Child Protection in Travel and Tourism

The travel and tourism industry contributed more than US$7.6 trillion to the world economy and represented seven percent of the world’s exports in goods and services in 2016. Fueled by cheap flights, globalization and new technology, it is an industry that is expanding at an extraordinary rate. International tourist arrivals increased from 528 million in 2005 to 1.235 billion in 2016. Many less developed countries that were once considered “remote” have now opened up to international visitors.

The travel industry has multiple economic and social benefits, and because of its potential to lift millions out of poverty, many of these benefits carry over to children.

However, the growth of this industry and the infrastructure that supports it has not been matched by a growth in measures for child protection. In places like hotels, tourist attractions, restaurants, bars, massage parlours and even on the street in plain view, children in areas with thriving tourist industries are often at risk from traveling child sex offenders, who may take advantage of poverty, social exclusion and vulnerability to abuse and exploit.

Underlining this is often harmful social attitudes regarding gender, childhood and cultural norms. There is a clear nexus between the sexual exploitation of children by traveling sex offenders, early and forced marriage, the online sexual exploitation of children and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.

Few countries have effective legislation to stop or deter travelling child sex offenders – and the challenges are huge. Among these challenges is the fact that it is difficult to gather accurate and comparable data about the problem.

According to the 2016 Global Study on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (the first and, to date, only research initiative that has attempted to bridge this knowledge gap), this means that despite efforts by governments, communities, the travel industry, private businesses, police, international entities and NGOs, child protection is often not prioritized in tourism development plans from the outset and there is limited emphasis on child protection in training and everyday operations of tourist focused businesses.

The situation is dynamic. A few decades ago, the prevailing assumption was that travelling child sex offenders came almost exclusively from western countries and went to poor, developing countries. Today, we know that the lines between destination, transit and source countries are blurred and the profile of offenders is diverse. Traveling child sex offenders can be domestic or regional travellers, tourists, business travellers, volunteers or ex-pats. This crime can be committed by and against anyone. No country is immune.

Adding to the risks is increasing innovation in the tourism and travel industry. For example, the Internet has helped reduce costs and increased travel options for millions, but it has also allowed travelling child sex offenders to groom children, film child sexual abuse images, and share them online. At the same time, “voluntourism,” especially in orphanages has afforded traveling child sex offenders access to vulnerable children.