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.
So 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.
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.