The travel and tourism industry is increasingly joining the fight against human trafficking, a $32 billion industry that enslaves an estimated 27 million people worldwide, according to data from the U.S. State Department and the International Labour Organization.
Sex tourism, particularly the kind that exploits children, is perhaps the most horrific manifestation of human trafficking, but a larger part of the problem actually involves forced labor in agriculture, manufacturing, restaurants and other industries.
One reason the industry has taken up the challenge is that travel and tourism can easily become an unwitting accomplice in the human trafficking infrastructure: Planes transport perpetrators and their victims; traffickers with groups of children pass through international checkpoints; hotels house pimps and their victims and provide a venue for exploitation.
Human trafficking occurs both abroad and at home. Events as all-American as the Super Bowl attract sex trafficking rings. Airlines, restaurants and hotels buy food, textiles and manufactured goods using supply chains that at some point might involve forced labor.
But travel, which provides one out of every 11 jobs in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, is also uniquely positioned to fight back.
"The travel and hospitality industries can play a special role in protecting victims, and they're in the position to identify traffickers," said Amy O'Neill Richard, senior adviser to the director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat the Trafficking of Persons.
Today, travel agencies, hotels and airlines are working with government agencies ranging from Customs and Border Protection to the State Department as well as with a variety of nonprofit organizations to stop human trafficking and to help survivors rebuild their lives.
The roots of today's anti-trafficking efforts date to the 1990s, when nonprofit groups began witnessing the growth of child prostitution as a tourism product in Southeast Asia.
A seminal event in the development of the travel industry's campaign was the 1996 World Conference Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm, Sweden.
By then, nonprofits were already battling child sex tourism in Southeast Asia, but Michelle Guelbart, director of private sector engagement for Ecpat USA, said the Stockholm conference made the topic global.
Ecpat (an acronym for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) is a global network of organizations dedicated to ending the trafficking of children for sex. After that conference, Ecpat Sweden developed the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. In 1998, three major Swedish tour operators were the first companies to implement what has since come to be known as the Code. Today, more than 1,300 companies from 42 countries have signed on to it.
In essence, the Code is a how-to guide for fighting sex trafficking of children. Signatories agree to train employees and travelers on how to recognize signs of sexual exploitation and how to report suspected cases. They also agree to include clauses in their contracts requiring companies in their supply chain to repudiate child sex trafficking.
"This was industry-driven," Guelbart said. "The industry was saying, 'We can do something about this crime.'"
The anti-trafficking community knew that before the Code could formally launch in the U.S., it needed a high-profile, global U.S. brand to publicize its launch here. In 2004, Carlson Cos. stepped up to the plate.
Marilyn Carlson Nelson, then Carlson's chairwoman and CEO, was a natural for the job. She already was well established as a champion of children's rights, thanks to her work with Queen Silvia of Sweden's World Childhood Foundation, which protects children from sexual abuse and helps victims. The Curtis L. Carlson Family Foundation was a co-founder of the Childhood Foundation.
Nelson remembers colleagues saying, "We're in the happiness business." But after some discussion, the company decided that using its resources in the fight against child sex trafficking was worth any risk that the campaign might tarnish the Carlson brand. In signing on to the Code, Carlson broke what Nelson described as a "conspiracy of silence."
Carlson introduced child protection training into its employee curriculum in 2005, and it is now part of its Responsible Business training program, which all 175,000 of its employees worldwide are required to take. In April 2013, President Obama presented Nelson with a Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.
But Nelson did not stop with bringing Carlson onboard. She has also recruited other companies to the cause, including Sabre.
Christina Scott, a senior managing director with Sabre, recalled, "Like many others in the travel industry and society in general, we were relatively unaware of what the term human trafficking meant."
But Scott said Sabre quickly recognized that traffickers probably were using many of the suppliers and travel retailers with which Sabre worked. In addition to sexual exploitation, Sabre's anti-trafficking efforts cover forced labor.
