“There’s no excuse for orphanage tourism”: World Expeditions

Poor Indian children keeping their hands up and asking for support. Many Indian children suffer from poverty - more than 50% of India's total population  lives below the poverty line, and more than 40% of this population are children.

Earlier this month, voluntourism organisation Projects Abroad promised to put an end to orphanage tourism once and for all, ending all partnerships globally before 2018.

In September, the Intrepid Group also backed the cause by signing a new partnership with child protection charity, Forget Me Not.

“We believe every child deserves to grow up in a safe and supportive environment,” James Thornton, CEO of the Intrepid Group explained.

“In partnership with organisations like Forget Me Not and Rethink Orphanages, we are actively lobbying the Government to make Australia the first country in the world to declare visits to overseas orphanages as illegal.”

Now the latest to throw their support behind the issue is World Expeditions, who first cut orphanage programs in 2013.

Speaking to Travel Weekly, World Expeditions Michele Eckersley said orphanage tourism is dangerous on a number of levels.

“Firstly, there can be emotional damage due to children forming attachments with people who then move on (repeatedly), leading to abandonment issues; there is also the danger that children – not necessarily orphans – are procured from their families, in order for unscrupulous operators to profit from tourism dollars; there is also the danger of abuse at the hands of criminals posing as volunteers,” she said.

“The decision was made by World Expeditions to cut the programs when research revealed a direct relationship between the increase in the number of orphanages in developing nations and the increase in tourism numbers.”

In terms of how much children are negatively affected by orphanage tourism, Eckersley said it depends on the individual circumstances.

“World Expeditions recognises that there are operations offering marginalised children a better life, but we also acknowledge that we are travel specialists and not qualified to carry out due diligence to determine a good orphanage from a bad orphanage.”

“For this reason, we cut all forms of orphanage tourism.”

So why has it the industry so long to cotton on to the programs’ damages? For Eckersley, there’s no straight answer.

“That’s a great question. Research first emerged in 2013 and we reacted accordingly.”

“We are perplexed and saddened that companies involved in this area have not made it a priority to keep abreast of the research and have remained involved.”

She added that while the vast majority of travellers are well intentioned and unaware of the negative impacts on children.

“Inadvertently, they created a demand for the practice and unscrupulous operators responded.”

“Bad practice often stems from a lack of knowledge – elephant riding was a mainstream activity until people became educated about its inherent cruelty.”

“There are really no excuses for any Australian operator to be involved.”

As well as companies changing their offerings, Eckersley added that individuals can take responsibility and become informed about the issue.

“Research the company you are travelling with and read advice from reputable organizations.  World Expeditions publishes information on our website and we run Responsible Tourism information nights, at which our RT partners speak.”

“The next events are in February and speakers will cover issues including child protection, animal protection environmental protection and porter protection.”

Above this, Eckersley said the company would welcome legislation to ensure all operators adopt similar practices, to ensure children’s safety.

“Tourism can be a very powerful positive force to make the world a better place.”

“When experiences are well managed – that is consultative, collaborative, sustainable and when there is a transference of skills/knowledge, they can be hugely rewarding to the traveller and to the host community.”

Going forward and looking at other voluntourism issues, Eckersley said animal welfare should be next on the agenda.

“Volunteering with animal welfare requires some due diligence to ensure that you are not inadvertently harming animals instead of helping them.”

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