Guest post by Marina Colby, the Legislative Advisor to ECPAT-USA

Child sex tourism is an egregious crime that can occur right under our noses by perpetrators who may believe that by having sex with children, they are helping them and contributing to the local economy. As one child sex tourist stated: “On this trip, I’ve had sex with a 14 year-old girl in Mexico and a 15 year-old in Colombia. I’m helping them financially. If they don’t have sex with me, they may not have enough food. If someone has a problem with me doing this, let UNICEF feed them.”

While it is difficult to determine the magnitude of the problem given the lack of research and the illicit nature of the issue, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), approximately 2 million children around the world are victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Many of these children suffer at the hands of child sex tourists, individuals who travel to engage in sexual activity with children.

Billboard on the road between Cancun and the Riviera Maya section of Mexico in 2007. Photo Credit: ECPAT

Despite growing awareness of the commercial sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking, child sex tourism continues to be a lucrative industry.  Even prior to the recent global economic crisis, the sex industry, including child sex tourism, has been a significant contributor to gross domestic product (GDP) in a number of countries.  We are now seeing emerging destinations for child sex tourists in the Americas, Africa and Eastern Europe. It’s important to note that this type of exploitation can occur anywhere in the world and no country or tourism destination is immune.  Moreover, child sex tourists may be foreigners or domestic nationals who are traveling within their own country.

Countries with thriving sex tourism are also likely to suffer from widespread poverty, weak rule of law, and vast income gaps. Such poverty often correlates with illiteracy, limited employment opportunities, and bleak financial circumstances for families. Children in these families can become easy targets for human traffickers and sex tourists.

While this problem may seem daunting, there is something that you can do to stem the profits from sex tourism and help end this practice.  Perpetrators often use tours and hotels as venues to sexually exploit children and you can take a stand against such exploitation by asking the hotels you visit and tour companies you employ to sign the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (the Code).

The Code is an industry-driven, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to increase protection of children from sex tourism.  ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and the Trafficking of Children) hosts the international secretariat for the Code and we’re pleased to state that there are over 1,000 signatories to the Code in 42 countries.

Tourism businesses (tour operators, hotels, travel agents, etc.) agree to sign the Code and commit themselves to establish an ethical corporate policy regarding the sexual exploitation of children, including training personnel in the country of origin and in destinations, introducing clauses in contracts with suppliers stating a common policy repudiating the sexual exploitation of children, providing information on child sex tourism to travelers and to key local persons at the destinations, and reporting annually to the Code secretariat on efforts to implement the Code.

Like all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children, combating child sex tourism is a complex problem that requires responses at many levels. Through innovative partnerships, ECPAT-USA along with both USAID and the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking (GTIP) have been working to advance the Protecting Children in Tourism (PCT) Project to prevent sex tourism in countries such as Mexico and Brazil. The project builds on ECPAT’s work around the world to leverage partnerships with governments, business, and civil society as a force multiplier to one day ensure the end of child sex tourism.

To learn more about ECPAT-USA and its projects visit www.ecpatusa.org.

ECPAT-USA is an affiliate of ECPAT International – a global network of organizations and individuals working together to end child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.