegraph received a statement from Responsibletravel.com’s marketing assistant Sarah Bareham. She cites problems in countries like Cambodia where orphans are reportedly trotted out in front of visitors eating their dinner to beg for help. Not all orphanages are problematic as there are children in need of care and shelter. However, the increase in orphanages in some countries coupled with a lack of oversight makes for some serious problems, says Bareham.

“In Cambodia almost all orphanages are funded by overseas donors. Many turn to volunteer tourism for income and train their children to perform and attract donors,” she says.

“Disturbingly, three-quarters of children in these institutions are not orphans. In Bali a BBC report uncovered that “tourists’ donations keep the orphanages going – but some are effectively rackets, exploiting children and holidaymakers alike.”

Daniela Papi, founder of the Cambodia-based organization PEPY Tours, has blogged openly about her journey from supporting volunteering trips to the idea of service learning and now learning service. She is teaming up with other experts to write a book called Learning Service. The group’s idea is to take lessons learned and careful research on volunteering and provide would-be volunteers with the right tools to select better programs and engage in a trip that is ethically responsible and preserves the dignity of everyone involved.

She recently explained in the Huffington Post why people should say no to orphanage tourism.

The volunteer travel sector is profiteering from these “pet-an-orphan” type travel opportunities. I questioned the American manager of one of the major volunteer sending companies in Siem Reap, who had approached me to find more English teaching placements for his volunteers in schools and orphanages, asking why he didn’t look for other volunteer opportunities for travelers. His response was “Everyone wants to play with kids. It’s the biggest seller. We need to find more placements for these people since there is so much demand for it.”

It seems that the trend for voluntourism/slum tourism/orphanage tourism is starting a slow reverse to a more ethically-minded middle ground where trips continue, but travelers and organizations are more mindful of potential problems.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.