Anne Majumdar

Travellers contemplating a visit to an orphanage on a trip overseas in the hope of giving something back to vulnerable kids are being urged to reconsider.

Speaking at a preview screening of Lion in Sydney yesterday, Rethink Orphanages co-founder Leigh Matthews highlighted the issues that surround orphanage tourism.

The film is the story of a young boy from India who gets separated from his family, then spending time in an orphanage in Kolkata before being adopted by an Australian family.

Saroo - the main character in the film Lion

Saroo – the main character in the film Lion

Statistics show that there are 8 million children living in institutions globally.

“We know that’s likely to be a gross underestimate,” Matthews said.

“Anywhere from 70% to 90% of these kids have one or more living parent and those parents, with support, would be able to take care of them in the home.”

Although poverty is a major reason why children end up in such institutions, Matthews stressed that lack of money should not result in a child being separated from its family.

Also concerning, is the rise in the number of orphanages, particularly in areas considered to be tourism hotspots.

“In Cambodia, there has been a 75% increase in the amount of orphanages in the last decade,” she revealed.

“This is despite the fact there has been significant reduction in the amount of actual orphans over the same period.”


The proliferation can be directly linked to demand for orphanage experiences from “well-meaning” travellers and volunteers keen to give back while visiting a destination. But Matthews stressed that such trips and experiences do much more harm than good.

“While some orphanages might provide vulnerable children with quality care, there is no such thing as a good orphanage,” she said.

“Growing up in an institution, any institution, is harmful to all children no matter how good the conditions are or how good the intentions of the people running them are.”

Children who grow up in orphanages are more prone to suffer from learning difficulties, developmental delays and attachment disorders primarily due to the lack of a primary care giver who has been replaced by a rotation of short term and often unskilled volunteers.

The effects are “lifelong and intergenerational”, Matthews stressed.

As a result, the organisation is working hard to grow awareness of the issues surrounding orphanage tourism with the aim of preventing the unnecessary institutionalisation of children overseas and helping children stay with their families.

The tourism industry is being urged to stop offering orphanage experiences to tourists, to educate the travelling public on the problems of institutionalisation and to instead direct them to travel experiences that “help not harm”.

Intrepid is the first major travel company that Rethink Orphanages has worked with on this issue.

In 2017, the company will place a “deeper focus” on the issue of child protection, Intrepid responsible business manager Liz Manning said.

While volunteering isn’t part of the Intrepid program, in the past the company has offered visits to a handful of organisations that include residential care in their programs.

“But as we became more aware of the impact that visits can have – whether once a month, once a week or once a day – we made the decision to remove those visits from all of our itineraries,” she confirmed.

That decision was made in May last year.

Now, through its Intrepid Foundation, the company is working with Rethink Orphanages and other partners to help find better models of care.

“So that’s reuniting children with their families where we can and continuing to support organisations that are combatting poverty,” Manning said.

Michael Brosowski the founder of Blue Dragon in Vietnam, which is one of the projects supported by The Intrepid Foundation.

Michael Brosowski the founder of Blue Dragon in Vietnam, which is one of the projects supported by The Intrepid Foundation.

One of the projects supported by The Intrepid Foundation is Blue Dragon in Vietnam, founded by Michael Brosowski, which works with the police to support street children and those who have been trafficked – aiming to reunite them with their families where possible.

KarryOn is proud to support this wonderful project as another fine fantastic example of our 2017 ‘Travel to change the world’ initiative. You can help by sharing this story to raise awareness and using the hashtag #traveltochangetheworld when you see a great example of good will or sustainable initiatives in travel.

Will 2017 be the year orphanage tourism comes to an end?