Warning! Katrine Solhaug from Stavanger runs a hotel in Cambodia. She explains how orphanages have become a tourist attraction in Cambodia – Children are being used, volunteer work is out of control!
This is the introduction to a very important article written in a Norwegian newspaper last year. Journalist Kine Haukali visited us at Babel, and she got so inspired by our focus on Responsible Tourism that she ended up writing a very informative article about it. We find this article so important that we decided to translate it to English, so it can reach out to more people! Feel free to share! (all pictures by Oyen Rodriguez).
The Tuk Tuk ride from the airport to the city center is short, but exciting. It is December, and high season for tourism in Cambodia. We pass by countless luxurious hotels, through mental traffic with no system at all, before the driver takes a turn into a charming little bumpy road. Here, in the heart of Siem Reap, surrounded by a tropical garden, lies Babel.
– You should have seen Cambodia seven years ago when I moved to Cambodia. There were almost no real roads and only a few luxurious hotels, and almost no cars in the streets – only motos. Then the tourism just exploded, explains Katrine Solhaug from Stavanger.
With a big smile she welcomes us with open arms. It has been five years since Katrine and her husband, Simen Julner, took over the running of Babel Guesthouse. The Hotel is a bit different than other places, promoting Responsible Tourism, Eco friendly thinking and Education for the staff and Tuk Tuk drivers.
Like Thailand, before it became “mainstream”. This is how the experienced backpacker describes this little country in Sounteast Asia, the country who is about to become the most “hip” tourist destination in the region. In 2010 Cambodia had about 2 million visitors. In 4 years only, the number has doubled. Siem Reap is the fastest growing city, because of the majestic temples of Angkor Wat. The country has everything an adventure seeking backpacker can dream of. The heritage, city life, cheap food, untouched islands with white sand beaches.
But Cambodia is still recovering from its dark history. In the 70´s around one forth of the population was slaughtered by Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge. Around 2 million people were killed, mostly educated people, artists and the opposition.
Through hundres of years with conflicts Cambodia has moved from being one of Asias most powerful empires to one of southeast Asias poorest country. Cambodia has major environmental challenges, challenges with the infrastructure and big challenges with its corruption. The country´s economy is struggling to get back on its feet, and Cambodia is now dependent on tourism! It´s not easy, and the gap gap between rich and poor is growing.
– Orphanage tourism, Katrine sighs. The term is well known in Cambodia. Orphans are “big business”. Orphanages are used as sightseeing. Some tourists are taken directly to the orphanages from their Hotel by bus; others are recruited from the streets.
The worst invitations are repulsive. Katrine shows us a flyer she got from pub street; “We invite you to full moon party. Come and dance with the children. First beer is for free”. Outside the Toul Sleng museum in Phnom Penh a policeman hands out a flyer to us “volunteer today! Make a difference, donate money”.
– We have seen many examples where the money donated by kind tourists are not being used on the children. Most of the children in orphanages in Cambodia are not even orphans. They are victims of this horrible industry, and they will be thrown on the streets as soon as they are not small and cute anymore.
The number of orphanages is growing fast. The biggest companies working for Children´s rights claim that orphanage tourism split poor families. Volunteer work out of control does not help the situation.
In Cambodia backpacking and volunteering walks hand in hand. Many orphanages have “drop in” classes where anyone can come and teach randomly for an hour or two, a day or two – “up to you”. The children will always be exposed to new “caregivers”, people who will disappear as quickly as they arrived. The volunteers often call it self-realization, but they forget to think about what they actually do to the children that are left behind, Katrine says.
– As tourists we have to be better. These children are traumatized; they are not tourist attractions.
Katrine´s own traveling started after a visit to the movies. She was 18 years old; she had moved to Oslo and was about to start studying Social work. But then she watched the movie “The beach”, the adventurous thriller about backpacking and the seeking of the exotic and “unknown”.
– That movie changed my life. It sounds like a clishé, but it is actually true, Katrine laughs.
Higher education had to wait. Katrine wanted to explore the world and “find herself”. Two years traveling turned into three, then five, then ten. Katrine travelled for almost 12 years. She has visited over 50 countries. She has lived, studied and worked in countries like Spain, Malawi, Mexico and Nicaragua, and she speaks several languages. But when she entered Cambodia over seven years ago, her backpack was tucked away.
– I was send here to run a small hotel, with focus on Responsible Tourism. The employees got English classes, and the goal was for them to grow within the little hotel. From housekeeping to the kitchen, to the restaurant to the front office. Then move on to bigger hotels or other jobs with higher positions. Then we hired new people and trained them the same way. I really like this way of “giving back” to the local society.
She fell for the country and the people, and decided to stay in Cambodia. When Katrine and Simen decided to open their own hotel, they brought the sustainable approach one step further. They started a fond back home in Norway, “Solhaugfond“, with help from Katrine´s father John-Daniel Solhaug.
Today the fond gives support to Babel Education Program, which provides the staff and some of the Tuk Tuk drivers with higher education. Babel´s General Manager Eath Ihm is the first one of the staff to complete a Bachelor degree in english teaching.
– Hopefully he will also do a Master degree. We hope he will become a principle when he is done. Our thought is that Babel is “a step on the way” for our staff to reach their goals, and we hope that we can educate as many as possible this way. Education is only way to build up this country in the long run, Katrine claims.
Katrine is very passionate about Responsible Tourism and she is doing her best to spread the word about good and bad aid. Three years ago she started Globalstudies in cooperation with the University of Stavanger. This is a three months program where Norwegian students take part of their Bachelor degree in Tourism in Siem Reap. They learn all about Responsible Tourism, and learn how it works in practice, not only theory.
– I am strongly against short term volunteering. It is fantastic that people want to help, but short term volunteering can really do more harm than good. Unluckily we see examples of this in Cambodia all the time. In 2012 the TV-channel Al Jazeera revealed a number of serious aspects of the orphan tourism in Cambodia. The journalists pretended to be normal tourists, and as soon as they entered the orphanage they were set to teach English for the kids. When they later asked the manager if they could take the children out on a private tour, the answer was: “take whoever you want”.
Horrible, but not surprising, Katrine says. Many of the big, Norwegian organisations who sold “volunteering tours” in Cambodia, stopped the cooperation deals with the countries orphanages after Al Jazeeras documentary.
– Norwegian organisations often has good routines for volunteering, but there are many unserious actors in this industry, and it´s easy to be fooled. Its not always easy to know who to trust, even for us who live in Siem Reap. Orphanages and primary schools with open doors for volunteers and no Child Safe policy, are like heaven for pedophiles, Katrine claims, frustrated.
According to the organisation Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), 115 foreigners are convicted of sexual assault against children in Cambodia between 2003 and 2014. A higher number are “suspects”, and you can just imagine the unrecorded numbers.
Responsible Tourism is the key for change, Katrine claims.
– I know that many tourists and volunteers don´t know that they are causing more harm than good. People who donate money don´t know that this is a big industry. We can be much better responsible tourists.
With Google you can get all the information you need. On the sight thinkchildsafe.org, sponsored by Unicef, you can find a long list of good organisations you can support as a tourist – organisations who works to fight orphanage tourism. Through the same organisations you can find which hotels and restaurants that are their partners in this fight.
– We have to think further ahead, especially in poor countries. It is important for us as tourists visit projects and organisations that work for and with the locals, in a fair and responsible way. Everyone cannot change the world; sometimes the best alternative is to visit and support those who do.