At some point, every destination management company, tour operator and travel agency has to tackle the issues that surround animals in tourism. It's an area that has evolved quickly and positively over the last few decades as customers become more aware and sensitive to the needs of animals and decide to apply their beliefs to the use of their tourism dollars.
What do we believe regarding animals in tourism?
As with most things in life, we don't believe there is a one-size-fits all answer to this question. While it has become increasingly fashionable to write animal welfare policies or get "certified" by third parties, the reality in our experience is that trying to apply a uniform code can often have a detrimental effect on animal welfare. At worst, these policies and organizations allow companies to "greenwash" their business and avoid responsibility for animal welfare. That being said, we do believe that some organizations are paving the way towards sustainable solutions and we always seek to partner and support their efforts.
As an example, a well-meaning organization decided to purchase elephants from their trainers to include in their elephant sanctuary in the hopes of reducing the number of animals that walked the streets and served as a livelihood for their owners by begging for money. The unintended consequence of that well-meaning act was that the owners would then procure a new elephant and continue the cycle. The organization has since decided to "rent" the elephants from their owners and bring the owners and their families onto their land so as to educate them on practices that focus on the animals' welfare.
We believe that in order to provide for the best outcome for the animals in our destinations, we best serve them by combining not only scientific information from experts in animal welfare, but also the reality of local conditions that change not only in geography but also over time. If we don't consider the consequences of our action or inaction, we inevitably fail our animal friends.
But why not just free these animals to roam free as nature intended?
It has become increasingly popular to proclaim that all animals should live free and unencumbered by contact with humans. While that may sound like a laudable goal, we don't yet live in a perfect world and, were we to decide to completely exclude animals from tourism, the very animals we seek to help would suffer.
As an example, we have fully transitioned away from offering elephant riding experiences, even though they continue to be sold widely in many of our destinations. We work only with partners that have also made this transition away from offering elephant riding and support the continued care of their charges through alternative animal experiences where customers can interact with the animals in limited ways (bathing and feeding).
The reality is that without the business we and others provide, these communities would be unable to feed and provide veterinary care to their animals. If released in the "wild", they would immediately be at risk of being poached by unsavory persons given the unfortunate beliefs around the benefits of ingesting or wearing certain parts of the elephant.
What can we guarantee our customers regarding interaction with animals that are part of our experiences?
We believe that our customers have an absolute right to choose how their tourism dollar is spent. If a customer is uncomfortable participating in any experience that includes animals, we will provide alternatives that better suit the customers' beliefs. In that sense, it is no different in our minds from customers that choose to ask for vegetarian meals according to their own ethical code of practice. We practice no judgement in this regard.
Customers are encouraged to inquire about each of the experiences we offer that includes animals to better understand how the animals are treated and why we choose to offer each experience. Our Travel Advisors will be happy to discuss and make further inquiries with our partners, if necessary.
Furthermore, we encourage our customers to alert us to anything they see or hear while on their journeys with us. We take feedback from our customers very seriously and immediately take action, up to and including severing our relationship with any partners who are mistreating their animals.
We hope the above more fully explains our beliefs regarding animals in tourism. We do what we do because we believe we are improving the lives of the people, the animals and the environment in off-the-beaten path destinations around Asia and we continuously strive to improve our experiences to better meet that commitment.