Family Travel Must Stand Up for Families and #StopOrphanTrips

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 22 May 2016

Most parenting manuals encourage adults to model best behavior for children. Generally speaking, moms and dads want their kids to see in practice how virtues like kindness, generosity, humility and thoughtfulness are respected and rewarded. Who wouldn’t? A world full of people choosing always to support one another would be an astonishing place.

With this in mind, when families travel these days, they increasingly set aside ever more time – now sometimes in generous amounts – for being of service in the communities they visit, especially when those communities are less fortunate. Spending time with local children is frequently a priority, be it in an orphanage, other residential care center or school. Whether through chaperoned experiences arranged in advance or impromptu visits organized through local contacts, parents and kids together turn their minds, hands, skills and resources to the advantage of people, chiefly children, in need.

But, alas, the world isn’t full of people who always choose to support one another. So what happens when good intentions fall victim to clever unscrupulousness? What should you do when generosity is manipulated or misdirected?

After all, nobody likes to be played for a fool, especially people who truly mean well. But, to be callously blunt, that’s what’s often the case when you visit, volunteer at or contribute to an overseas “orphanage.” Rather than setting a good example for their children, parents are helping to perpetuate, and sometimes aggravate, serious problems.

That’s what the monthlong #StopOrphanTrips blog blitz is about: Daily throughout May, a new article (today it’s this one) raises awareness around the issues of orphanage volunteering. The campaign comes to a conclusion on June 1st, International Children’s Day, with a resounding call for the removal of orphanage trips from the product offerings of all travel organizations, particularly those with a focus on volunteering.

Purposeful Family Travel

In September of 2014, Outbounding.org, the community-powered platform curating travel content excellence, hosted a web-based chat about volunteer travel, called Can We Mend, Not End, Voluntourism? Attracting some powerfuAdventures Less Ordinary book coverl voices in the space, many of them now participating in this #StopOrphanTrips campaign, the discussion was deep, far-reaching and incredible. It touched quite a few nerves along the way, not the least of them involving orphanage tourism.

But the conversation didn’t end there. On the strength of and interest in the Outbounding discussion, I hosted (on behalf of Outbounding) a lively Google+ Hangout on Air, also called How Can We Mend, Not End, Voluntourism and, further, commissioned and edited a free ebook anthology about the volunteer travel space. Called Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good (January 2015), it draws on the combined expertise of leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference and is a definitive handbook for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get.

Shortly after, I joined forces with the Family Travel Association (FTA), a coalition of the travel industry’s leading suppliers, destinations, resources and experts on the subject of traveling with children, all with a goal to inspiring families to travel more. As part of one of the FTA’s leading editorial initiatives, the importance of volunteer and philanthropic travel is a core theme, particularly given the anecdotal knowledge that service-minded holidays (in full or in part) figure more and more prominently.


As expressed through Outbounding and in the ebook some time ago, and in light of what we know more recently about the appeal of kid-centered volunteer experiences for families, the needle continues to be pushed on many fronts, but the broad strokes remain largely the same, as clearly and cleanly expressed on the Better Volunteering Better Care website:

The problem is that “Volunteering in orphanages is not in the best interests of children.”

+ The orphanage volunteer: “Did you know?… that volunteering in orphanages is not in the best interests of children? It can increase the risk of abuse, and cause attachment and other developmental issues.”

+ The orphanage myth: “Did you know?… that 80% of children living in orphanages have one or more living parent? Children develop best when they grow up in families, not in orphanages.”

+ The orphanage industry: “Did you know?… that in some cases, volunteers and tourists are creating a ‘demand’ for orphanages? This is resulting in the growth of what’s known as the ‘orphanage industry’.”

For a great deal more information about why orphanage volunteering can be harmful to children, click here.

It’s Time for Responsible Travel

More than two decades ago, I was drawn to the types of tourism that place the needs of host communities – people, animals and plants – on even footing with those of visitors to that community. I saw in this kind of conscious travel a way to adopt, celebrate and encourage global neighborliness. No, it was more than that: a way to champion humanitarianism.

Despite the compelling economic, social and environmental case to be made for a mindful approach to global tourism – with support from major international organizations – the travel market hasn’t exactly shifted its gears away from mainstream, consumptive, traveler-centric practices.

Forward progress is nevertheless being made. Guided public scrutiny, more and more of it underpinned by research and information-rich resources, is holding developers, big brands and even small operators’ feet to the fire. The ruthlessness of canned hunting, the insidiousness of animal facilities that allow contact with humans, the environmental savagery of large-scale coastal development, the barbarity of sex tourism and the obliviousness to other forms of negative cultural impact are all attracting media attention these days. Recent concerns about animals in captivity have gone so far as to drive change in the treatment of dolphins and elephants, and inspired a growing number of tour operators to eliminate or modify product involving them.

Perhaps now is finally the time to halt orphanage tourism too. To help, traveling families should take a stand and call for an end to orphanage tourism.

Here’s what to do:
+ Sign the Avaaz petitions calling on all volunteer travel organizations to stop orphanage volunteering.
+ Follow #StopOrphanTrips. Please then read and share what you learn. Always include the hashtag.
+ If you are or know of a volunteer tour operator (or, for that matter, any operator) that will take steps to protect the best interests of its local children, please send word via Twitter to @vickysmith @bettrvolunteer @bettercarenet.

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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children, family travel, opinion, personal experience, responsible travel, voluntourism, whl.travel,

One Response to “Family Travel Must Stand Up for Families and #StopOrphanTrips”

  1. Traveling for children is a great way for them to grow, thank you for sharing!

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