An Insider’s Guide To Travel: Ethical Tourism

An insider’s guide to travel #5

Amy, from our Ideas & Imagination team, is spending most of her Summer travelling and will be sharing regular insight along the way in her insider’s guide to travel. This week Amy discusses ethical tourism…

Ethical tourism appears to be the new buzzword amongst many travellers as there is an increasing awareness of the negative impact travel can have. ‘Travel Matters’ defines ethical tourism as tourism that benefits both people and the environment, thus meaning individuals should take personal responsibility to ensure that their trip helps the local community, rather than destroy it. It is easy for poorer communities to be taken advantage of by the tourism industry, as wealthy monopolies can drive out small local independent businesses before commercialising the new space available to them. Ethical tourism breeds long-term economic prosperity to the community it operates within; hence travellers should try to source their products and services locally. This, in turn, ensures that spending helps the community rather than corporate giants. One way to help the community is through choosing independent, locally owned accommodation over traditional hospitality chains.

South East Asia with its cheap cost of living is a hub for Generation Y to escape and explore a culture at opposites to their own. As a generation that is latched onto social media as a source of information, it is perhaps unsurprising that elephant tourism is the trigger of realisation for many of the impact their vacation can have. The combination of South East Asia as a young adult holiday destination and the virality of social media has led to a breed of principled young travellers. The potency of this market and its influence can be seen in relation to elephant tourism through Circa’s ‘darkside of elephant tourism’ video, a four-minute video that has been shared over 650,000 times with nearly 40 million views.

Following this video we, like many, decided that we wanted to support the work of locals that promote caring for elephants, rather than an exploitative tourist agenda. After much research, we decided to opt for ‘Elephant Jungle Sanctuary’, as both locals from Chiang Mai and the Karen tribe run the project in conjunction following concern for elephant welfare. The project has shown the power of the conscious consumer, as the organisation has seen rapid growth leading to the development of nine sites. One reason we chose the camp was their links to the Karen people, as these tribes live and work in the mountains where the elephants naturally reside. It is through the sanctuary’s partnership with the Karen people that the elephants have protected habitats in which to live. The company works with tribes to care for the elephants, preventing their need to continuously roam. As the sanctuary explained to us, elephants move once food sources are depleted, thus often knocking down more trees to eat the leaves on top. The elephants’ constant need for food can destroy villages belonging to tribes like the Karen people, ergo the Karen people must either deter or feed and care for the elephants.

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Many people who care for elephants turn to the entertainment industry as a means of feeding the elephant and protecting their home. However, the breaking process is inhuman and causes the elephant significant distress as a sharp bull hook is often used. The bull hook is used by many tourist facilities in excess, in order to break an elephant’s spirit, meaning the animal will obey commands out of fear, despite the actions being unnatural (e.g. painting/riding). The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary refutes the need for this, as they have a blanket ban on the use of bull hooks. However, the elephants listen and obey their commander, known as a mahout, as the behaviours at the sanctuary are natural meaning there is no need to cause fear. This attitude was reflected in the actions during our day there, as it was the elephant’s choice whether to approach or not (although most did when incentivised by bananas over their regular food). The day was incredible, but as we fed, washed and learned more about these beautiful creatures, it got me thinking about the elephants that are brutally worked every day for profit. The matter is not so black and white as some suggest, as wild elephants that roam in search of food can destroy a whole village. However, the case of elephant sanctuaries shows that consumer choice has a vast influence on the activities offered by hosts in each destination. There is an increase in genuine sanctuaries every year, showing operators meeting the demands of their consumers. No demand for elephant riding means no elephant riding!

While elephant tourism and riding is a hot topic; it is merely one of many ways travellers can display ethical actions. Throughout our travels, we have helped to fund clean up efforts and projects through the Gili Eco Trust and scuba dived with an ecologically based company. The diving school we chose, for example, contributes to worldwide coral research and undertakes many scientific expeditions as a means of improving conservation. It is important to note that being an ethical tourist does not need to be an extensive task. Ethical tourism is primarily just acknowledging whether your spending supports or jeopardises the local community and environment. These decisions can be as simple as supporting a locally owned coffee shop over an international chain, yet they have a tremendous impact on the community. The desire to travel ethically is a growing movement and travel companies should make it a serious consideration in their future strategies. It is vital that these characteristics are accounted for, in order to ensure that they meet the new needs of their target market.

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