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An estimated 1.2 million children are victims of trafficking each year, and the travel industry – which criminals often use to move and enslave their victims – has become increasingly involved in trying to do something about it. Travellers can play their part, too, by being aware of suspicious activity and supporting companies that have taken a stand against sex tourism and child exploitation.

To date, more than 1,000 travel and hospitality companies in 42 countries have signed The Code, a set of principles to combat child trafficking and abuse that was launched in 1998 by Ecpat (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) in Sweden. Travellers can find a list of companies that have signed on the website and they can use Ecpat letters and postcards to encourage other businesses to join too.

Patchareeboon Sakulpitakphon, a Bangkok-based project manager of The Code, said it is “a big step” for companies to sign on, as it requires them to establish an ethical policy on child trafficking and exploitation, train staff on the topic and put a clause in their contracts with suppliers.

“Travellers should understand that this sensitive crime is often ignored by tourism companies because they are simply ignorant or unaware, or because it conflicts with the ideal image of a dream vacation,” she said. “Others are afraid to take action because they feel it's not their responsibility, or they are afraid of legal ramifications or retaliation from organised crime.”

In fact, Carol Smolenski, executive director of Ecpat USA, said it was slow-going when the organisation first tried to entice US companies to sign The Code in 2004. Just one company – Carlson, which owns the Radisson and Country Inns and Suites hotels – signed, and then there was a six-year stretch before any other US company joined them.  

But since 2011, the initiative has gained momentum, with Delta Airlines, Wyndham Worldwide (which includes Wyndham hotels, Ramada, Days Inn and Howard Johnson), Hilton Worldwide and Sabre (owner of Travelocity) all signing on in the US.  

“People who work at [hotels or airlines] see funky stuff all the time,” Smolenski said. “But unless they’re trained on what to do, they may not do anything.” Under The Code, front-desk personnel are trained to recognise signs of possible trafficking – such as a girl checking in with no baggage, paying in cash and quickly followed to her room by a man. The company should then have protocols in place to take the next steps.

Many businesses also help spread the word to travellers. For instance, Accor, the worldwide hotel group that includes the Novotel and Sofitel brands, puts up posters on child sex tourism in its hotels and hosts events to raise awareness in Thailand.

Beyond patronising businesses that support The Code, travellers should report suspicious activity. “Instinct kicks in,” Smolenski said, adding that people don’t need much training to know when something isn’t right. If a young girl is dressed up well beyond her years and appears to be in an odd situation, for instance, say something to your tour guide, hotel or travel company, or call the appropriate authorities. Emergency situations warrant a call to local law enforcement. Tips can also be passed onto police or other groups, such as local Ecpat offices or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in the US.

“It is no longer accurate to say that trafficking is more likely to happen in one particular country because in reality, human trafficking occurs in every country,” said Sakulpitakphon, who conceded that there are certain hubs, such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. However Thailand is also one of the countries in which the travel industry has responded well to The Code. Others are Colombia, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and South Africa.

 “It is everyone's responsibility to prevent child sexual exploitation,” Sakulpitakphon said.

Lori Robertson writes the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to bbcethicaltravel@gmail.com.

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