Protecting children in tourism: a persistent problem

Salim selling trinkets to tourists. © UNICEF/UNI144617/Mutua

Salim selling trinkets to tourists. © UNICEF/UNI144617/Mutua

Hotels are at constant risk from the threat of human trafficking and frequently that can include the sexual exploitation of men, women and children in hotel rooms. A report by ECPAT with input from UNICEF has revealed the particular risk to children whether trafficked or otherwise. Here Samah Abbasi outlines the findings of the report revealing the measures hotels can take to mitigate the risk to children, employees and themselves.

What most people don’t realize is that sexual exploitation scars you for life.” Young UK victim

Despite more than two decades of efforts, the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism is growing and has now spread to every part of the world, a new report has found.

With a record-breaking 1.2 million international tourist visits last year and a one-in-eleven share of global jobs, the sector clearly has enormous potential to spur economic development, social progress and new connections between communities across the globe. But this surge in people on the move – thanks in large part to cheaper travel and the spread of the internet – has also dramatically increased the risk of children being sexually exploited.

How does travel and tourism play in to dynamics that leave children so vulnerable to exploitation and what should companies do to respond? Here are some key findings from the study:

  • The changing nature of travel and tourism business models and services carries specific risks for children. New forms of travel (such as voluntourism - volunteering with children) and the growth of the sharing economy (think Airbnb and Uber) mean significantly more opportunities and venues available to offenders. When this is coupled with advances in internet and mobile technology, criminals have much greater anonymity and can more easily avoid detection.
  • Tourism development itself can make children more vulnerable to exploitation. In many countries tourist hotspots are built near poor and marginalised communities, which can intensify the inequality that exposes children to sexual exploitation. High levels of in-migration and a tolerance for prostitution further increase risks for children. If local authorities and tourism businesses conducted early assessments of the potential impact of new tourism projects on families and children, the most negative outcomes could be averted.
  • Tourism is booming but child protection isn’t. Governments’ eagerness to attract tourism investment hasn’t been matched by efforts to address poverty, weakening family networks, and poor access to education, all of which are factors that increase children’s vulnerability to being sexually exploited. When countries and households depend on tourism revenue and jobs, reporting of sexual exploitation linked to the sector and the enforcement of corresponding laws is more likely to be discouraged.
  • Most child sex offenders are not international tourists. The majority are from the region or country where the crime takes And most offenders do not plan the crime – they have the chance and feel they can get away with it, highlighting the importance of reducing the number of opportunities offenders have to exploit children. This can only be achieved through multi-stakeholder efforts to create safe environments for children. For example, in Colombia, UNICEF worked with the Cartagena Tourism Corporation and the country’s largest association of hotels to build a culture of zero-tolerance for the sexual exploitation of children in the city. This led to a significant increase in reported cases of the crime.

While the Global Study has helped to build a clearer picture of the extent of sexual exploitation, research by Kuoni in Kenya and India and more recently by the Starwood Foundation in Mexico points to broader impacts of the industry on children:

Average wages in tourism are often lower than in the economy as a whole. Although the sector is a massive global employer – supporting as many as 284 million jobs directly and indirectly – the lowest salaries may not constitute a living wage. This means that workers might not earn enough to cover their own basic needs and that of their families. For children, this may mean missing out on education, medical treatment or nutritious meals and can, in some cases, contribute to children looking for ways to support family income.

Rotating schedules, long and irregular working hours can particularly affect new mothers. Those wishing to breastfeed their babies are likely to find the sector’s hours and schedules challenging. Companies could take a more flexible approach to working hours for young mothers and also offer a place for new mums to breastfeed and/or express milk.

Parents of older children may also face difficulties in balancing their working hours with family life. Children whose parents cannot access or afford child-care may have to look after themselves and/or their siblings for long periods of time in tourist zones where they may be exposed to higher levels of alcohol consumption, prostitution, gambling and an influx of strangers. Government efforts to provide affordable day care and increase the provision of after-school activities for youth would provide working parents with safer alternatives. UNICEF UK believes that companies seeking to support children’s rights could consider ways to help employees with their child-care responsibilities i.e. by providing a company crèche or subsidising the cost of using local providers.

Better opportunities for young people. Kuoni’s impact assessment in Kenya found that young people’s exclusion from employment and training opportunities in the tourism sector increased their vulnerability to commercial sexual exploitation by tourists. More could be done to encourage safe and beneficial formal work or training for 15-17 year olds, in conjunction with support to complete their education. A clear list from government of the tourism-related jobs that 15-17 year olds could do safely would provide companies with much-needed guidance.

Child labour Millions of children around the world work in a job linked to travel and tourism - from selling trinkets on street corners to cleaning or serving in local establishments. And whilst most global travel and tourism companies have all but eliminated child labour within their direct operations, it continues to exist in the informal economy and in the sector’s vast supply chains. Providing decent work for parents, promoting tourism activities that improve the livelihoods of local people and working with local authorities to strengthen child protection systems are key actions that companies can take to help address the root causes of child labour.

As tourism continues to expand over the coming decades, this growth must be matched by investment to tackle the persistent problem of child sexual exploitation and other child rights issues. To achieve this we’d like to see more companies, across the tourism value chain, undertaking efforts through their human rights due diligence processes to understand how children living in tourist destinations are affected – positively and negatively – by their business operations and supply chains.

Samah Abbasi, Senior Private Sector Policy & Advocacy Adviser, Unicef UK

The Global Study was the result of a two-year collaboration led by ECPAT International and shaped by contributions from over 70 stakeholders, including child rights organisations like UNICEF and leading industry players such as Carlson, AccorHotels and Kuoni.

For more information on how ITP member hotel groups are acting on human rights issues visit our website.

To learn more about the issue, the risk to hotels and how to address human trafficking, download our Know How Guide.

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