Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism: North America

Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism: North America

Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism: North America



In the North American context, the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT) is perpetrated in two main ways: international SECTT and domestic SECTT.

International SECTT takes place when North American child sex offenders travel to another country and there engage in illicit sexual activity with a child, a phenomenon also known as “international child sex tourism”. While data on international SECTT is limited and does not account for the full extent of the situation, research has shown that North Americans do engage in this crime. While long preferred destinations such as Southeast Asia continue to be targeted, Central and Latin America are also affected because of their proximity and the low costs of travel to the region. However, no country is immune and cases have been documented in virtually every region of the world. The literature distinguishes “preferential” offenders who actively seek prepubescent children for sex from “situational” offenders who may occasionally engage in sex with children. However, there is no single profile of a traveling child sex offender. Travel patterns also vary, with offenders spending short or long periods abroad, sometimes buying or renting property to aid their crimes. There have been several documented cases of North Americans committing sex crimes against children under the guise of humanitarian work. Such cases have involved NGO staff, English teachers and aid workers occupying positions providing direct access to vulnerable children. With increasing attention being paid to “voluntourism” and the risks associated with close, often unsupervised contact between adults and vulnerable children, a number of North Americans visiting or working in orphanages have been found guilty of sex crimes against children. Another dimension of international SECTT concerns the military, with ample evidence that SECTT has grown on defunct U.S. military bases in the Philippines. In Canada, child marriage is yet another form of child sexual exploitation which can equate to SECTT: in many cases, both perpetrators and victims move within or across borders.

Domestic SECTT is widespread and takes a number of forms. While North America is not usually considered a “sex tourism” destination, some research has examined the linkages between sex industries and tourism in a small number of cities. Of serious concern is the extensive use of the North American travel and tourism infrastructure by offenders, locals and outsiders alike. Venues such as hotels, motels, roadside rest areas, bus and railroad stations, airports, travel agencies and cruise ships may all provide an enabling environment to the sexual exploitation of children. In addition, specific groups of buyers who belong to transient populations have long been associated with the sexual exploitation of children. Because these individuals live in a different place from that where offences are committed, they may qualify as SECTT perpetrators. This is the case of truckers, who have long been involved in “truck stop prostitution”. Another recent example is that of temporary oilfield workers in the U.S. state of North Dakota, the presence of whom has increasingly been linked to prostitution including child sexual exploitation. Major sporting events are also attracting publicity for creating a demand for child sex trafficking, with the annual U.S. Super Bowl the most salient example. However, there still lacks conclusive evidence regarding these events causing a spike in SECTT.


The ICTs are used to facilitate SECTT crimes in a number of ways. First, in North America, child sexual exploitation has largely migrated away from the street and into the online environment, and ICTs facilitate contact between buyers and victims. With the click of a button, offenders can easily access children to be delivered to their hotel room or any other locale. While potential clients may communicate directly and anonymously with children, traffickers usually remain out of sight. Of grave concern is the use of major classified advertising websites such as to advertise sexual services from minors. While law enforcement regularly traces CSEC victims back to this website, efforts to stop the proliferation of such advertising have so far been unsuccessful. Second, offenders make use of ICTs to network among themselves and to gain information about destinations where children may be available. Offenders also use ICTs to organize cross-border criminal activity. While instances of formally organized “child sex tours” are now rare, some recent cases indicate these still occur. Third, many travelling child sex offenders use ICTs to produce child abuse imagery (child pornography) at destination. Such imagery may be used for self-gratification or to obtain further images from other offenders, among other purposes. Fourth, offenders may groom their victims online prior to traveling to meet them. These cases are frequently referred to as child sex tourism when travel does occur, however, in many cases of online grooming, there is no movement involved.


When it comes to addressing domestic SECTT, a first step is to strengthen national legal frameworks that sufficiently protect the rights of all children from sexual exploitation. Over the years, considerable progress has been achieved to strengthen laws against CSEC both in Canada and the U.S. Both countries count with strong laws that can be used against child prostitution, child pornography and child trafficking. However, some important weaknesses remain: demand for commercial sex with children continues to be a challenge, with buyers insufficiently arrested and prosecuted overall. And, while some progress has been achieved towards the treatment of children who are sexually exploited as victims and not as offenders, significant variations remain between the different Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions. Another critical issue is that of online advertising for commercial sex with minors, against which attempts to legislate have so far been unsuccessful. And, while there are laws that can be used against individuals who facilitate SECTT within the travel and tourism industry – such as taxi drivers, hotel staff, etc. – there are very few reported cases of successful prosecutions; the same holds true regarding financial penalties imposed on companies that may be involved in SECTT, as required by the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

One important step in the fight against international SECTT has been the use of extraterritorial jurisdiction, or the application of Canadian and U.S. laws to offences committed outside those countries by their citizens or permanent residents. By and large, Canada’s extraterritorial laws remain underused, with only seven successful prosecutions so far. In contrast to Canada, the U.S. holds the reputation of aggressively prosecuting its child sex offenders who commit crimes against children overseas, with hundreds of convictions on record. Yet many challenges stand in the way of extraterritorial prosecutions. Investigations can be lengthy and resource-intensive; there may be prerequisites to the launching of proceedings. There are also difficulties in gathering evidence abroad and in producing foreign child witnesses, who may remain without adequate protections while the trial is prepared.