The GDS made signing the Code part of a broader awareness campaign called Passport to Freedom, which Scott chairs.
When it launched in September 2012, participants included actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, the State Department's Richard, U.S. Travel Association CEO and President Roger Dow, Ecpat USA head Carol Smolenski and others from the travel and tourism industry. At the opening ceremonies, human trafficking survivors described their ordeals.
Sabre put much of the event on its website and created an online training program for its employees. Earlier this year, it made that training program (www.sabre.com/ptf/base.html) universally available.
An increasing number of programs now exist for training different parts of the industry to recognize and report human trafficking.
In June 2013, the departments of Transportation, Homeland Security (DHS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) collaborated to introduce Blue Lightning, a training program for frontline airline staff.
The CBP has long given its officers human trafficking awareness training, and Blue Lightning is part of the DHS's Blue Campaign to combat human trafficking.
Five airlines -- Allegiant Air, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, North American Airlines and Silver Airways -- have incorporated Blue Lightning into their training, and more carriers are coming on board with the program, said Richard Puleo, watch commander for CBP's Alien Smuggling Interdiction National Targeting Center.
Airline Ambassadors International, a nonprofit that works with airlines to provide humanitarian assistance to children, offers training for airline personnel and airport staff.
Similarly, the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute has created a program for hoteliers. Carlson's Nancy Johnson, executive vice president with the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, was instrumental in developing it.
Individual hotel companies are also educating their staff. Starwood Hotels & Resorts recently made its human trafficking awareness training global through its online learning management system. Starwood, InterContinental Hotels Group and many other hotel companies include clauses in supplier contracts requiring suppliers to comply with the hotels' own anti-trafficking policies.
And at the ITB Berlin trade show in March, several travel companies and organizations already actively fighting human trafficking introduced a new program. The World Tourism Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Unesco jointly announced a global campaign to educate travelers about human trafficking as well as other illicit travel-related activities, such as dealing in counterfeit goods or endangered wildlife or plant species.
Sabre and Marriott International were launch partners for the campaign, titled "Your Actions Count, Be a Responsible Traveler," using websites, consumer newsletters and mobile apps to spread the word.
The travel industry is also educating and working with other industries that are critical in the battle against human trafficking. These include health care professionals and law enforcement, which are often first to encounter and recognize trafficking victims.
Outreach efforts can connect police with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and agencies that provide sanctuary to victims.
Right now, Nelson said, 12 states have safe harbor laws. The laws define trafficked and prostituted children as victims of abuse and grant them immunity from prosecution, moving them into child protection services.
The industry is also working with NGOs that work with human trafficking survivors, such as the Polaris Project, which offers counseling and training to survivors.
Travel agencies are getting more involved, as well. Jean Covelli, president of the Travel Team, a $100 million-plus American Express agency in Buffalo, N.Y., instituted a multifaceted plan to enlist Travel Team staff, other agencies and clients in the fight against human trafficking after attending the Passport to Freedom event.
Travel Team agents now watch for rogue bookings that could be traffickers. Travel Team plans to educate other agencies and companies and collaborate with them to advocate for legislation and policies to fight human trafficking.
ASTA signed the Code in 2004, becoming the first association with global reach to do so, according to Paul Ruden, the Society's senior vice president of legal and industry affairs. It now requires ASTA suppliers, such as hotels it uses for its events, to include a clause in their contracts that repudiates child sex tourism. It encourages its members to support government efforts and to inform clients that sex tourism is illegal and that being in a foreign country does not change that.
Carlson Wagonlit now includes warnings on itineraries for business travelers who are headed to destinations known for child sex tourism. The warnings state that having sex with a child violates U.S. law even when it takes place outside the country. It also provides phone numbers for the National Human Trafficking Hotline -- (888) 373-7888 or (202) 507-7966 -- which work both in the U.S. and internationally.
"When there is this size of an industry of this kind that operates outside of the rule of law, it threatens everyone," Nelson said. "And everyone is vested in doing something about it."
Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.
Photos from the End Slavery Now website