Last year the term ‘orphanage tourism’ made its way deeper into the public conscience when author J. K. Rowling took to twitter to confront those in the voluntourism industry who had reached out to her. She stated, very simply, why she could never support this kind of tourism:
“#Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses”
Later in the year Rowling and actor Eddie Redmayne used the opening of the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to speak to a captivated audience about the fight to end the institutionalization of children around the world. Using their position in the public eye, they are continuing the narrative of child protection started by hundreds of NGOs worldwide.
The sad truth is that, however well intentioned we are when we travel, we can never know the full story. The most shocking fact of all when it comes to orphanage tourism, according to Rowling’s charitable and research organisation Lumos, is that 90% of children in institutions are not orphans at all.
Unchecked volunteer opportunities and orphanages are continuing to pop up across Asia as a means of making money through the exploitation of children. By taking advantage of both poor families and philanthropic travellers, these organisations often take children from their homes and perpetuate the cycle of poverty by keeping them away from safety, schooling and opportunities.
As discerning travellers you may already know that 1 day of volunteering or a 3 hour orphanage visit is not going to make an impact. You may also know that these actions can even cause harm in the short term.
But what CAN you do to make a positive difference?
Giving back when you travel is not only achieved through long-term volunteer positions, working for a charity or extravagant cash donations.
In this article we’ll outline 4 alternatives to orphanage tourism that you can achieve right now. There are numerous simple ways you can make a difference in ways that you probably hadn’t thought of.
Wine and Dine
Wait, is it really that simple? Yes, even your dinner choices can impact a life. And we’ve all got to eat, right? Throughout Asia you can find restaurants that run as training centers for disadvantaged youth and give proceeds back to the community. Choosing to visit one of these restaurants will make a contribution to increasing the skilled workforce of a local community; keeping teenagers and young adults off the streets and reducing unemployment in rural areas.
We introduced you to a few of these social enterprises in this guide to Siem Reap.
You can read more about KOTO, Vietnam’s first social enterprise training restaurant, here.
OR visit Friends International for more restaurants and other social businesses across South East Asia.
The Right Company
If you choose to plan your travels through a company – whether for transfers, hotels, tours or all of the above – make sure you choose the right one. Companies affiliated with organisations like Child Safe and Friends International, are actively pursuing and improving child protection daily.
For example, at Buffalo Tours we have helped train our tour guides and drivers to be vigilant about child welfare while on the road with guests, with procedures in place to help when it is needed.
Community Based Tourism
The main goal of truly child-centric child welfare organisations should be to keep children in safe and loving homes. Therefore, if you want to spend time with local people, visit homes rather than institutions.
Take the time to visit places practicing community-based tourism, where the whole community is invested in how they interact with, and make an income from, visiting tourists. With options for workshops, family-style lunches and overnight homestays, you can connect with the whole family. This way the money earned from your tour is given to parents wanting the best for their children and community.
The Right Way to Donate
A typical element of orphanage tourism is to bring along a gift of some kind, whether that be a bag of rice, school supplies or cash. But, just as there is a right way to volunteer there is also a right way to donate.
Research organisations on the ground that are working with disadvantaged peoples and have a stellar reputation. If there is an area that has touched your heart, find a project that has already been thoroughly researched and developed and then offer cash or supplies, safe in the knowledge that your money is reaching those who need it. And, if you would prefer to donate supplies, then first make sure they are needed items and then buy them locally to support local businesses too.
At Buffalo Tours a portion of the profits from our community based tourism initiatives already goes into a community fund for development projects, but you can also choose to make an extra donation. For example, our Happy Library Project in Na Chao uses donations to bring students Vietnamese books, and culturally appropriate English books, rather than unsuitable hand-me-downs.
To learn more about child protection and responsible tourism in Asia read this post.
Please also consider spending time learning about the organisations listed in the article. Understand more about the wider issues of child protection and how you can help via sustainable projects in Asia.