How to be an Ethical Tourist
It's come to my attention that many people are unaware of the dangers of many of their Bucket List items.
I'm sure you've always thought about it, riding an elephant in Thailand, or a camel in Egypt, or playing with a monkey on a tropical island, or even holding a sloth in Costa Rica. But did you know that those seemingly tourist photo ops come at a price? Even things that may seem the best; visiting SeaWorld for their "educational" experiences, or snorkeling with wild turtles and rays... I hate to break it to you, but many of these experiences aren't quite what they seem.
The first step to becoming an Ethical tourist is KNOWLEDGE.
The above graphic lists basically everything any animal lover could dream of doing on vacation but I'm here to drop some sad but necessary truth and knowledge on you.
Elephant rides may seem like the ellie is having fun, but those elephants are torn from their mothers young, their spirits and bones literally BROKEN in a horrendous process aptly called "crushing" (more information here and here, but not for the faint of heart). Unfortunately, the pain doesn't stop there. When you see elephants "happily" painting self portraits or scenic landscapes, or even begging in the streets for fun, there's much you don't see. Many Elephant Mahouts or owners will carry a sharp stick or nail in their hand and stab the elephants ear subtly to ensure it follows suit. At night and anytime they're not working, these elephants are kept on short chains unable to move away from their own filth, or to be near other elephants. Many young elephants hold their own tails at night, feigning the feeling of having their family nearby. If that doesn't break your heart, then I'm not sure what will.
Another popular tourist experience to discuss is visiting with tigers, Lions, and other wild cats. It may seem like a dreamy photo op, but the truth of the matter is that there is a lot of abuse happening behind the scenes. These are WILD ANIMALS people. Ever wonder how they become so docile in these situations? It's one part being hand raised by humans, one part copious amounts of sedatives to make them lazy and unwilling to attack or even having any interest in you. This is just once their ready to be photographed, so not including the abuse, torture, and "training" they go through to get to that stage.
To discuss one that seems controversial - let's discuss SeaWorld and Zoos. Firstly, if you haven't watched BlackFish yet, consider this your PSA to grab a box of tissues and plop down for some angry sobfest. Contrary to zoos, in which most animals are bred in captivity or rescued from situations in which they cannot be returned to the wild, SeaWorld takes it's stars from the sea, ripping their complex family structures apart and, similar to breaking an elephant, are broken into submission and training to perform. These social and highly emotionally intelligent animals are kept in small confines, alone and away from their families, and often subject to abuse from their tank-mates. Again, watch Blackfish and do some research. In the realm of zoos, there are good zoos and bad zoos. The Omaha Zoo, the National Zoo in DC, and The San Diego Zoo are among the best in the country, but by their sides are some tragic states where animals are left "begging" for food, in dirty enclosures and with minimal stimulation. While the States have better zoos than other places, it is something to keep in mind when traveling, especially abroad to Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.
Ever dreamed of snorkeling with the rays and turtles? You can look online and book a trip; "a boat takes you to the middle of the sea to swim with the creatures of the ocean". Or maybe it's part of an all-inclusive resort's package. There are definitely reputable companies out there, but some unfortunately cast a net, trapping the animals and forcing them to swim with you. This is especially common in resort towns, and causes unnecessary stress as these animals are just wandering around and then BAM they're stuck with no way out while you snap your selfies. Similarly, swimming with dolphins, which are highly intelligent and possibly more intelligent than humans, causes stress to the animals leading in premature death, disease, and mental illness.
the second step to being an ethical tourist is to do your research
Anyone can book a dream experience via Groupon or Viator, or any other website, but the best way to ensure you're experience is the best for all parties involved is to research research RESEARCH.
When booking an excursion I like to 1) look up the company's website and see what they have to say about their practices. Do they boast all natural and humane experiences? GREAT. But sometimes this can be a farse, or a loose term. 2) I'll look them up on every review site imaginable. Yelp, TripAdvisor, Viator, Groupon, etc. I'll read the best reviews and the worst reviews, taking everything into consideration. If you look at the worst reviews you could hear things about bad experiences (hey, not everything is for everyone) but you may also find reviews from employees, friends, et cetera who may have intel on the treatment and ethics of the company. 3)I'l Instagram image search the location as well as Google image search it to see how the animals look, if there are any visible chains or sticks or distress. 4) Lastly, I'll do a Google search to see if anything negative comes up on the company or in the news. Avoid places that "guarantee" visibility or any other guarantees or anything that gives you a bad gut feeling.
If people only have good things to say about it, or just personal greivances, I'll go ahead and book!
The Third Step to being an Ethical Tourist means working with reputable companies
So here's where I plug some of my favorite companies and organizations that I've worked with and/or visited with.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust - Nairobi Kenya - this organization rescues orphaned and injured elephants, raises them and then reintegrates them into the wild. They have done some seriously amazing work and have grown in recognition (and did a collab with J. Crew)
Aquila Safaris and Game Reserve - Western Cape South Africa - this, as do many Game Reserve's (please look for that title in the name) are anti-poaching pro actual wildlife safari. While some safaris in Africa are basically a "farm" this one rehabilitates animals rescued from poaching and reintegrates them into the wild, all while offering safari experiences with learning
Elephant Nature Park - Chiang Mai Thailand - Ever wonder why everyone and their sister visits the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand? It is the most well respected and reputable Elephant Sanctuary that charges a Western Fee but also does some insanely good work. This place is the most magical place; they have rescued so many elephants from logging and tourism trade and has set in motion Thai laws that forbid certain elephant abuse and work. It's also woman owned and run, so #GIRLBOSS it up!
And Beyond Safaris - Worldwide - While I have yet to travel with And Beyond, I closely follow them on all their social channels and via email. they provide luxury travel tours and accommodation, but they also put their income to good use, working with conservation teams and running on the motto of "care of the land, care of the people, care of the wildlife".
Maine Wildlife Park - Grey Maine - This might be a personal favorite of mine, having grown up vacationing in Southern Maine. This park rehabilitates animals to reintegrate them into the wild, while using ones that can't be reintegrating in learning exercises and animal behavioral studies.
National Zoo - Washington DC - Maybe I'm biased, having lived in DC for five years but this zoo, incredibly clean and with great staff, does everything in it's power to educate, rehabilitate, and repopulate endangered species. They work closely with China to mate the infamous Panda, and they allow their orangutans free roam of the park via above-head cables. And if that's not enough to tell you these are happy animals, just know that many animals have escaped (recently a bobcat) and they end up making their way back home on their own because they just have it that good...
The Fourth and Final part to being an Ethical Tourist is Respect.
I'm not sure if you may remember, but during my trip to Nara Park in Japan I ended up breaking down in tears; the park honors the deer there, and treats them well even offering you cookies specific to the deers' diet to feed them. But then comes the tourists, disrespecting the culture and traditions for a laugh and a photo op by feeding the deer chips (and subsequently a plastic bag. In similar situations, I was visiting the National Zoo in Mexico City where children were throwing Cheetos and other junkfood into the monkey's enclosures to try to get them closer to the fence for better photos.
There's an age old saying about traveling: "take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints" and I think that's a proper way to handle it. Souvenirs are a given, of course, but be respectful of the culture you are visiting. Do not gawk, do not appropriate their culture, do not mock their culture (like some idiot youtubers seem to want to do). Clean up your trash, follow the rules that they may have. Just be respectful.
What is your stance on Animal Tourism? Have you learned anything new from my post?? I'd love to know how you've become a better tourist and what else you think people can do!