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Orphanage Voluntourism: Helping or Hurting?

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Each week we spotlight a different volunteer vacation from across the country and around the world. While we vet each program that we chose, the vastly expanding volunteer travel industry is now under scrutiny, especially the growing trend of orphanage tourism. Ben Moroski examines both sides of the issue and offers steps for choosing a legitimate program.

Volunteer tourism or “voluntourism” is a growing niche in the travel industry. A 2008 survey by MSNBC and Condé Nast Traveler found that 20 percent of respondents had taken at least one volunteer vacation and 62 percent of those who hadn’t said they were likely to take one. According to a recent members-only survey conducting by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), 55 percent of the responding tour operators currently run volunteer trips and nearly half of the remaining 45 percent are considering offering them in the future. Translation: Travelers are no longer content with sightseeing. They want to be immersed in local culture. And most importantly, it seems, they want to give back to the communities they’re visiting.

One of the growing trends in volunteer vacation activities is working with children in developing countries, particularly those who are orphaned or hard-hit by disaster. Currently, the opportunities for such interactions appear boundless.

In Cambodia, for example, the number of orphanages has nearly tripled in the past five years – only a handful of which are operated by the state, most being run privately. But what does volunteering in an orphanage entail, and is it helping—or even harming—the local community?

The concept of “orphanage tourism” received some of its most public scrutiny in a recent Al Jazeera People and Power series documentary “Cambodian Orphan Business” reporter Juliana Ruhfus investigates what she calls, “a darker side of voluntourism.”Ruhfus and her colleagues reveal their findings about the less-than-stellar behavior by both orphanages and tour providers.

One accusation targeted the high cost of volunteering: one tour provider charged volunteers $3,000 per month while the orphanages saw about only $9 per week of that sum. One of the most concerning accusations is that orphanage operators are deliberately keeping children in abject living conditions to generate continued foreign donations and lax or non-existent background checks for potential volunteers.

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