ALTO Journal is very pleased to publish a guest blog by our partners, Ayana Journeys. Ayana's approach and commitment to curating meaningful, mutually beneficial, and responsible travel experiences for school and university groups in Cambodia demonstrates best practice in responsible travel. - Leigh Mathews

Placing host communities first: learning, not voluntourism

by Amy McLoughlin & Sarah Brown, Co-Founders

Ayana Journeys is an educational travel company based in Cambodia, that is fuelled by a mission to contribute to a more peaceful world. We do this by carefully crafting exceptional travel experiences that prioritise new insights through experiential learning; fostering a deeper sense of empathy; widening understanding of global issues; and reflecting on our potential as members of an international community.

Since we launched the company in early 2015, we have aimed to offer learning opportunities for both travellers and our community about various responsible tourism issues and initiatives. We believe that one of the most important topics in this field currently is volunteer travel that engages vulnerable children – such as those in residential care facilities or ‘orphanages’ – and the promotion of orphanage visits as a legitimate tourism activity.

With that in mind, we couldn’t be more thrilled to see that so many international campaigns aligned with our values in this space seem to be picking up momentum. From the public inquiry in Australia that argues orphanage tourism is a form of modern slavery, to international travel companies moving in the direction of responsible volunteering and prioritising child protection (such as World Challenge’s global announcement last year). We are both excited and relieved that this issue is increasingly reaching mainstream audiences, and slowly but surely ‘visiting an orphanage’ is getting the boot from many tourists’ bucket lists.

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Image: www.thinkchildsafe.org

As Siem Reap, Cambodia residents we find ourselves living in what has become a microcosm of this controversial area of the travel industry, and it’s something we feel strongly about. Many argue the ‘orphanage industry’ has largely been fuelled by tourists’ misguided and ill-informed desire to ‘do good’, and as a result we are working to reimagine what ‘travel that gives back’ looks like.

As a specialist travel company working primarily with high school and university students, Ayana Journeys frequently receives requests for volunteer trips (often with interactions with local children) as a means for young travellers to ‘serve’ or ‘give back’. It may sound crude but in many ways saying ‘yes’ to these kinds of requests would be easy money; volunteering trips like this are surprisingly straightforward to put together, and if we don’t agree to offer the requested experience there are plenty of other companies out there that will. After all tourism is essentially a service industry, and the customer is always supposed to be right…

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That isn’t, however, why we started a travel company. Ayana is rooted in a strict set of values, and while we aim to be as flexible as possible for our participants, staying true to our values means implementing strict policies and sometimes having difficult conversations with potential participants; orphanage visits and tokenistic volunteering just isn’t something we are willing to facilitate. Rather than offering short-term projects with questionable long-term impacts, we create itineraries in which our participants can explore responsible tourism issues, and learn from local experts working in education and child protection. We strive to put the benefits to host communities at the forefront of the experiences we design, and carefully curating learning journeys with interactions with projects and organisations aligned with our responsible tourism values is one of the ways we can do that.

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Students travelling with Ayana Journeys explore Cambodia in a way that allows them to gain a deeper understanding of how Khmer people live, the challenges their communities might face, and the futures they wish to build for themselves. Instead of ‘empowering’ young people to dive in and ‘help’ in areas or issues that they may no be fully equipped to, we choose to support them in exploring the complexities of both voluntourism and development, and reflecting on their roles and responsibilities as citizens of a global community. It’s our goal that by the end of their experience with Ayana, our participants will be thinking critically about these issues, and better able to make responsible travel and volunteering decisions in the future. We certainly aren’t trying to convince any of our participants of a particular viewpoint, but rather push them to challenge their preconceptions, diversify their perspectives, and question the status quo!

Perhaps this is a good point to clarify that we aren’t in any way against volunteering. Being motivated to donate your time, energy, and skills to support a cause you believe in is a truly amazing thing, and we have seem some incredible examples of the way that well-planned volunteer projects can be hugely beneficial to development organisations and initiatives here in Cambodia. However we also know that international volunteering can – albeit unintentionally most of the time –have impacts that range from ineffective through to deeply harmful, and hope to help our participants avoid those should they choose to volunteer in Cambodia – on anywhere! – at a later date.

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While we are passionate about the learning journeys we create for our participants, we are increasingly looking for opportunities to engage travellers outside of our own experience. As part of this, we regularly host educational workshops on the themes of responsible tourism, voluntourism, and orphanage tourism for other student groups travelling to Cambodia. Through these facilitated activities we aim to shed light on the confronting reality of the harms of institutionalisation of children, and invite participants to explore different stakeholders’ perspectives. We have found ‘humanising’ these complex issues helps also break stereotypes and preconceptions about Cambodia and its people. 

Last year we also launched the Siem Reap chapter of Wisdom Wednesdays, a speaker series primarily focusing on child protection issues in tourism. Each session sees a different guest speaker share their experiences and knowledge on topics related to responsible travel or giving, and have ranged from international child protection experts (thank you ALTO!), local social workers, and tour guides.

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