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Voluntourism is the act of combining travel and volunteer work, and it's a rapidly growing industry around the world. One of the most popular activities among voluntourists is working at children's homes in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

But in South Africa, some researchers now claim that foreign visitors aren't actually helping the children they work with. In fact, they might be hurting them.

Anders Kelto has this report from Cape Town.

(Soundbite of children)

ANDERS KELTO: The Masigcine Children's Home houses 28 children who have been orphaned, abused or abandoned by families in the township of Baphumelele. The bookshelves are packed with stuffed animals and books, and the mantel is lined with photographs of the children who live here.

Gidsken Asboll, a volunteer from Norway, sits in the living room with a 4-year-old boy cradled in her arms. She tickles him, and pretends to steal his nose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELTO: Masigcine recently began allowing foreigners like Gidsken to volunteer here. She spends most of her time holding and playing with the children.

Ms. GIDSKEN ASBOLL (Voluntourist): I love to watch them be happy and smile. And we're here to try to give them memories, good memories that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

KELTO: But some experts now claim that relationships like this can be harmful to children.

Amy Norman is a researcher at the Queen Mary University of London. She spent five years studying the social effects of HIV and AIDS in South Africa. And she's the co-author of a new paper on "AIDS Orphan Tourism."

Dr. AMY NORMAN (Researcher, Queen Mary University of London): The psychological literature talks about attachment theory, and that very young children are programmed to build attachments. And so you've got these sort of repeated abandonments - first with young children whose parents may die of AIDS. And then they go to live in an orphanage, where you often have high staff turnover.

And then youve got tourists that are coming as sort of the third wave of this abandonment. Children are left behind to remember a series of these foreigners who come in, and then leave them there.

Gidsken says the children bonded with her quickly, and expressed a fear that she would leave.

Ms. ASBOLL: Actually, the first shift we were here, they were like: You leave for good now? Then they were just standing by - next to the door. And they just, you leave forever? they said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ASBOLL: We were like, no, Ill come back. But that makes me feel nervous because Im not used to leaving kids that way.

KELTO: The South African government has expressed concern about so-called orphan tourism. And the Department of Social Development recently said that it will study the issue.

Currently, there are no regulations regarding foreign volunteers in South Africa. They dont have to be trained, and they do not have to be notified of the potentially harmful effects they can have.

Because children's homes are generally considered a last resort in child care, South Africa has imposed a moratorium on new facilities. It's not known how many children's homes exist in South Africa or around the continent, or how many foreign volunteers come to work in them each year.

Noma Mjwara is a social worker at Masigcine. She says their staff recognizes the risks of accommodating foreign volunteers, but says visitors provide a lot of important benefits.

Ms. NOMA MJWARA (Social Worker, Masigcine Children's Home): We've had volunteers that come from different types of professions. Maybe they are educators in their countries or they're occupational therapists. And sometimes they just help them with the homework as well.

KELTO: And she says that financial support from overseas visitors is critical to their survival. Masigcine receives $50 per volunteer, per week, from the travel company that arranges their stays, and many volunteers donate directly to the home.

(Soundbite of children praying)

KELTO: Back downstairs, the children gather outside the small dining area for lunch. Princess Nomhle and Theodora Tunz, two of the house mothers, lead the children in a short prayer.

(Soundbite of children praying)

KELTO: I asked Krystal Swen, an American volunteer, what she loves about working here.

Ms. KRYSTAL SWEN (Voluntourist): So when we walk in that door the first time, they were just - light up and are so excited. You get that gratification of making a difference.

KELTO: It's what many volunteers say is the best part about being here. But the question now being asked is: Who's benefiting?

For NPR News, Im Anders Kelto in Cape Town, South Africa.

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