With more than 20 million tourists visiting Thailand annually, tourism is a significant part of the country’s economy – about 10% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Within the tourism sector, a notorious and unabashedly open aspect is the sex tourism industry. Sex tourism can take the form of international or Thai travel company arrangements just for this purpose, while short-term tourists and speciously intended long-stayers come to Thailand and seek out women, men, and children on their own. The former method is common enough; the latter much more so, and far too easy.
We as a global community are responsible for creating safe havens for children against the threats that sex tourism creates. Many of us want to act in ways that keep the children of local communities safe. However, there are unsavory activities and situations for which, when we lack awareness or do not know how to intervene, the potential result is further harm done.
How Tourism Can Harm Children and What We Can Do
Child safety considerations are not only relevant to tourism in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. According to a 2008 report (Combating Child Sex Tourism) published by ECPAT – End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes – all regions of the world are involved in the sexual exploitation of children. ECPAT makes a plain and direct exhortation:
To be a responsible and child-friendly traveler, the Child Safe Tourism website guides us to act in ways that positively impact children’s lives:
- “Do not engage in any sexual activity with any person under the age of 18 years”. This is harmful and illegal, and many countries impose sanctions against their own citizens who commit sex acts with minors while abroad. Do not hesitate to report any sexual activity involving minors to the local authorities or to the authorities of the perpetrator’s country of origin.
- “Find alternatives to giving money to children who beg or sell things on the street”. Donating money directly to trustworthy organizations that work with vulnerable children ensures that your gesture of kindness is utilized properly.
- “Choose hotels, tour companies, and businesses that implement child protection standards.” Responsible tourists can influence the tourism industry by demanding to patronize child-safe businesses.
- “Do your research before visiting or volunteering to help vulnerable children abroad.” Some practices of short-term volunteerism, though well-intentioned, can be harmful to children. Our organization DEPDC / GMS, for example, requires a minimum 6-month commitment period for its International Volunteers, and follows strict rules to protect its children. We are currently developing a Child Protection Policy with our partner Kindernothilfe. The policy articulates procedures and codes of conduct for staff, volunteers, and visitors who come in contact with or have information about our children.
- “Ask permission before taking photos and avoid giving gifts directly to children or taking them anywhere alone.” Children who become used to interaction with strangers, especially without permission from their parents or caretakers, are potentially vulnerable to exploitation.
- “Spread the word about child-safe tourism,” about the work of DEPDC / GMS, and about the responsibility of each and every adult.
- “If you see or suspect child abuse while traveling, report it immediately.” For Thailand, the telephone options are:
DEPDC / GMS Child Help Line: +66 (0) 53-642-599 (Thailand / northern region)
FOCUS – Stop Human Trafficking Hotline: +66 (0) 87-174-5797 (Thailand / national)
Thailand Government Hotline: 1300 (in Thailand)