At the World Economic Forum in Bangkok, I’m thinking about tourism. Across South-east Asia, tourism is booming. There has been a 10% increase in the number of visitors since last year. This influx brings development, but also a multitude of challenges which need to be tackled by the industry itself, with the support of government and NGOs.

First, tourism brings opportunities to seize and build upon. It can create a hugely positive impact on the development of countries: tourism contributes to nearly 11% of the GDP and, directly and indirectly, creates 25 million jobs. This growth will continue as Asian tourists are increasing in number. Tourism helps to preserve national heritage and the environment and it often boosts the development of infrastructure.

Like many other organizations, Friends-International taps into the expansion of tourism, e.g. through the development of its vocational training restaurants across the region or its production and sales networks, which are aimed largely at the burgeoning tourist market.

However, tourism also leads to challenges and issues that can negatively affect those most vulnerable, especially children. Such challenges include tension and hostility when there is no respect or understanding of the other’s culture; antipathy, when there is little return for local economies (large numbers of people visit come on organized tours and little of their money reaches local grassroots businesses); and many ways in which tourism renders social structures and local cultures more vulnerable. Despite having the best of intentions, many tourists are unaware of the effects of their actions, some of which can be severely damaging.

Following a recent trend, tourists visit children’s homes, play with children for a few hours, take photos of them and leave again. This “orphanage tourism” is dangerous in terms of child protection. It fuels a new “charity business”, tapping into increasing numbers of orphanages at which children are the “goods” on display.

Many such negative effects need to be considered as the Tourism & Travel Industry continues its expansion in the region. It is crucial that companies educate their clients and integrate this into their process and practice, so as to channel good intentions into good practice and a greater positive impact upon society. Many government and NGO initiatives can support this and their cooperation will be essential to generating a real, shared value.

As a practical example, consider the positive impact corporate partnerships have had in the ChildSafe campaign. Child protection messages, disseminated through partnerships with airlines (such as Thai and Silk Air), now reach thousands of travellers.


Author: Sebastien Marot, Executive Director, Friends-International, Cambodia; Regional Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Asia, 2009

Friends-International works to protect marginalized youth, providing them opportunity to become productive citizens. It offers a range of social services for children, young people, and their families, including education, vocational training, and job placement. To increase its impact, the organization has developed extensive community safety networks as well as partnerships with businesses working in travel and tourism. Friends also works in Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Egypt, Mexico, and Honduras.