No to orphanage tourism

Imagine you are a parent.

It is the summer holiday season. In an attempt to educate your children about compassion, you take them to Cambodia for a "volunteerism" trip, i.e. a combination of tourism with volunteering activities. You decide to visit a local orphanage, where you teach the orphans English, and your children play with them in the courtyard. You visit the orphanage for 3 consecutive days. On the final day before you leave, you donate a few hundred dollars and take a group photo with the orphans. Then, you walk out of the door one final time, feeling good about leaving an impact.

But do you know: instead of helping children in Cambodia, your trip of orphanage tourism may have worsened the well-being of children, and increased the number of orphans in the country?

80% of 8 million children living in institutions across the world are not orphans.

  • Source: ThinkChildSafe website

I. What are the harms of orphanage tourism?

The biggest harm of orphanage tourism is that it creates a perverse incentive to create more fake orphans. According to UNICEF, in Cambodia, parents are incentivised to send children to local orphanages for better living conditions and/or educational opportunities (e.g. volunteers teaching foreign language). For the poorest families, primary education can make up around 30% of non-food expenditures.

As orphanage tourism turns into a profitable business, orphanage owners force children to "do whatever it takes" to gain the empathy of unknowing donors, as reported by the New York Times.

Institutionalised children, compared with children who grow up with their own families, suffer in two major aspects:

1) Cognitive

UNICEF reports that children who grew in institutions, instead of with their families, are likely to suffer from irreversible brain damage. Another study found that institutionalised children tend to have "lower IQs and levels of brain activity - particularly children who entered institutions at a young age" (ThinkChildSafe report).

2) Emotional

Moreover, since most donors / volunteers stay at orphanages for a short period, children may find it difficult to develop long-term attachments with others, become more emotionally-stressed, and lack a sense of security (UNICEF, ThinkChildSafe).

II. How to help children in more responsible ways?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start with yourself: understand the real picture, and share it amongst friends. This website offers a collection of resources on this issue, ranging from videos, news articles to reports:

  • Lonely Planet offers some tips on the dos and dont's at an orphanage, such as avoiding short-term visits. Read more at

  • Donate to trustworthy organisations: it is worthwhile to do some research beforehand to make sure that the money you donate is put to good use. UNICEF recommends the following organisations:

  • UNICEF National Committees

  • Rotary Club International

  • Church councils, committees, and groups

  • Invest in family-based care: spend more efforts in keeping children with their own families. This is a much better option than sending children to institutions.

#voluntourism #orphanagetourism #responsibletravel #sustainabletravel #ethicaltravel

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