How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James Sutherland

Since 2005, the ChildSafe Movement founded by Friends International has worked to protect children & youth from all forms of abuse, winning both the Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Innovation Award, and the 2016 Gold Award for best responsible tourism campaign at the World Responsible Tourism Awards. Jeremy Smith spoke with James Sutherland, Friends International’s international communications co-ordinator, about the growth of the Movement and its efforts to engage the tourism industry to help protect children.

Jeremy: Last November, ChildSafe was one of the winners of 2016‘s WTM Responsible Tourism awards, bringing more global tourism industry recognition to your campaign. How has the response from the industry developed over the years you have run the campaign?

How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James SutherlandJames: We’re very pleased indeed with this award for that very reason – it continues (and enhances) raising the profile of our campaigns among the travel industry, and we’ve seen this gradually happening over the years. The industry is now clearly recognising the multiplicity of issues that inform responsible travel, and to have the ‘social footprint’ of travelers also seen as important is crucial.

Social media has played a significant role in this – our campaigns are designed for sharing, and I have no doubt that the extent to which travelers share our materials and debate and discuss the issues arising on various forums has also prompted an increasing engagement and willingness of the industry to address child protection issues.

How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James Sutherland

Jeremy: I like your phrase ‘social footprint’. However one of the challenges is that whereas it is reasonably easy to measure the environmental footprint of a company or individual, measuring social impacts is much harder. And while most people accept that their travel / busines has, say, a carbon footprint, few accept or acknowledge that it might impact negatively on children. How therefore do you engage people or business in these issues when few acknowledge their potential for impact?

James: Good question. It is difficult indeed, as travelers invariably have good intentions in their actions. However, often they (or businesses) lack a deeper understanding of the overall context – so, for example, tour agencies may book visits to orphanages or schools and businesses may support orphanages through their CSR without really understanding that this could be harming children, travelers may give money to, or buy goods from children without realising this will keep the children at risk on the streets.

We keep our campaign information very direct on negative impacts, yet we also illustrate, particularly through the 7 Tips, the positive actions travelers can take and the positive societal impacts these can have. In our communication with businesses, including the travel industry, we emphasise the importance of certification, which brings with it a deeper understanding of the issues in addition to tools and actions which have positive impacts. Good for you (the individual/traveler), good for business, and of course, and most importantly, good for the children.

How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James Sutherland

Jeremy: There’s been a lot more publicity this last year about orphanage tourism – are you seeing a difference on the ground as a result, or is the demand still growing, and the supply growing to meet it? 

James: There is certainly a difference – if you google ‘orphanage tourism’ or ‘orphanage visits’ now you will generally find links advocating against these practices appearing first. This I believe is a combination of the messages getting through to a wider audience, driven by increased media interest plus the power of social media, and of positive action being taken to ensure children are protected. In Cambodia, for example, the orphanage industry is now becoming very aware of the government commitment, along with partners such as 3PC (a multi-agency alliance of organizations working to support families), to work on reducing the numbers of children in institutional care and reintegrating them with their families.

Our two most recent campaigns have focused on that issue, one in English targeting donors/supporters (Don’t Create More Orphans) and one in Khmer for families (Orphanages Are Tearing Families Apart). In fact, in Cambodia, there is now a government moratorium on the opening of new residential care institutions.

How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James Sutherland

Jeremy: That’s really encouraging to hear. So what do you feel are the next steps to continue the efforts to challenge orphanage tourism?

James: Essentially it’s keeping the pressure on. Yes, many more individuals and businesses are aware of the issues than were five years ago when the orphanage campaign launched, however there are still many out there who are not. We know, for example, there are many Asian nations where there is less awareness of the potential negative aspects of those actions, so we’re creating additional resources, specific ‘citizen tips’ in addition to the travelers tips in multiple languages.

It’s also continuing to push all sectors of the industry to come on board with ChildSafe certification or support, in fact it is important to push for all of us, travelers, tourism actors, communities in destination countries to join the Movement and really live the tagline of ChildSafe – ‘Together, protecting children.’

How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James Sutherland

Jeremy: As you said, it is about pushing all sectors of tourism and hospitality industry to get on board. Which have you found most receptive and which the hardest to engage, and why have you found that to be?

James: To be honest, once they have become aware of the nature and breadth of issues ChildSafe is addressing, generally all sectors recognize the importance of embracing child protective approaches, or of enhancing their existing approaches, and seek to modify their model accordingly through the training and certification process on offer. Scaling has been exponential, first with local communities, then tourists, hotels, restaurants, the local tour agencies, international agencies, sending countries (airports/travel hubs), and we are confident this growth will continue.

How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James Sutherland

Jeremy: One sector we haven’t looked at – my sector – the media. Is the narrative changing in B2B / B2C media, or is voluntourism, orphanage tourism and its like still being promoted fairly unquestioningly? 

James: The narrative is certainly changing within the travel sector, as of course the growing number of ChildSafe businesses there are actively promoting responsible travel approaches. This is supported too by some very strong advocacy across social media by individuals and groups such as Better Volunteering, Rethink Orphanages, Responsible Tourism/Volunteering and our own ChildSafe resources.

There is less visible change currently in the volunteer placement sector, where many still offer orphanage volunteering trips and opportunities. However, some principal elements of their customer base are becoming very active in questioning placements and advocating for responsible volunteering also – the students! As a result, Universities are becoming more aware of the issue, for example recently the London School of Economics Volunteering Center has stopped all placements related to orphanages, and Friends Suisse has worked closely with the International Baccalaureate in Geneva to develop guidelines around International Schools Community Action, to ensure that orphanage visits are no longer permissible.

Jeremy: With 2017 being UN year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, what would be the developments you would like to see to really move your mission forward over the year?

How to make tourism more responsible for child protection: interview with James SutherlandJames: We really want to increase our interaction with the travel and tourism industries, work with them to not only expand the reach of ChildSafe but also help them face the challenges that can come with embracing positive social impacts. ChildSafe grew out of a successful social enterprise, Friends-International, which also has a network of similar partners in the Childsafe Alliance, all implementing positive social impact programs that can link to tourism very readily – the TREE group of training restaurants across SE Asia and Africa, are one example. ChildSafe has come very far in its first decade, and by engaging further with the tourism sector, working with them and supporting them to create more sustainable options linked to development, we can together have an even greater positive impact, not only in protecting children, but in nurturing protective communities for children that engage in a safe and, yes, sustainable way with tourism.



Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith is the editor and co-founder of Travindy. He is a writer and communications consultant working for a more responsible and sustainable tourism industry. He is the author of two books, writes a fortnightly blog on responsible tourism for World Travel Market, and provides consultancy to a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from National Parks to individual hotels and tour operators.

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