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Practicing Responsible Animal Tourism Around the World

Seeking animal encounters on a trip that value the life of the animal is a sustainable, rewarding, and unforgettable travel experience. We break down the basics of ethical and responsible animal tourism below to help you with your next trip!

Animal Tourism: What’s Best for the Animal?

Animal encounters on a trip to anywhere in the world are usually items on people’s travel bucket lists, but not all experiences prioritize the animal’s best interests. Research conducted by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Unit found that three out of four wildlife tourist attractions involve some form of animal abuse or conservation concerns.

“It is navigating through the different tour operators or experiences that provide a dilemma for the visitor when answering the question, is this animal encounter a responsible choice? Engaging in responsible animal tourism for me means I’m not touching or interacting with the wildlife in an interfering way. It means putting the wildlife needs and safety first.” – Abbie Synan, Speck on the Globe

Up to 550,000 wild animals are suffering in tourist attractions all over the world. In fact, even the major site of Angkor Wat in Cambodia has promised to end elephant rides this year, after an outbreak ensued when an animal died in 2016. So, how can we still have an enjoyable animal encounter without putting their lives at risk?

underwater shot of coral, a whale and fish
A Guide for Responsible Animal Tourism | Skyscanner Canada

Seeking Out Animal-Friendly Interactions

If we engage with animals in a responsible manner while we travel, we can prevent tragic instances like the one in Angkor Wat from occurring, and assure the survival (and even the thriving!) of these animals. When we give our attention and tourist dollars to sustainable animal encounters, not only are we investing in a good cause, but also an unforgettable travel experience that we’ll forever cherish.

Banning the use of wild animals in the entertainment industry

The animal tourism industry has only been scrutinized in more recent years. But as more information is being released about how animals are being treated and the implications, we can make more educated choices with what experiences we participate in. This helps empower us with the knowledge to make better choices as travellers. Whether it’s some countries banning the use of wild animals in circuses or Costa Rica’s recent initiative against tourists taking animal selfies, these practices are becoming outdated. It’s pretty simple: if there’s no demand (and funds) from tourists, then the supply of unethical animal encounters will decrease!

“Be kind to animals as you travel by avoiding inhumane experiences. It’s crucial to seek out cruelty-free experiences that prioritize animal welfare in order to preserve species—especially those that are endangered. Engaging in irresponsible animal interactions for human amusement—petting tigers, riding elephants, drinking snake wine—further encourages the exploitation of precious wildlife.”Lola Méndez, Freelance Journalist

Support animal-friendly tourism

It’s more known now that animals are being treated in cruel and inhumane ways for the entertainment and interest of human beings. Whether it is elephant rides, animal circuses, and standing in line to take a selfie with a sloth or koala bear, the sad reality is that these animals are not free. But we can seek out places that are doing good preservation work and practicing responsible experiences where animals are being treated with dignity. And honestly, this is way more enjoyable.

two elephants bathing themselves in a pond in Elephant Nature Park, Thailand. This park is the place to go for an ethical animal encounter where guests can observe the animals from a distance.
A Guide for Responsible Animal Tourism | Skyscanner Canada

Tips for Engaging in Responsible Animal Tourism

It’s definitely possible to both appreciate and respect animals while you’re travelling. There are ways to meaningfully and humanely observe animals and wildlife without negatively impacting the animal or ecology. By making more educated and careful choices with animal interactions, we can prioritize animal welfare and a more sustainable type of travel.

Here are some of our tips and best practices to keep in mind while you’re doing some research on potential animal encounters for your next trip. It’s important to dig beyond the surface of what is selling as a “sanctuary” and confirm that anything you will engage in does not interfere with the animal’s well-being!

1. Read the reviews

Read all the reviews and articles (make sure they are from reputable sources!) about a specific place; the good and bad. Don’t always take the good reviews at face value, because they may not be revealing the whole truth. Read through Trip Advisor, Google, and Facebook page reviews to scour what people are saying and what activities are present at the facility. Sometimes, the lower-rated reviews reveal if there is something occurring that is not kind to the animal.

“It’s important to do your research and keep an eye out for red flags. Avoid venues that promote animal shows such as water buffalo riding, performing dolphins, crocodile wrestling, snake charming, dancing bears, primate tricks, or other unnatural behavior such as an elephant painting.”Lola Méndez, Freelance Journalist

a tiger
No tiger selfies, okay?

2. Learn about the animal facility and experience

Explore your options and pay attention to the facilities where animals are well-fed, the crowd sizes are limited, and that the facility maintains animal rights. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lays out five freedoms that must be present if animals are in the care of humans. These include Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour and Freedom from Fear and Distress.

