Cambodia tourism: Children “for rent” by the hour?

Travel and tourism has a big role to fill in terms of alleviating poverty. The question for some countries is this: To which end? The answer, of course, depends on whether a country/destination is developed or developing.

For developed countries, the issue of exploitation of the vulnerable (such as women and children) is likely to fly under the radar than developing countries.  Prostitution and “voluntourism” are synonymous with developing countries as a result of economic disparity.  While they certainly exist in First World countries, they are not means to an end which is exactly what they are in Third World countries.  Well and good, if exploitation does not come to play. 

But, it has been recently revealed that, at least in the practice of voluntourism, certain governments and their culprits have found a way to make money off of innocent children who are involuntary taken from their families to front as orphans in the booming business that is called orphanage voluntourism.  

Take for instance, Cambodia Tourism.   Its meteoric rise since 2005 has seen a 75 percent increase in its number of orphanages, its foreign arrivals skyrocket to 250 percent in the same period. A mere happenstance?  Not likely.  Orphanages in Cambodia contributed to the country’s rise in tourism as these so-called “orphanages” directly funded by foreign volunteers and their money. Cambodia has had an unfavorable treatment of children historically.  Robbed of their innocence when they were either killed or became child soldiers during the Khmer Rouge regime, and more recently, sold as prostitutes in Phnom Penh brothels.  Now this.

According to Forbes’ report, of the millions tourists who will pass through Cambodia this year, many aren’t aware that children in its orphanages still have living parents. These so-called orphans are, in fact, not orphans but have been recruited by the centers with promises to parents for “better education and care.”

To understand the situation, it is necessary to study the construct upon how such scenario takes place in the first place, let alone thrive.   In Cambodia’s case, the proliferation of “orphanages” for monetary gain is simply the consequence of conniving entrepreneurs parading as “philantrophist” with the backing of a government that is also directly benefitting from such a “business model.”

As one reader responding to my initial article (found here: on this issue puts it:  “It has happened mainly because of the corrupt Ministry of Social Affairs, found even to be corrupt by the government's own anti-corruption unit! No action taken against minister or senior staff, and UK donor money via charities still goes to provide services that it should.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, this eTN reader added:  “I first came across one "orphanage" in 2003 where the children freely admitted to me that they were not orphans.  My suspicions were aroused first by armed policeman on the gates.  I asked the owner, “Why is that, is it right for children to have to be guarded?’  She explained that the land was given to her by the prime minister in order to vacate a city center plot, etc. Next to the ‘orphanage,’ she was building her own salubrious villa 'that is not for me, it will be left for the children.’”

According to my source, this "Australian citizen" is “wonderful at pulling heart-strings, and has amassed a fortune for her orphanages.  They even have a luxury coach to go with their SUVs.”  Why is she so significant?  Simply put, her so-called "orphanage home" paved the way for what is now clearly a thriving “business model.”  Who is she?  Stay tuned!

By: Nelson Alcantara, eTN editor-in-chief

(end of part one)

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