Residential care perspectives: orphanage tourism in Cambodia

cambodiaThe growing popularity of international volunteering has led to the trend of orphanage tourism, whereby people take time to volunteer at or visit an orphanage while visiting a foreign country. The literature on volunteer tourism is growing but mainly focuses on the volunteer and to a lesser extent on the host communities, and the literature on orphanage tourism is limited. Furthermore, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence from blogs, newspapers and documentaries about the positive and negative impacts on host organizations.

This research unravels some of the tensions between the vocational and financial aspects of care from the currently unreported perspective of the managers of the care centres. These centres were carefully selected and had to follow national, international laws and guidelines on childcare and child protection. It analyses social and economic, negative and positive impacts of orphanage tourism in Cambodia by interviewing the managers, directors or volunteer coordinators of nine residential care facilities .

Orphanages in Cambodia are supposed to be long term residential centres that provide all basic developmental needs for children who have lost one or both biological parents[1] . Yet Save The Children Alliance [2] shows many countries in which 80% of the children in residential care have parents, which is also the case in Cambodia according to UNICEF [3]. These centres also admit a variety of children at risk and children in need of special protection, but are often unable to provide specialised services

International research demonstrates that institutionalisation of children impacts negatively on social, physical, intellectual and emotional child development and that non-institutional care is recognised as providing children with a range of benefits compared to other forms of residential care[4]. Globally, there is a growing consensus on the need to promote family-based alternatives to institutional care for children. Furthermore, much of the care in these centres is done by international volunteers. The literature and media point out a manifold of issues arising with orphanage tourism. It is believed to negatively impact the children and the community and add existing problems or create an environment where children are kept in vulnerable and dangerous situations[5] . There is a high rise in number of orphanages globally, with evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa[6], Nepal [7]Indonesia [8]and Ghana [9]. The growth in Cambodia is 75% since 2005[10] counting only facilities registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, so actual numbers could be much higher. Some believe there is a link between the 250% rise in tourism during the same period as the rise in residential care facilities[11]. Most orphanages are supported by overseas donors and tourists who are unaware of community based and family care alternatives and the potential risks of putting children in orphanages[12]. The orphanage has become a tourist attraction. Although most donors have good intentions, there is little doubt that some Cambodian orphanages have been set up to make money from foreign tourists and there are cases of children being asked to perform for, or befriend donors and sometimes to actively solicit the funds to guarantee the residential centres’ survival[13]. Another issue is Cambodian orphans have parents who are giving away their children to orphanages in hope of a better future and a good education[14]. Over 70% of the `orphans’ in Cambodia have at least one living parent[15]. The residential care centres are technically not orphanages and these children are not orphans, but in Cambodia for example the terms `orphanages’ and `orphans’ are widespread[16]. Yet many tourists are unaware that the majority of children in residential care in Cambodia are not double orphans[17]. Many studies found that residential care has negative impacts on vulnerable children. But new research also highlights the negative impacts of tourism on residential care centres. Very young children are programmed to build attachments[18] and undergo repeated abandonments: by their parents, staff turnover and the wave of tourists that visit the centre. Institutionalized children tend to manifest the same indiscriminate affection towards volunteers[19] and volunteers are often encouraged to make intimate connections with the children. After a few days or weeks, this attachment is broken when the volunteer leaves and a new attachment forms when the next volunteer arrives. This is aggravated by the lack of skills on orphanage management as the vast majority of people running the orphanages in Cambodia have little or no skills and experience in operating residential childcare institutions[20].

The literature on volunteer tourism however also points out several positive impacts on host organizations: alleviation of poverty[21] , enhancing career opportunities by training locals[22] , improving the local economy [23] and establishing cross cultural understanding[24].

The research findings present the narrative of the orphanages and compare their opinions and ideas with the literature on the subject. Orphanage tourism is clearly different from conventional forms of tourism as it involves the combination of pleasure, work and children.

