Of all the forms of ‘volunteer tourism’, orphanage visits or volunteering have raised the most concern. A number of charities have warned about the emotional harm that could be caused by a constant stream of volunteers who shower orphans with affection for a few hours or days, and then disappear for ever. Concerns have also been raised about risks of child abuse, or the potential setting up of fake ‘orphanages’ purely to take advantage of Westerners who want to visit or donate money. A report from Next Generation Nepal (NGN), released on 11 December 2014, finds that most of the children in orphanages in Nepal are not orphans at all. The charity advises against orphanage tourism, which is also the subject of a campaign by pressure group Tourism Concern. 


The NGN report, “The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering: Combating Child Trafficking through Ethical Voluntourism,” shows that orphanages in Nepal contain over 15,000 children, yet at least two out of three of these children are not orphans. NGN claims that many of these children are being kept in “orphanages” because they are being used as poverty commodities to raise money from well-intentioned but naïve fee-paying foreign volunteers and donors. Indeed, almost 90 percent of “orphanages” in Nepal are located in the top five tourist districts for this reason. 

The report reviews the history of orphanage trafficking which stems back to the Karnali region during the civil war when parents looked to traffickers to help their children escape forced conscription into the Maoist rebel army. It argues that the ban by Western nations on inter-country adoptions in 2010 shifted the focus by criminal groups away from “selling” children for adoption toward “selling” opportunities to volunteers and donors to support orphanages. The report also shows how most orphanages in Nepal do not meet the Government's legal standards, and that abuse and exploitation of children in such places are commonplace. 

The report analyzes the growing global phenomenon of voluntourism and argues that it is driven by a range of altruistic and self-interest-based motives, and that while it has the potential to bring benefits to communities, it can also cause considerable harm. It reviews examples of ethical volunteering in Nepal and internationally which others can learn from. NGN advises against orphanage volunteering but makes a number of recommendations to the tourism industry, Government of Nepal, civil society, media and academia and the diplomatic community on how to address orphanage trafficking and improve ethical voluntourism opportunities. 

Said Responsible Tourism campaigner Vicky Smith (lead author of a study on volunteer tourism published last year in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism): "It has long been known in responsible tourism that tourism involving orphanages (whether as a volunteer or visitor) does not have the positive benefits that many have originally believed or intended, in fact fuelling a demand for often deliberately-squalid orphanage creation to commoditise children for exploitation." 

"Like  UNICEF's 'With the Best Intentions' study of attitudes to residential care in Cambodia before it, this report exposes the grotesque money-making market that is orphanage tourism, trading on the guilt of Western philanthropic concerns and personal ego desires rather than any realistic local needs, which all too frequently offer nothing in the way of background checks or child protection." 

"Vulnerable children, possibly already neglected and abused in life, and often involved in fund raising for their own support through tourism performances and begging, experience emotional attachment, abandonment and trauma time and time again. Many have families, poverty-stricken, desperate and promised a better life and education for their child, who is then trafficked in this manner." 

"The report is a welcome acknowledgement of the situation in Nepal so that, like Cambodia, it may now address policies for development of child care alternatives in the community and through extended families in preference to residential care, and thus stem the supply. " 

"Travel  companies and tourists need to be aware that fake orphanages and trafficking are the consequences of their demand, and offered information on responsible alternative ways of supporting childcare and community development. "

CABI's Leisure Tourism Database covers all aspects of tourism. Subscribers have access to around 300 bibliographic records on volunteer tourism: details of a small selection are given below.

Further information

The Paradox of Orphanage Volunteering: Combating Child Trafficking through Ethical Voluntourism (PDF file) 

With the Best Intentions' study of attitudes to residential care in Cambodia (PDF file, 2011) 

Tourism Concern campaign on orphanage tourism 

Nepal's bogus orphan trade fuelled by rise in 'voluntourism' (Guardian, 27 May 2014)

Bibliographic references

AIDS orphan tourism: a threat to young children in residential care. Richter, L. M. , Norman, A. / Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, 2010, Vol. 5, No. 3, 217-229 [doi: 10.1080/17450128.2010.487124]

Fair Trade Learning: ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Hartman, E. , Paris, C. M. , Blache-Cohen, B. / Tourism and Hospitality Research, 2014, Vol. 14, No. 1/2, 108-116 [doi: 10.1177/1467358414529443]

On affection and photos: voluntourists at a "favela" in Rio de Janeiro – Brazil. Freire-Medeiros, B. , Nunes, F. , Campello, L. / Revista Brasileira de Pesquisa em Turismo, 2011, Vol. 5, No. 2, 157-176.

Volunteer tourism, greenwashing and understanding responsible marketing using market signalling theory. Smith, V. L. , Font, X. / Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2014, Vol. 22, No. 6, 942-963.  [doi: 10.1080/09669582.2013.871021]

Volunteer tourism: at the crossroads of commercialisation and service? Tomazos, K. , Cooper, W. / Current Issues in Tourism, 2012, Vol. 15, No. 5, 405-423.  [doi: 10.1080/13683500.2011.605112]

Volunteer tourists in the field: a question of balance? Tomazos, K. , Butler, R. / Tourism Management, 2012, Vol. 33, No. 1, 177-187. [doi: 10.1016/j.tourman.2011.02.020]

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