As Asian tourism booms, child exploitation risk increases

Tourism can help bring economic prosperity to struggling countries, but it comes with the risk of child sex tourists exploiting local children. World Vision is calling on ethical tourists to be part of the solution.

Edited by Shawna Templeton. Photo by Heidi Isaza, World Vision U.S.
Published September 27, 2011 at 12:00am PDT

Southeast Asia has experienced a tourism explosion in recent years. In just the first six months of 2011, Thailand’s tourist arrival numbers grew at annualized rates of 26 percent.

Even off-the-beaten-track countries, like Laos, hosted 2.5 million visitors last year, on par with Cambodia, while Vietnam had 5 million arrivals.

But as the tourism industry grows in these countries, so does the risk to local children.

Child sex tourism

Child sex tourism — the act of traveling to sexually exploit children — is a form of child trafficking. Children living in poverty are at highest risk.

The practice takes various forms, but sex tourism is typically perpetrated by adult men who, in the course of traveling, pay for sex with children through cash or gifts. Some Americans take advantage of prostituted children while traveling to impoverished countries for business, tourism, or other legitimate reasons. Others travel abroad specifically for a “sex tour.”

Factors that put children at risk

A combination of factors make children vulnerable to exploitation. Some factors include:

  • Desperation driven by poverty and social exclusion
  • Conservative, yet modernizing, cultures where parents fail to understand the risks their children face
  • Technology that enables sex offenders to gain access to children online


Children also become vulnerable when they run away from broken, abusive, or poor homes and end up on the street. Children from these circumstances run a greater risk of being trafficked for exploitation or labor.

Responsible tourists part of the solution

World Vision is looking to enlist tourists to watch out for children’s safety and protection when they travel to the region and will be asking the travel industry and tour operators to play their part in creating a “Child-Safe Tourism” environment.

“Thanks to green activism, tourists are much more aware of the impact of tourism on the environment and hold tourist businesses accountable,” says Aarti Kapoor, World Vision’s Child-Safe Tourism manager. “We need the same approach when it comes to protecting children.

“Tourists have the consumer power to impact the services provided by the travel industry, hotels, and restaurants, and ensure their businesses do not permit practices that harm children or put them at risk,” says Kapoor.

However, Kapoor explains, the issue is complex, and many sectors need to work together.

Government roles

Significant commitments to combating the sexual exploitation of children have been made by Mekong governments, especially in apprehending foreign offenders. The “Child-Safe Tourism” approach supports the Mekong governments’ goal to welcome visitors to their countries while ensuring children stay safe.

The United States also has laws that prohibit sex with minors in other countries and has greatly increased government efforts to combat this problem. Under the Protect Act of 2003, United States citizens or residents who engage in sexual activity abroad with a child under 18 can face 30 years in a U.S. prison.

However, through a loophole in the law, the U.S. government can prosecute Americans visiting a country and exploiting children, but cannot prosecute an American living overseas and exploiting children. A provision in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act aims to close this loophole. The bill is before Congress, awaiting a vote.

The current law expired on September 30. World Vision is advocating for a speedy reauthorization so that the United States can remain the global leader in the fight against trafficking.

What you can do

Pray for children who have been trafficked or are currently being exploited. Pray for their full healing, recovery, and escape from exploitive circumstances. Pray that ethical tourists would do all they can to protect children. Pray that Congress would pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

As you travel, remain aware. Don’t encourage touching or taking children out alone. If you see something suspicious, report it. Encourage your friends to do the same.

Call your members of Congress. Urge them to support the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) — a comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking. Help us ensure that the United States remains a global leader in the fight against human trafficking.

Make a one-time gift to help support girls and women in crisis. Your donation will help World Vision provide protection, counseling, education, vocational training, and more to girls and women who were formally subjected to abuse or exploitation.