The importance of animals in tourism is rarely commented upon. Yet for many tourists our holidays involve experiences that connect us to other members of the living world. Everything from going on safaris to visiting zoos and aquaria. Birdwatching to deep sea fishing and scuba. Horse, elephant or yak rides. Whale watching to shark cage diving. Then add to these encounters the food choices that any non-vegan makes while travelling, be it the local cheese or pate from the market to the Blue fin sushi on a Tokyo restaurant.
Many – if not all – of these come not just with the potential for pleasure in the moment and memories for the future, but also with ethical issues to do with how these animals in tourism are cared for and protected. The safari industry is face with the decimation of many its key species – especially rhinoceros, elephant and lion – to fuel the illegal wildlife trade. Elephant rides have several issues, considered by many to be demeaning for such an intelligent animal, while others argue that it is an engrained part of a culture that would be unable to support these voracious creatures otherwise. There has also been evidence of young female elephants removed from their forest homes in Burma each year to be traded illegally to tourist camps in Thailand. Whale watching can affect the feeding and birthing patterns of these majestic creatures. Scuba damages coral if anchors are carelessly flung overboard, or divers behave recklessly underwater. And the souvenirs we buy in a market could have been made from endangered animals, just as food may have been produced in ways we would find unacceptable back home.
For all these issues and many more, the question is, how would we know?
Taking responsibility for animals in tourism
This year at World Responsible Tourism Day there are not one, but three organisations present dedicated to addressing issues around animals in tourism.
WRTD logo user Turismo Responsable is a Spanish-based organisation run by the Foundation, for the Adoption, Sponsorship and Defence of Animals, and committed to promoting tourism that looks after animals. The site provides information (in English and Spanish) on a wide range of issues from dog sledding to fake sanctuaries or elephants being forced to beg on the city streets of Thailand. There is also extensive focus on how best to travel with our own pets; and a range of suggested hotels that welcome dogs (although this section is currently mostly in Spanish).
UK-based Care for the Wild has been working for wildlife in the UK and around the globe for the last 30 years. Although it works in more issues than just tourism, this year at World Responsible Tourism Day it will be giving a talk at Speaker Corner on a campaign it launched last year called – Right Tourism, whose website draws attention to many of issues around animals in tourism; encourages and enables people to take action to stop abuses; and provides concerned tourists with an ever-growing list of approved suppliers they can use around the world. It also features a wealth of articles from experts on many of the topics, and a regularly updated news feed of relevant stories from the press.
Also presenting at Speakers Corner is Tour Operators for Tigers, an organisation based in the UK and India that for several years has worked with the safari industry there to establish best practice for tour operators and lodges so that businesses and individuals using them can be assured that their money is going to ethically run tiger operations. TOFT has therefore developed a unique system of rating the ‘footprint’ of individual lodges and hotels in India”s wilderness regions, called the PUG Rating. Anyone looking to go on a tiger tour or safari can now use TOFT’s PUG Ratings to check which are the best lodges to stay at to ensure they travel with the lightest footprint and put the most back into preserving India’s wildlife. Its premise, borne out by studies, is that “legal, responsible, well managed tourism into India’s finest wildernesses and Tiger reserves is the very best way to save the forests of India and its tigers”.
These issues around animals in tourism also matter hugely to me personally, as I have spent much of my spare time this year setting up Fair Game – a website committed to helping promote those safari operators doing the most against poaching and for conservation and local communities. In doing this what has become ever clearer to me is that preserving wildlife is not just an issue for ‘bunny huggers’. It only works when the local human communities are made aware of the importance of the issues, and can see the economic benefits in conservation for them. Tourism is most often the driver here. Done right, the protection of wildlife conserves habitat as well as biodiversity, provides sustainable livelihoods for local communities, and of course ensures we tourists get to continue to enjoy life-changing interactions with other species, safe in the knowledge that they are both well treated and being looked after so our children should be able to enjoy them in the wild as well.