Their good intentions seem innocent enough. They load a suitcase with notebooks, toys and candy to hand out to children when they visit developing countries. Or they make sure they buy something from child vendors, visit schools, take children's photos or do short-term, volunteer projects.
But many of these seemingly altruistic acts by tourists are actually harmful to children, experts say, because it encourages kids to beg, causing emotional damage, even potentially putting them at risk of abuse and exploitation.
To help educate travelers and the industry as a whole, global tour operator G Adventures has developed an industry-first set of comprehensive guidelines to help travel companies and clients make sure their activities are indeed child safe and child friendly.
This week, in recognition of its extensive efforts, leaders from the ChildSafe Movement of Friends-International will present G Adventures with its official ChildSafe certification at World Travel Market, making G Adventures the first global tour operator to earn the designation, which attests that its marketing, partnerships and operations are fully respectful and protective of children's wellbeing.
Sebastien Marot, founder and executive director of Friends-International, said the guidelines are long overdue and that as the travel industry has evolved to become more experiential and community-based, there has been a growing awareness of the need for, and the importance of, a framework to protect children.
"These guidelines provide that framework," Marot said. "It's my hope they will become the benchmark for ensuring effective child protection in the tourism industry, with travel companies, agents, travelers and tour guides all contributing to creating safe environments for children."
Later this month, in conjunction with Unicef World Children's Day on Nov. 20, G Adventures will kick off a monthlong educational awareness campaign, which will include literature for travel agents to help educate them and their clients.
"The message is simple," said Jamie Sweeting, vice president of social enterprise and responsible travel at G Adventures. "If you wouldn't post pictures of other people's children without their parents' consent, if you wouldn't interrupt a teacher's school class or you wouldn't open up a suitcase full of gifts for unknown kids on a street back at home, don't do it anywhere else. Our goal is education. When we know better, we'll do better."
Sweeting said the project has been more than a year in the making. It was done in partnership with the ChildSafe Movement and G Adventures' philanthropic arm, the Planeterra Foundation, with external review from specialists at Unicef, Ecpat International and other leading organizations around the world.
Beth Verhey, senior adviser for children's rights and business at Unicef, said the guidelines provide an essential, practical resource for all tourism companies.
"Globally, travel and tourism is one of the most significant economic sectors," she said. "To achieve the sustainability potential of the sector, a concerted effort by industry bodies and individual companies is needed to understand how children are affected both positively and negatively by their business operations and value chains."
In developing the project, Sweeting said, one of "the most illuminating things was realizing that most of us have actually at one time or another been guilty of what we thought was a good act. ... Certainly it was well-intentioned."
For example, he said, the whole area of voluntourism can often do more harm than good. Take "orphanage tourism," where travelers who are not child- or health-care professionals spend time at a facility helping care for the children.
Sweeting said there is now a significant body of research showing that such experiences are actually mentally damaging to the children because it creates a kind of "boom and bust" situation.
"The research is showing that their brains get very turned on by the attention," he said. "And then, when these people leave, it's back to a skeletal staff that can barely maintain the facility."
Any gifts, Sweeting said, should only be handed out through parents or a community institution. They should also be bought at a traveler's destination, not brought from home, so that travelers are contributing to the local economy.
And voluntourism projects, Sweeting said, should only be done in close conjunction and consultation with the community. For example, he said, if a group comes and spends a week helping to build a school, it could unwittingly leave behind a dangerous, unattended construction site.
Perhaps one of the most common mistakes travelers and travel companies make is taking pictures of children and posting them to social media. Sweeting said photos should never be taken without consent from parents or otherwise authorized adults.
"Unfortunately, we live in a bit of a sinister world now," he said, noting that many new phones have georeferencing that can tell anyone exactly where a photo is taken. That, he said, "potentially gives info to sexual predators about where a vulnerable child is and what their name is."
As part of its efforts, G Adventures spent the past year completing a full sweep of its photos, videos and social media channels to ensure they comply with ChildSafe best practices. It also removed school classroom visits from its itineraries.