Protecting some of our most vulnerable: the fight against human trafficking during the age of pandemics

By Dr. Peter Tarlow

Tourism security has traditionally been about protecting visitors from themselves, from other tourists and from locals who seek to rob and or steal from them, commit fraud against them or in one way or another verbally or physically assault the visitor.  Tourism security professionals must also deal with the threat pf terrorism, aimed at transportation hubs, major events, and the food and lodging side of the travel and tourism industry.  In the world of pandemics, tourism security is also about keeping those who use the industry and work in it healthy.  This means the need to interact with public health professionals and the attempt at creating a healthy travel and visitor experience and finding ways to allow those working in the tourism industry to stay healthy.

Unfortunately, there is another dark side of tourism, in which both visitors and locals participate, that is the human trafficking industry. Not all human trafficking deals with tourism.  Some of it is aimed at local prostitution, the merchandising of illegal drugs and the enslavement of men and women.  Unfortunately, this old-new form of human bondage is also part of the tourism industry.  Not only does this new-old form of trafficking touch adults tragically it also exploits children.

Despite what most people want to believe there are people who travel for the purpose of engaging in illegal sexual acts.  There are also parts of the tourism and travel industry that use these trafficked individuals as a form of cheap labor.  There are many reasons for this sickness, ranging from the belief that people in the lesser developed world are worth less to the notion that the child predator believes that a child is more likely to be a virgin, to the belief that these people cannot protect themselves and can be used for any number what the perpetrator believes to be personal gratification.

No matter what the reason given to justify the crime, human trafficking and exploitation are illegal and destructive to the child, to the adult and to the whole of society.  The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) is a fundamental violation of human rights. Such as sexual exploitation has existed throughout history, yet it is only in recent decades that the scale of these crimes has been brought to the attention of governments and the public.

The hospitality industry cannot run away from this problem.  Traffickers take advantage of the privacy and anonymity accessible through the hospitality industry for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Non-document workers might be afraid of being “caught” and therefore allow themselves to be use almost as slave labors rather than having to return to their homeland.  Not only is the lodging industry a center for human sexual exploitation and often forced labor but these problems might also occur at sporting events, theme parks, and cruise ships.  Many staff members may not recognize the signs of human trafficking or be aware that their co-workers might also be victims.

Although some have argued that the fear of Covid-19 or the number of national travel restrictions now in place might have lowered the number of victims during the pandemic, others have argued that the increased poverty caused by the pandemic has increased human exploitation.  In reality these are mere hypotheses although the opening of the US southern border may well result in increased human trafficking throughout North America.

There are many possible reasons to explain why sex trafficking exists and its interplay with tourism.  These illegal sexual acts might be fueled by anonymity as a result of being away from their home, or by the psychological need to dominate another man or woman. The rapid and global growth of low-cost air travel has made airfares comparatively more accessible and so new and emerging destinations, when open, are within reach of a high number of tourists, including potential perpetrators of child sex crimes. Furthermore, the ongoing economic crisis fueled by government closures has created a new cast of downtrodden people who are potential victims.

Sexual tourism and especially that which preys on the poor and the defenseless is a social cancer that gnaws at the very fabric of a travel and tourism industry.  Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how many people around the world are victims to such exploitation.  The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that the numbers of victims may be in the millions.  Human trafficking as an illegal industry is thought to generate billions of US dollars overall and it is believed that nearly 60% of all trafficking worldwide is for sexual exploitation, with over 20% of the victims being children.  The precise numbers of underpaid and/or unpaid workers (indentured servants of slaves) around the world is unknown but the numbers appear to be staggering.

In order to begin to deal with this problem, Tourism Tidbits offers the following suggestions.

-Do not hide a problem; expose it.  Tourism communities, especially in these days of pandemic, need to publicize that they have a zero-tolerance policy.  This policy means that tourism officials need to produce information warning visitors that the exploitation of both adults and children will not be tolerated.  This information needs to be at airports, in hotel rooms, and at tourism information centers.  It is the responsibility of everyone who works in tourism to use his or her marketing capabilities to seek to alleviate this problem.

-Recognize that the problem might well exist in your community. One of the great problems with this hidden illness is that many tourism communities are either unaware of or choose not to see the problem.  Ignoring a problem of this magnitude does not make the problem disappear rather it only increases the problem’s intensity.

-Develop a task force and work with local law enforcement to analyze and develop strategies.  During this Covid-19 pause this is the time to develop new ways to stop sex trafficking.  No one solution fits all.  Ask if this form of exploitation exist in your community due to lack of protection services or laws?  Is poverty a major factor? Have law enforcement officials not given this problem the attention that it deserves?

– Be aware that developed parts of the world are often centers for human trafficking.  Tourism officials in places such as Europe, the United States, Japan and Israel need to be made aware that their parts of the world are often on the receiving end of the human trafficking chain.,

-Develop consequences for those participating in taking advantage of children.  There tend to be numerous people who are involved with human exploitation, among these are: the consumer, the person “renting” the child, woman, or man, the provider, such as a kidnapper or parent who “sells” the child and the middlemen, such as hoteliers who permit other humans to be exploited on their premises.  All three need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  That means that hotels need to be informed that if they turn a blind eye toward sexual or labor exploitation then they will be either severely fined, subjected to prison time, or the hotel is liable to be closed.

-Be mindful that children may be used in many formats.  Not only does sexual tourism exploit children for immediate sexual gratification, but children may be used also for the production of pornographic films and videos.  This means that new laws may be needed to protect children or existing laws may need to be enforced to greater extent.

-Work with the local communities.  The fight against the sexual exploitation is a way that the tourism community can show a community that it cares. Work with local social organizations, with religious organizations and any other group that is also concerned about this problem.  By showing that tourism officials are not only concerned about this problem, but also prepared to work to solve it, the local tourism industry has gone a long way to winning the hearts and minds of local residents and travelers alike.

-Use words that force people to realize that what is being done is wrong.  Stay away from euphemism. Tourism uses too many euphemisms.  When it comes to sexual and labor exploitation the stronger the word the better.  For example, rather than saying “child pornography” call it “child abuse viewing materials”.  Make the words as strong as possible as a way of shaming people.

-Do not be afraid to publicize the names of people who are selling or buying other human beings. Let the world know that these people are selling or purchasing men, women and children or allowing the use of illegal and immoral activities on their premises.  The essential point is that tourism must become a major force for good and show the world that the tourism industry cares.