Be cautious of places that offer elephant riding, bathing, tiger petting, swimming with dolphins (this is not in the best interest of the dolphin in captivity), camel riding, etc. Basically, anything that doesn’t seem natural outside of a controlled space should be avoided. All of these interactions are harmful to the animal and in most cases, they are captured from their homes and forced to participate out of fear. Be wary of facilities that claim to be a place of refuge, but are using animals as entertainment or forcing them to engage with humans. They should be able to roam and be free, right?

When sourcing out responsible animal encounters for a trip, it’s helpful to look at international certifications such as the Blue Flag certification or the Fair Trade Tourism certification to reaffirm if a facility is ethical or not. Or better yet, ask and check if the operator is signed to any wildlife protection bodies or abide by an animal welfare policy. Use as many resources as possible to ensure your experience with animals is 100% ethical.

four dolphins jumping in the ocean with mountains in the background
Experience dolphins in their natural habitat

3. Chose encounters where you can observe animals in a more natural habitat

“Your best bet for an ethical animal experience is to see them in the wild, go on safaris where they aren’t hundreds of vehicles following the animals, or find places which are truly sanctuaries and don’t let you get near them but rather only allow observation.”Diana Edelman, Founder of Vegans, Baby

To responsibly have an encounter with animals on a trip, we cannot interfere with their space or livelihoods. The best way to do this is by observing them from a distance in their natural habitat. These can include national parks, wild safaris, wildlife sanctuaries, or conservation and protection projects.

I travelled to Thailand last year and one of my bucket list items was to see elephants in their natural habitat. When I did research on animal tourism in Thailand, I noticed that a lot of places promote themselves as a safe place for abused and tortured elephants, yet they create an environment that includes unnatural encounters with humans. What do I mean by “unnatural?” For instance, getting too close to a large animal for a period of time, or going on a tour where big groups come in and out throughout the day to cuddle and take a bunch of selfies with these beautiful creatures.

It didn’t feel natural to me to bathe with elephants because I wouldn’t do that with them in the wild. The elephant sanctuary I ended up visiting during my time in Thailand was Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, and I was content enough to watch them bathe at their bath time in a small pond from a distance. The elephants at the park went about their normal activities and nothing was forced. Just being in such a beautiful space and watching them live a peaceful life was such an unforgettable experience.

safari car from a distance observing lions in the wild
A Guide for Responsible Animal Tourism | Skyscanner Canada

Responsible Animal Tourism Around the World

From ethical whale watching trips and sustainable wildlife safaris, you can still have once-in-a-lifetime encounters with animals during your travels. We go into some tours and alternative experiences that will leave you with an unforgettable memory rather than a negative impact. Excursions like these can be both educational and bring awareness to the importance of conservation efforts.

Safaris in East Africa

Witnessing the Big 5 (Elephant, Rhino, Leopard, Lion, and Cape Buffalo) in the national parks throughout Tanzania and Kenya is truly awe-inspiring. If you’re planning to go on safari in your future travels, aim to go with an operator that keeps their distance from the animals and practices calm and quiet around them. Also, please refrain from buying souvenirs made from animal products. Always ask where the souvenir came from, whether it be at an airport or local market.

Ethical animal safaris in Africa:

a herd of elephants
A Guide for Responsible Animal Tourism | Skyscanner Canada

Animal tourism in Thailand

Visitors that head to Thailand, especially to Chiang Mai, are familiar with the plethora of elephant sanctuaries. However, it’s critical that you do your research when seeking out a responsible experience with the Southeast Asian elephant. Even though a facility may not offer rides, they should not offer forced interaction with humans. This includes bathing, feeding, touching or walking with them. An ethical elephant sanctuary will allow you to observe these animals from a distance. Some of them also take in rescued dogs and cats!

Ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand:

Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park has expanded and they are changing the landscape of animal tourism in Southeast Asia. If single-day trips to the park are booked when you’re in Chiang Mai, they offer trips and volunteer opportunities with their partner projects. The elephant encounters here will be just as authentic and ethical as the one at Elephant Nature Park!

whale's tale coming out of the ocean. there are lots of responsible animal tourism for whale watching experiences
A Guide for Responsible Animal Tourism | Skyscanner Canada

Whale watching tours in Canada

Whale watching tours are a great way to see these incredible marine mammals in their natural habitat. As long as your tour boat keeps a distance, limits the time spent watching the whales, and moves through the waters at a slow pace, then you’re less likely to intervene with the whale’s well-being. We recommend you double-check if the company contributes to marine conservation.

A responsible whale watching tour will typically last around 3 hours and there should be no guarantees that the tour will spot a whale. In these instances, some companies will return your money or will offer another tour free of charge.

Ethical Whale Watching Tours:

More Guides on Sustainable Travel

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