National sex offender registries are another tool that can be used to curb international SECTT. Both Canada and the U.S. maintain sex offender registries, yet differ in their approach to registration and the use that can be made of registries. In Canada, weaknesses include the relative ease with which registered offenders can leave the country and the lack of information sharing between law enforcement and border authorities. The passing of Bill C-26, also known as Tougher Penalties for Child Predators Act is awaiting Royal Assent as of June 2015 and is meant to close some of these gaps. In the U.S., there are concerns about insufficient information sharing between U.S. and foreign law enforcement. The International Megan’s Law if passed, could provide a basis for stronger collaboration between U.S. law enforcement and officials in foreign countries.

Both countries have hotlines that can be used to report international SECTT. In Canada, individuals can report suspected cases of child sexual exploitation, including international child sex tourism to the RCMP or to the national tip line, has concentrated its efforts on raising awareness and promoting the reporting of child sexual abuse material and luring incidents. It is planning a campaign in the future to raise awareness about the issue of child sex tourism. Reporting overseas can also be made through Canadian liaison officers posted in embassies worldwide. However, it has been noted the presence of such officers is limited. In the U.S., CyberTipline is the national hotline mandated by Congress to collect information on child exploitation, including international child sex tourism. Anonymous reports of human trafficking as well as extraterritorial sexual exploitation can also be made in the U.S. to the National Human Trafficking Resource Centre (NHTRC). Reporting overseas can be made through American liaison officers posted in U.S. embassies worldwide. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deploys dozens of special agents in 48 countries, with child exploitation considered the “major pillar” of their mission in popular “sex tourism” destinations.


In North America the fight against SECTT has increasingly been characterized by cross-sector initiatives. Over the years, a number of partnerships have been developed between government, NGOs and the private sector to address the issue, in both its domestic and international aspects. Corporate social responsibility has been a cornerstone of private sector involvement when it comes to protecting the rights of children from sexual exploitation. In this regard the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in travel and Tourism (“the Code”) has been one of the most successful tools. In the U.S. there are 40 companies, associations and others that have signed the Code, with major signatory corporations including Delta Air Lines, Hilton Worldwide and Wyndham Worldwide. Other initiatives include a partnership between the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the primary hospitality industry trade association in the country and ECPAT-USA to create an online training course for members and non-members alike. A number of individual hotel companies also provide training to their employees.

The transportation sector has also played a vital role to better protect children. North American airlines have worked in partnership with government and NGOs in their efforts to eradicate human trafficking and child sexual exploitation, through public awareness raising and training of their employees. Beyond Borders ECPAT Canada has established novel and valuable relationships with the three leading airlines in Canada. In the U.S., Delta airlines was the first signatory to The Code and at least four other airlines also provide training to their staff on how to combat human trafficking. Other transportation services such as train, buses and trucking companies have also joined efforts to fight these crimes in North America. Good practice examples exist, such as the Transportation Leaders against Human Trafficking initiative, which could inspire further action and activism in the continent.

A number of multi-stakeholder, North-South collaborative projects have also been implemented to fight international child sex tourism, involving both Canada and the U.S. ECPAT USA has promoted the Code and worked to reduce the vulnerability of children in Belize, Brazil and Mexico. In Canada, the International Bureau for Children’s Rights (IBCR) and the Costa Rican NGO and ECPAT Group Paniamor implemented a bilateral project funded by the Canadian government to raise awareness about child sex tourism and empower communities to better protect themselves and respond to SECTT. These projects offer good potential for successful replication in other locales affected by SECTT.

Efforts to prevent SECTT do not have to be restricted to travel and tourism companies. In addition to company policies which enable employees to identify and report instances or suspicions of trafficking, some companies whose staff travel for work purposes have adopted codes of conduct to deter employees from engaging in criminal activity as part of corporate travel policies.


Based on the information reviewed, the report provides a number of recommendations to government, NGOs and the private sector to address SECTT both in its domestic and international dimensions. These pertain to, inter alia, the ratification of international child rights instruments and the strengthening of national and extraterritorial laws, the need to collect reliable data on SECTT, the need for further awareness raising among the public, the necessity to address demand, the importance of private sector involvement and of continued cross-sector partnerships.

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