The Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism

The sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism or SECTT encompasses a broad spectrum of exploitation of children including in prostitution and pornography, for the production of online child abuse material, and in the sale and trafficking of children in all its forms. Voluntourism, orphanage tourism and mega-events are all examples where offenders can easily access and exploit children.

The Global Study

What is the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT)?

In the context of travel and tourism children are exploited by travelling sex offenders that take advantage of travel and tourism infrastructure to commit their crimes. Increasing, travelling child sex offenders use online technologies to facilitate their crimes.

SECTT is not another form of tourism, it is a crime – and should be named as such. Offenders who abuse and exploit children are not ‘sex tourists’ – they are criminals. 

SECTT had previously been referred to as ‘child sex tourism’, however, this terminology fails to name the criminal nature of child sexual exploitation, and instead implies that these crimes are some form of ‘tourism’. Instead, the phrase ‘child sexual exploitation in travel and tourism’ should be used.

According to the Luxembourg Terminology Guidelines:

A child is a victim of sexual exploitation when she/he takes part in a sexual activity in exchange for something (e.g. gain or benefit, or even the promise of such) from a third party, the perpetrator, or by the child her/himself.

A child may be coerced into a situation of sexual exploitation through physical force or threats.

However, she/he may also be persuaded to engage in such sexual activity as a result of more complex and nuanced factors, either human or situational, including a power imbalance between the victim and the perpetrator. While any child may be sexually exploited, children may also find themselves in a situation that makes them particularly vulnerable to such exploitation (e.g. poverty, abuse/neglect, unaccompanied/homeless). Furthermore, the age of a child may increase her/his vulnerability to sexual exploitation, with older children often mistakenly assumed to be either consenting to their own abuse or not in need of protection. 

What are the drivers?

Harmful social attitudes regarding gender, childhood and cultural norms coupled with silence or even tolerance gives offenders, particularly travelling sex offenders, a feeling of anonymity and impunity. There is a clear nexus between the sexual exploitation of children by travelling 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 the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT) also due to a hidden nature of this crime.

What are the impacts on children?

The impacts of child sexual exploitation are wide-ranging, and can be profound and long lasting. This is particularly true when victims do not receive appropriate immediate and ongoing support. Victims can suffer from a range of health impacts including physical injuries, sexually transmitted infections and longer-term gynaecological consequences for females.

They can experience emotional trauma and mental illness such as depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug or alcohol problems. An experience of child sexual exploitation also impacts longer-term life chances, being associated with higher rates of youth offending, poor educational prospects, involvement in adult sex work, isolation from family and friends, negative future relationships and increased risk of other forms of violence or abuse. 

SECTT not only has severe impacts on children but it also fractures families and local cultures, and undermines the future prospects of entire communities.

What is the role of the travel and tourism industry?

Fueled by globalisation and new technologies, the travel and tourism industry was expanding at an extraordinary rate. Until the global COVID-19 pandemic international travel had continued to grow, and was expected to reach 1.8 billion international travellers by 2030.

As the industry evolves it needs to ensure that measures for child protection are implemented. Children are at risk from travelling child sex offenders, who take advantage of poverty, social exclusion and vulnerability to abuse and exploit.

In recent years, a growing number of global, regional and national entities have taken innovative measures to ensure that as the travel and tourism industry evolves, child protection is taken into consideration.

There is no doubt that the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 had a massive impact on the travel and tourism industry. Post-pandemic tourism restarted with domestic travel, and will increasingly use technology along with new travel and tourism products. It is crucial to capitalise on the progress to fight sexual exploitation of children that has been made in recent years by adequately addressing SECTT during the recovery of the travel and tourism industry.

Speak Out: The Sexual Exploitation of Children by Tourists and Travellers

Business & Children's Rights

"There are many examples of companies and individuals in the travel and tourism sectors taking a stand against this crime. A strong focus on prevention could be a game changer for these sectors, positioning them as key players in the solution, rather than being seen as fuelling the problem."

