Paved with Good Intentions? The Orphanage Tourism Business and New Zealand’s Role

The United Nations declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. As we set sail into 2017, it is imperative to be reminded of the human rights implications of tourism. Facebook recently notified me that three years ago, I was volunteering in Cambodia. A photo of a group of us after a rice distribution served to remind me of my naiivity and the pressing need to educate young people about the dangers of orphanage tourism.


What is orphanage tourism?

Voluntourism is the professionalised phenomenon of volunteering whilst traveling abroad in developing countries. One of the more popular forms is orphanage tourism, which includes day trips to orphanages as well long-term orphanage volunteering placements. Despite the best of intentions to help vulnerable children, voluntourism instead fuels an industry that commodifies vulnerable children and incentivises residential care. Well-meaning volunteers are unaware that they are supporting an industry that exploits children and tears families arpart.

What’s wrong with residential care?

International research by UNICEF, development experts and child psychologists show us that children who have grown up in residential care are at serious risk of developing mental illness, developing attachment disorders, developing growth and speech delays, struggling to reintegrate into society later in life and struggling to be parents themselves.1 Young adults raised in institutions are 10 times more likely to fall into sex work than their peers, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record, and 500 times more likely to take their own lives.2

Orphanage tourism undermines several protections guaranteed to all children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.3 Article 9 requires that State Parties shall ensure “that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents, unless such a separation is in the best interests of the child”. Article 19 guarantees children protection from violence, injury, abuse, neglect, maltreatment or exploitation. Orphanage tourism, particularly in countries like Nepal and Cambodia, allows orphanage directors to exploit vulnerable children as a business strategy.

How does orphanage tourism contribute to the problem?

The problem is that orphanage tourism inevitably includes some kind of fee payment on the part of the tourist. Visitors pay a fee to visit and interact with children and long-term volunteers pay fees, often through large third party placement companies. This business plan relies on having vulnerable children on-hand for voluntourists to pay to interact with. The more money that flows in to support these institutions, the more institutions open and the more children are removed from their families to fill their beds. Since 2005, the number of orphanages in Cambodia has risen by more than 75%, despite the fact that the vast majority of these children are not orphans.4

What does orphanage tourism have to do with New Zealand?

New Zealand contributes to the orphanage tourism problem in three ways.

First, young New Zealand tourists frequently visit orphanages on their travels abroad, particularly in popular South-East Asian destinations. In Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of orphanage tourism have taken off in the form of news articles,5 blogs,6 TED Talks7 and investigative journalism stories.8 New Zealand, on the other hand, has not seen this activism, so young Kiwi backpackers remain largely unaware of how problematic and harmful orphanage tourism is.

Second, New Zealand universities and high schools promote volunteering in orphanages. The ‘Volunteering’ page on the University of Auckland website includes links to several popular orphanage tourism providers, such as Projects Abroad and Global Volunteer Network.9 In May 2016, the London School of Economics and Politics (LSE) called for universities to stop promoting orphanage visits. David Coles, the charity coordinator, said visits by “unqualified and ill-suited” students can lead to child trafficking and sexual exploitation.10 LSE confirmed it would no longer promote volunteering in orphanages. New Zealand universities should follow suit.

Third, New Zealand law only protects New Zealand children. This must change. In New Zealand, institutions are no longer seen as appropriate for children needing care outside of a family home. Younger children are cared for by foster families. Child, Youth, and Family run care and protection residences for children aged 12 to 16 needing care, but these residences are only used for young people who commit low-level criminal offences.11 Legislation such as the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 198912 and the Education Act 198913 ensure that when children in New Zealand go to school or daycare, they do not have dozens of unqualified (and often unchecked) backpackers and tourists spending a few weeks with them.

If New Zealand children deserve a certain quality of care, so do children in developing countries. Yet, there are many instances of children in orphanages being abused and neglected. For instance, the director of the “Our Home” orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was sentenced in February 2016 to three years in prison for abusing 11 children in his care.14 “Our Home” received volunteers placed by a prominent New Zealand-based company called International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ).15 IVHQ sends thousands of volunteers to orphanages and residential care facilities in over 20 different countries. IVHQ is a New Zealand company which is financially supporting unsafe childcare practices. If the law in New Zealand protects vulnerable children in New Zealand, it should regulate New Zealand businesses that profit from the exploitation of vulnerable children abroad.

The exploitation of children through orphanage tourism is a human rights issue that must be recognised and combatted. Kiwi tourists, organisations, law-makers and businesses need to be aware of their contribution to the problem. Vulnerable children deserve a quality of care that cannot be provided by separating them from their families and placing them in the arms of unqualified young backpackers in need of a new profile picture.

1 UNICEF With the Best Intentions…A Study of Attitudes Towards Residential Care in Cambodia (2011); UNICEF End Placing Children Under Three Years In Institutions: A Call to Action (28 June 2011); UNICEF “Fact Sheet: Residential Care in Cambodia” <>; Bucharest Early Intervention Project; Center of the Developing Child, Harvard University, “Resource Library”; Harvard University Center on the Developing Child (2012) “The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain” Working Paper No. 12; J Bowlby A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (Routledge, Great Britain, 1988); Lujik M, van IJzendoorn M E, “IQ of Children Growing Up in Children’s Homes: A Meta-Analysis on IQ Delays in Orphanages” (2008) Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 54(3); Save the Children Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care (Save the Children, 2009); John Williamson and Aaron Greenberg Families, Not Orphanages (Better Care Network Working Paper, September 2010).

2 Lumos Ending the Institutionalisation of Children Globally – The Time is Now (2014)

3 Convention on the Rights of the Child 1577 UNTS 3 (opened for signature 20 November 1989, entered into force 2 September 1990).

4 UNICEF (2011), With the Best Intentions…A Study of Attitudes Towards Residential Care in Cambodia; Cambodian Children’s Trust “Reference Sheet for Tara Winkler’s TEDxSydney Talk 2016” < >.

5 Mark Riley “Volunteers are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. They need to stop” The Guardian (online ed, 16 May 2016); ABC “Does orphanage volunteer tourism do more harm than good?” ABC News (online ed, 31 May 2016).

6 Anna McKeon “I Volunteered at an Orphanage, and Now I Campaign Against It” (4 May 2016) Epicure and Culture <>.

7 Tara Winkler “Why We Need to End the Era of Orphanages – Tara Winkler – TEDxSydney” YouTube <>.

8 Al Jazeera “Cambodia’s Orphan Business” Al Jazeera (online ed, 27 June 2012).

9 The University of Auckland “Volunteering” <>.

10 Lydia Willgress “Gap year students cause more harm than good as top university calls for orphanage visits to stop” The Telegraph (online ed, 21 May 2016).

11 Te Ara “Children’s homes and fostering” Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand <>.

12 Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989.

13 Education Act 1989.

14 “Cambodia orphanage director jailed for abusing children” Channel NewsAsia (online ed, 10 February 2016).

15 Ryantventures (Blog, 6 January 2013) <>;