Talking Point: Child protection and the role of hotels

Photo: Beth Kanter, Cambodia4kids.org

Photo: Beth Kanter, Cambodia4kids.org

In connection with our South East Asia theme in January, Responsible Travel tell us about the role of hotels when it comes to child protection in tourism, with a focus on Cambodia.    

Child protection continues to be a major theme across the tourism industry. In 2013 the World Responsible Tourism Awards introduced a ‘Best for Child Protection’ category, and at World Travel Market, London in November 2014 the main debate on World Responsible Tourism Day was on the topic of child protection, and how the industry can do more to take responsibility for it.

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime left many without education, and with little access to income and healthcare desperate families turn to more insalubrious ‘solutions’  - often including the sex trade, human trafficking and child abuse. And tourism has its part to play. In Siem Reap, gateway to the famous ruins of Angkor Wat, there are 35 orphanages serving a population of just 100,000 people, a number which has increased with a rise in tourism as unscrupulous owners see a profit in volunteer fees and tourist donations. Shockingly a 2010 report suggested that only about a quarter of Cambodian children in orphanages are actually orphans, others placed in residential care by parents struggling to care for them, tempted by idea of a western-style education and promises of a brighter future.

Although tourism may be exacerbating child exploitation, in countries such as Cambodia and Thailand responsible, careful tourism has the potential to make a real, positive difference in reducing it too. In order for a more caring, child-conscious industry to grow, each stakeholder in it must shoulder their part of the responsibility – from individual tourists to tour operators, taxi-drivers, restaurant owners and hoteliers. At the crossroads between local people and international guess hotels are uniquely placed to play a key role in this process.

Knowledge and education

Hotels and other tourism providers in Cambodia, Thailand and countries worldwide have a responsibility to ensure they are not unwittingly advocating or condoning child exploitation, by allowing immoral tourists to use their facilities, by marketing day trips or unskilled volunteer opportunities in local orphanages, or simply turning a blind eye to children in at-risk situations.

The Child-Safe Network in Cambodia educates hoteliers and hotel staff in child protection, providing training on how to spot children at-risk and what they can do to intervene if needed. With over 35% of Cambodia’s sex workers under the age of 18, it is important for tourists to support hotels which prohibit sex work activities – and the Child-Safe certification is a good way for travellers to identify these establishments.

It may be a hard subject to breach, but hotels also have a responsibility to pass the knowledge they gain from organisations such as Child-Safe Cambodia onto their staff and guests, so that every traveller can adopt an eye-open approach to child protection. The network also has a 24 hour hotline which hoteliers, the general public and guests alike can call to report that they have seen a child in an at-risk situation and to request immediate help.

Although founded in Cambodia, the ChildSafe Network has since expanded to neighbouring Thailand and Lao PDR, as well as further afield to Indonesia and Switzerland, with Friends International offices worldwide promoting the programme.

A positive community influence

With poverty a key underlying factor in families giving up their children to orphanages, or to traffickers (unwitting or not), it is important that hotels in Cambodia are playing their part in ensuring the money brought in by tourism is supporting the people which need it most, that the presence of the hotel has a positive impact on the economy of local communities, empowering them to be able to provide long-term for their at-risk children.

Education and training are at the heart of operations at the Soria Moria Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, winner of the ‘Best Accommodation for the Local Community’ category at the 2012 World Responsible Tourism Awards. Here, paid trainee positions are made available to local disadvantaged youth, who are then supported in their education and development into managerial positions and even MBA qualifications. The hotel is also majority-owned by its local employees, holding 51% of the shares. It’s an exemplary programme empowering Cambodians to be able to earn an independent and sustainable income to support their families’ education and drive change.

Finally, hotels are also in a position to influence guest behaviour by carefully regulating the trips and experiences they partner with and market. By refusing to offer orphanage day trips to their guests, or to arrange volunteering opportunities in local orphanages they can play a small role in decreasing the number of children exploited by tourism in this way. Instead, hotels looking to support children in their communities could consider focussing their efforts on initiatives to help poor families, so that these families are better able to keep their children safe at home.

More information on the issues around orphanage tourism can be found at http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/volunteering/travel-guide and the issues facing Cambodia as a tourist destination at http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/cambodia/travel-guide.

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