More children than ever are being exploited in the travel and tourism sector in Canada and around the world, according to a new report released Thursday.
The two-year study, produced by the non-governmental organization ECPAT International, found that child-sex tourism has increased drastically and changed in nature in the last 20 years despite strong global efforts to combat the problem.
The main reason is the "phenomenal" increase in global travel, which has created more opportunities for abuse, says a member of the task force that oversaw the report.
"These are opportunities that are being created for travellers to engage in these kinds of activities, and an alarming number of people are making the decision to opt to engage in them," Ernie Allen said in an interview.
The study found that Canada and the United States, which have traditionally been considered "source countries" for abusers, are increasingly also becoming destinations.
Although little empirical data exists, the study also suggests that children are becoming involved at a younger age, and more kids in both countries are engaging in sex for survival.
In Canada, indigenous women and children are especially vulnerable and are often moved around to be exploited near oil rigs or mining sites, the report reads.
The study found that over the last 20 years, the profile of an offender has changed from the stereotype of a white, western, wealthy, middle-aged male pedophile who travels to a less-developed country specifically to exploit children.
Now, the majority are "situational" offenders — people who may have never dreamed of sexually exploiting a child until given the opportunity to do so and are mostly local or domestic travellers.
"These are business travellers, these are migrant transient workers, these are volunteers," Allen said.
Montreal was listed as a Canadian "hot spot" for child-sex tourism due to its proximity to the U.S. border and the many sporting events and festivals it hosts.
Transport hubs, trade conventions, concerts and remote workplaces are among the other problem spots in Canada, according to Allen.
"Exploitation entrepreneurs are seizing those opportunities to provide — among other things — kids," he said.
The Internet has exacerbated the problem by providing a lower-risk way for offenders to connect with victims and for traffickers to advertise their services.
Allen praised the efforts of Canadian law enforcement, especially the RCMP and Quebec provincial police, for taking a "leadership role" in tackling the problem, as well as the former Conservative government for bringing in tougher penalties for child predators.
But because of the widespread and under-reported nature of the crimes, he says governments and law-enforcement agencies will require strong partnerships with the private sector to make significant progress.
Some hotels, airlines and travel and tourism companies have made commitments to combat the problem, but Allen says more need to join in by putting policies in place and by training employees to recognize and report incidents.
"The only way not to find this problem in any community is simply not to look," he said.
"The good news is we've begun to look. The bad news is you have to look, then you have to act. And you have to put the kinds of systems in place to minimize the risk that this will happen."