For many Hongkongers, Southeast Asian countries, generally Asia Tourism offer great escape during the summer holidays. However, while most travellers focus on the fun and relaxation highlighted in advertisements, few are aware of a sinister reality – the sexual exploitation of children in tourism.
In recent years, countries such as Cambodia tourism and Thailand have seen tremendous tourism growth. In 2011, 19 million visitors were received in Thailand, generating a tourism revenue of US$23 billion that accounted for over 7 per cent of Thailand’s gross domestic product. In Cambodia, 607,000 jobs (8 per cent of total employment) were directly supported by tourism and travel in the same year.
But as the industry continues to boom in the region, exploitation of children is becoming a serious phenomenon that warrants more attention and action.
Vulnerable children and their families are attracted to tourist destinations to make more income. But many are exposed to unsafe or even harmful work conditions.
Children engaged in begging or other forms of child labour are less likely to go to school, and are more vulnerable to exploitation, including sexual abuse.
Last year, Cambodian police deported Alexander Trofimov, a Russian paedophile who built a US$300 million tourist resort in the country. The man was first arrested in 2007 over 17 charges of sexually abusing minors.
Street-child victim Chanty – not her real name – told how she was lured into a trap by Trofimov as she collected garbage and recycling materials to earn cash. The Russian saw her and “kindly” gave her a treasure trove of cans to recycle. Later, he invited the then 13-year-old orphan and her friends to live and work on an island off Sihanoukville, a popular tourist spot. There he raped them.
Child-sex offenders could also approach vulnerable children in orphanages and schools. Without adequate safeguards, instead of helping children and the local economy, “orphanage tourism” or “voluntourism” could also facilitate offenders’ access to vulnerable children.
AusAID’s US$7.5 million Project Childhood works in Cambodia tourism, Laos tourism, Thailand and Vietnam tourism to combat child sexual exploitation in tourism. The prevention component of this is delivered by World Vision.
World Vision uses advocacy campaigns, education and training to raise public awareness on the issue. Trauma recovery centres are set up to give victims a safe shelter where they receive counselling and learn skills that help them reintegrate back into society.
A collaborative effort from local communities, tourism industries, governments, tourists and travellers is required to curb child exploitation, especially in developing countries.
In World Vision’s online survey conducted with more than 300 international travellers to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, over half said they had witnessed situations they perceived as involving exploitation, including sexual, or abuse of children, and most said they wanted to know more about how to protect children and prevent exploitation.
Small actions can result in big changes. Here are some measures everyone can all take to protect children from becoming victims:
Don’t give money to child beggars or vendors. An alternative is to donate to reliable charities that work directly with vulnerable children
Support responsible businesses that implement child protection standards
Choose agencies that vet applications carefully when planning for visits or volunteer work with children
Ask for permission before taking photos, avoid giving gifts directly to children or taking them anywhere alone, as these interactions could build up children’s trust in potentially dangerous strangers.
Sally Ko is communications officer of World Vision Hong Kong
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Tourism boom sees growth in exploitation of children