Child Protection in Travel and Tourism

The travel and tourism industry is one of the largest economic sectors that gives 1 in every 10 jobs and generates prosperity around the world. 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 1.323 million in 2017. Many developed countries that were once considered “remote” have now opened up to international visitors. In more and more countries, domestic and regional travelers outnumber international visitors.

The travel and tourism 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.

In recent years, a growing number of global, regional and national entities have taken innovative measures to ensure that as travel and tourism industry grows, child protection is taken into consideration. However, the growth of this industry and the infrastructure that supports it has not been adequately matched by a growth in measures for child protection. In places like hotels, airports, tourist attractions, restaurants, bars, massage parlours and even on the street in plain view, children are at risk from traveling child sex offenders, who 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 coupled with silence or even tolerance that gives offenders a feeling of anonymity and impunity. There is a clear nexus between the sexual exploitation of children by traveling sex offenders, early and forced marriages, the online sexual exploitation of children and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. Moreover, various travel products put children at risk of exploitation, such as voluntourism, orphanage tourism or mega events.

According to the Global Study on the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (the first and, to date, the only research initiative by 67 partners that has attempted to bridge this knowledge gap) no country is immune to this crime and child protection needs to be urgently prioritized through multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approaches. 

Few countries have effective legislation to stop 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 on sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT) also due to a hidden nature of this crime.

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, as well as tourists, business travellers, volunteers or ex-pats. This crime can be committed by anyone and against any child, although some children are more vulnerable than others.

Adding to the risk is an increasing innovation in the tourism and travel industry. Advances in Internet and mobile technology have contributed heavily to SECTT, allowing anonymity and hidden pathways for direct contact between offenders and victims.

International and regional intergovernmental bodies, governments, law enforcement, civil society organisations and the private sector, that is a key ally, need to actively work together to end impunity of the travelling child sex offenders and stop the sexual exploitation of children – from prevention to awareness-raising, and from reporting to blocking the pathways exploited by offenders.

The real goal is to promote and ensure rights for all children by prioritising action that protects children in the travel and tourism sector.