Carol Bellamy

Business and Human Rights

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and The Children’s Rights and Business Principles outline the obligation of the private sector to take responsibility for their impact on children’s lives through due diligence processes. The government’s role is to “protect” and businesses’ role is to “respect” children’s rights.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a legally-binding international instrument setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child, regardless of their race, religion or abilities.

Article 34 of the Convention calls upon state parties to adopt “all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:

(a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;

(b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;

(c) The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials

The Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 Goals are all interconnected, and in order to leave no one behind, it is important that we achieve them all by 2030.

Children’s rights are a cross-cutting issue in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2030, and as such, they need to be an intrinsic part and an equal co-principle of all development discourse, along with economic, cultural and environmental aspects. While contributing to social-economic recovery, travel and tourism needs to be developed with careful and constant attention to child protection as part of sustainable and responsible responses, in order to prevent the crime of trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

Five targets are directly connected with SECTT in terms of combatting the sexual exploitation of children and developing sustainable and responsible tourism:

  • Target 5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation
  • Target 8.7 Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery
    and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms
  • Target 8.9 (…) devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products
  • Target 12.b Develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism
  • Target 16.2 End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children
UNWTO International Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics

The UNWTO Convention on Tourism Ethics constitutes a binding instrument of great significance at a time when children are increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation in the context of expanding travel and tourism. 

Art 5.2 refers to the promotion of the rights of children:

Tourism activities should respect the equality of men and women; they should promote human rights and, more particularly, the individual rights of the most vulnerable groups, notably children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.

Art 5.3 refers directly to the protection of children from sexual exploitation:

The exploitation of human beings in any form, particularly sexual, especially when applied to children, conflicts with the fundamental aims of tourism and is the negation of tourism; as such, in accordance with international law, it should be energetically combated with the cooperation of all the States concerned and penalized without concession by the national legislation of both the countries visited and the countries of the perpetrators of these acts, even when they are carried out abroad.

Art 9.6 refers to the media and the ways of addressing the problem of sexual exploitation in tourism:

The press, and particularly the specialized travel press and the other media, including modern means of electronic communication, should issue honest and balanced information on events and situations that could influence the flow of tourists; they should also provide accurate and reliable information to the consumers of tourism services; the new communication and electronic commercial technologies should also be developed and used for this purpose; as is the case for the media, they should not in any way promote sexual exploitation in tourism.

A video message from Mr. Jaime Alberto Cabal, Deputy-Secretary General (UNWTO), 7-9 Nov 2018

Voluntourism & Orphanage Tourism

While volunteering is a valuable way to contribute to society that can bring positive benefits to both the community and the volunteer, certain forms of voluntourism have been shown to have a range of harmful consequences, including increasing the risk of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

The Code Voluntourism Policy

Volunteering is a valuable way to contribute to society that can bring positive benefits to both the community and the volunteer. But despite the best of intentions, voluntourism and orphanage tourism have been shown to have a range of harmful consequences, including increasing the risk of child sexual exploitation.

What is the problem?

  • Creates a demand for orphans

  • Normalises access to vulnerable

  • Creates attachment disorders and developmental delays

  • Exposes children to a greater risk of exploitation and abuse

ChildSafe Movement - Don't Create More Orphans

The Code does not accept membership of organisations involved in voluntourism activities which:

have orphanages and other residential care centres incorporated (or with the possibility to incorporate) in tourism programs or packages.

The Code does accept membership of organisations involved in voluntourism activities that:

limit child-related voluntourism activities to supervised teaching, sports, day–care centres and that have clear policies and procedures in place to minimise the risks and maximise the benefit to children in these settings do not focus directly on children.

Members and applicants that are involved in voluntourism activities are required to adhere to an extra minimum set of criteria, on top of the six criteria of The Code.

The Code Voluntourism Policy

Learn More

The Global Study

The Global Study is a collective effort of 67 partners from across the world and sectors that brings together the largest bank of information ever compiled on the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism.

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ReThink Orphanages

ReThink Orphanages is a global, cross-sector coalition working to prevent family separation and unnecessary child institutionalization by shifting the way countries in the global north engage with overseas aid and development.

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UN Guiding Principles

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations.

Read more
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