Was TBEX right to cancel its dolphin ride tours? I’m not sure.


Last week it was announced that, following pressure from various bloggers and animal rights campaigners, the travel conference TBEX had removed swim with dolphin tours from its programme of pre-event tours. The general response amongst those working in responsible tourism has been one of celebration. I am less sure how I feel, despite having written twice in recent months about my opposition to dolphinariums (the second article is here).

Here is my dilemma. On the one hand I am pleased the campaign has brought concerns around dolphinariums wider coverage. Many bloggers connected to TBEX will have been made more aware of the issues, without having to inflict themselves on the dolphins. I consider this a good thing.

And while I firmly believe that responsible writers should look as much as possible to base our opinions and articles in personal experience rather than just in online research and second hand statements, I have realised – through examining my response to this story – that I don’t always think this is the case. For example, I don’t believe I should climb Uluru or visit the Antarctic just so that I can give a more authentic account of why I think these activities are damaging and wrong. As a writer, sometimes my imagination needs to take the place of actually being there.

downloadSo why am I unsure?

On the other hand, I believe that as writers we enter dangerous territory when we start actively campaigning for stuff not to be shown to us. It’s a form of collective self-censorship. After all, TBEX is not an event aimed at the general public. Its audience are travel bloggers, writers and content producers. People aren’t supposed to be there as holiday guests. They go there to think, discuss and review.

By asking the conference not to show bloggers what happens on swim with dolphin tours, or any other part of the tourism experience found around the event, we risk selling ourselves short. We imply that we will take any promotional messages at face value and regurgitate them. That we won’t check any facts, research any claims, or speak to someone not on the payroll. We reinforce the assumption that travel bloggers are just another arm of marketing.

In the end I don’t want someone else to decide for me what I can or cannot see, or to deny me the chance to make up my own mind. I doesn’t matter whether I agree with their argument or not. Objecting to censorship means accepting that sometimes I won’t agree with what is said.

killer whales in the wild

So what is the right thing to do? I wish I could provide a neatly packaged answer, but I simply don’t have one. Having been thinking about this for days, I am still finding this to be one of the most complicated issues I have tried to address.

However, rather than pushing to be shown less, I think we need to focus our efforts in general on demanding to see more. So where we are given the chance to ride elephants, I want us to use the opportunity to ask to visit elephant sanctuaries. If there are walking with lion tours on offer, that is the time to request that community-run safaris be made available. When bloggers realised TBEX was providing dolphin rides, what if they had researched local ethical options such as Rio Secreto, and then, as suggested by Bret Love from Green Global Travel, contacted the event’s organisers en masse asking them to provide the chance to experience more of these instead?

Most people don’t respond well to being told they can’t do something, or when they think someone is trying to stop them having fun. Positions become entrenched, prejudices reinforced. When responsible tourism is seen as just a restrictive set of boundaries and guidelines, or rules as to what to do with your towel, it struggles to win support.

Our efforts to persuade tourists not to go to dolphinariums or on elephant rides will be far more effective if we can tell stories that convey how much more thrilling it is to witness a whale rise up from the depths of the ocean than to see it turn synchronised tricks in a pool; or how much more memorable it is to watch a herd of elephants interact with one another in the wild than to plod around a lonely circuit for the umpteenth time.

If we want the case for responsible tourism to reach beyond the already converted, then our best chance lies in offering people something better to do.


Tagged .

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.


  1. bretlove says:

    Great story, Jeremy, and I agree with you on almost all the issues.

    A few quick points of clarification: First, TBEX did not cancel the tours, because it was never in their power to do so (and honcho Rick Calvert insisted that he wouldn’t even if he could, for the same reasons you mentioned).

    And secondly, Cancun Tourism *IS* still offering visiting bloggers a tour of the dolphinarium in question, but it does not include dolphin interaction. So those bloggers interested in doing an investigative journalism piece will still have the opportunity to do so, free of charge, while those who want to swim with dolphins will be forced to pay for the privilege.

    For me, the big picture issue here is that bloggers on the whole need more professional training and development, as well as education on sustainable tourism issues. The TBEX controversy has been a huge headache, but I’m glad it happened because it will put those issues on center stage at TBEX and raise awareness. And hopefully my interview with Keynote Speaker Dr. Martha Honey, founder of the Center for Responsible Tourism, will help in some regard.

  2. ronmader says:

    Honestly, I don’t want to attend events that have keynotes and interviews and unless the presentations are streamed live, there are really no ways to engage if one’s not in the room.

    What bothers me more than the dolphins is that there’s not been much presented in terms of how locals are present at this event. Will the mom-and-pop businesses attend? Will there be room for local activists? There is a lot to report from this corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, but most of the travel services are packaged and repackaged with very little opportunity for visitors to get to know the place or people.

    And as an FYI, for those interested in the Maya-side of the region, please follow Merida-based @elChilamBalam on Twitter and on the web: http://elchilambalam.com

  3. I’m on holiday in Croatia at present; hence the late comment: In response to Brett and youself; I would suggest that what was and is offered to bloggers is trained doplhins in a dolphiarium; How the dolphins’ behaviour was modified is not likely to be on show. They would learn as much as they will probably learn about how sustainable Cancun as a project was.

    I’m sure the heartwarming stories of animal encounters in the wild sell responsible tourism, but what exactly is responsible about getting a significant portion of the 700 million people that visit a zoo or dolphinarium each year; out in motor boats?.
    I was on Cres Island a few days ago as a result of Clean Breaks; The EKo Centre at Beli has no Griffon Vultures this year but I did visit the Blue World Institute of Marine Research and Conservation on Losinj; the connected island. This is their advice on dolphin interaction:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *