What should smart travel companies do about elephant rides, dolphinariums and orphanage visits?

riding elephants

Ride an Elephant. Cuddle an orphan. Watch a whale do tricks. For a long time they have been some of the most emotive experiences travel companies can offer. In recent months, however, there have been several negative stories about each of these, many of which we have covered, such as here for dolphins and here for orphanages. I am not going to go into the issues again, but rather look at how travel companies chose to respond.

From what I have seen, the responses can be split into three categories…

The Supply-Demand Response

Tourists want it. Therefore we offer it. When tourists stop demanding it, then we will change. This might be responsive tourism, but it isn’t responsible. In this model, travel companies are simply middle men connecting tourists with the widest range of experiences around. Scared of losing business if they don’t offer the lot, they try to be all things to all people. Like a restaurant with a 20-page menu, everything may be available, but it’s doubtful any of it was done that well.

We take your money, you make your choice

orcas at seaworld

The second approach is to say: we tell tourists about the issues, and then let them make an informed choice. At first glance this seems a fair position, but it too is a denial of responsibility. Tourists invest their trust in travel companies. They pay money to people that present themselves as experts so that they will make key decisions about unknown places and experiences for them.

So when a travel company says: “here is some information – now would you like to go on the ride?”, what they are implicitly saying is: we believe the ride is safe. We have faith in the experience. If you offer something, it means you endorse it.

If I was sat in a restaurant and the waiter said: “How would you like your chicken done, sir, free range or battery?”, what he is saying is – we have no problem with either approach.

We take responsibility for what we do

The first two options shift the responsibility onto the paying traveller. There is a third option, however, one that has been taken by those companies that have gained lots of column inches in the last few months by removing dolphin shows, elephant rides and orphanage visits from their portfolios.

They have made a decision based on what they believe to be right or wrong. In so doing they have not weakened their portfolio. They have defined and amplified their brands. They have said: we are a company with a story to share.

In most cases these companies now offer ethically acceptable alternatives such as whale watching and visits to elephant sanctuaries. Far from limiting their options, they have set themselves apart from their competition as innovators that are offering something new. The only real risk to their reputation would be if they were seen to be hypocritical, for example by offering other damaging activities that are not currently in the media glare.

First came the egg…

Pocosham_Hatcheries_(2899334614)To return finally to the food analogy. A few years ago some restaurants began to state that they only used free range eggs. For a while it helped define them, though today this approach is so common that it would hardly be noticed. Now the story is deeper. Now the provenance of food, the uniqueness of the ingredients, the story of the farms, the connection to place… all these have become the dominant narratives that good restaurants weave to excite their customers about the quality of experiences their meals provide.

So it is for travel companies. Acting responsibly is not limiting market opportunity. It is seizing the opportunity to market authentically, through having a new, distinctive and genuine story to tell. A story that says: we are your guides to new adventures around the world, and by putting your trust in us you will have greater, deeper experiences that create richer memories for you and leave better footprints behind.

So it is with elephants, dolphins and orphans. A few companies have jumped first, and gained the chance to define themselves by their actions. More will follow, until the story will be not who leads, but who remains. And in the tale of who was first to the free range egg, no one should want to be the chicken that gets left behind.



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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of Travindy.com, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.


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