The research looked at the perceived impacts of volunteers and visitors on orphanages in Cambodia. Impacts of orphanage tourism are perceived by the respondents as mainly positive and rarely negative. The positive impacts are on the children’s education, life skills, confidence, staff skills, the local economy and the centres’ finances. Impacts of residential care are also a better option than the children’s abusive family situations according to the respondents. It is important to mention that one orphanage responded more critically than the others and they in fact find the impacts of orphanage tourism on residential care centres mainly negative. All centres say the positive impacts are due to strict recruitment, induction, rules and regulations. Interestingly, according to the respondents, negative impacts were mainly caused by cooperation with volunteer placement agencies which have an overall negative reputation throughout the literature and secondary data. The main complaints were the insufficient screening of volunteers, inefficiently organized agencies and lack of preparation and information for the volunteers. However, it was revealed that most respondents had a certain lack of knowledge concerning negative impacts of orphanage tourism. They risk not acknowledging the signs of negative impacts on the children’s wellbeing, for example psychological traumas. However the orphanages claimed to be generally willing to learn about childcare, specifically family reintegration and improve their practices. They were open for government monitoring and applaud efforts to reduce exploitation in residential care

The orphanages overall depend on volunteers for cheap skilled labour and on visitors for financial benefits. It was apparent that the literature and host organisations barely mention the impacts of orphanage tourism on their staff and only one of the orphanages employs the volunteers to build staff capacity. It was clear that the respondents and the literature largely contrast in depicting the practice of orphanage tourism. The respondents distance themselves from the overly negative description of orphanage tourism in literature and media and acknowledge the existence of “those exploitative orphanages” but do not associate with them.

The research showed that he impacts of orphanage tourism on the children in orphanages needs further detailed investigation, especially by psychologists and social workers. The research revealed that the majority of the orphanages were unaware and unskilled to determine the emotional and psychological impacts of orphanage tourism on children. Furthermore the impacts of orphanage tourism on staff and the possibilities for capacity building should be further researched. Is there in fact a categorization of orphanages and are there different types of “good” and “bad” orphanages? The impacts of orphanage tourism on orphanages can be researched on a wider scale and in different countries, to expand the academic research on the topic and give a broader view on the subject. There is clearly a need for further research which investigates the long-term effects of voluntourists on the orphans and research with orphanages that are not considered best practice. Finally the possibilities for alternative care in developing countries should be further investigated to determine if residential care is in fact the solution or the centres should shift towards a family re integration approach.

Joni Verstraete, independent consultant.


This article is an abridged version of a research project conducted for Leeds Metropolitan Univer­sity. The full length report is available on request from the author.

Reference list

American Psychiatrists Association. (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Arlington: American Psychiatrists Association.

Baranova, A. (2012) Rethinking the dangerous practice of orphanage tourism . PEPY. [ Internet Blog]. Available from: <>. [ Accessed 3 July 2012].

Barbieri, C., Santos C.A. and Katsube, Y. ( 2012) On-the-ground observations from Rwanda. Tourism Management, 33 ( 3) June, pp 509-516.

[1] UN, 2009

[2] Save The Children Alliance, 2003

[3] UNICEF, 2010

[4] Save The Children, 1995; Save The Children, 2003; Rehman & Eloundou- Enyegue, 2007; Evans & Miguel, 2007; Friends International, 2011; UNICEF, 2011

[5] Friends International, 2012; Baranova, 2012; Richter and Norman, 2010; Richter, 2010; Birrel, 2010,2011; Brandpunt, 2014; ZDF, 2014; Al Jazeera, 2012; Carmichael, 2010; Tourism Concern, 2013; Horton, 2011; Reas, 2011; Voelkl, 2012; Save the Children, 2009

[6] UNICEF, 2004; Firelight Foundation, 2005; Richter & Norman 2010

[7] Next Generation Nepal, 2013

[8] UNICEF, 2005; Schimmelpfenning, 2011

[9] Birrell, 2010

[10] UNICEF, 2011

[11] Morgan & Walker, 2013; Brandpunt, 2014

[12] UNICEF, 2011

[13] UNICEF, 2011; ZDF, 2014; Brandpunt, 2014; Tourism Concern, 2013

[14] UNICEF, 2011; Tolfree, 1995

[15] Aljazeera, 2013

[16] Reas, 2011

[17] UNICEF, 2011

[18] Norman, 2011

[19] Richter, 2010

[20] Horton, 2011; UNICEF, 2011

[21] Stoddart & Rogerson, 2004

[22] Wearing, 2001

[23] Clifton & Benson, 2006; Gray & Campbell, 2007; Barbieri, Santos & Katsube; 2012 Morgan 2010)

[24] Sin, 2009; Mcintosh & Zahra, 2008

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