What Responsible Travel doesn’t promote, and why

At Responsible Travel, we are always responding to information from customers, members and our own staff about activities or attractions that may not be as ethical as they first appear. There are some attractions – such as captive dolphin shows – that we have never promoted, and others – such as Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage – that we have removed from our site following discussions with our members and NGOs. Other activities – such as elephant trekking – were real ethical minefields, but again, we spoke to local experts, animal welfare charities and travel companies to help us decide on our stance.

We’d like to remind our members and inform future members about our policies – to explain what we do and don’t promote, and the reasons behind this. We’d also strongly encourage other vacation companies to look at their own policies and read up on whether the wildlife attractions or volunteer placements they are selling are genuinely responsible and not causing harm to wildlife or local people. And if you are not sure – the good news is we’ve done most of the hard work in getting opinions from marine conservationists, animal welfare charities, local tour operators and child protection experts – and we are happy to share the results of this research with you, to help you decide what to promote on your own trips – and what not to.

Elephant trekking
In 2014, we removed elephant rides from our site after learning about the brutal “breaking in” process required to subdue the elephants, as well as the fact that the wild capture of Asian elephants to be used in tourism means they are now classified as endangered throughout their range. We also do not promote any sanctuaries or camps where elephants are made to perform - by painting, playing football or dancing.

We have made an exception in the case of certain national parks where elephant safaris are used as a means to track Bengal tigers and Asiatic one-horned rhinos. These species are on the verge of extinction and the presence of tourism in the parks, such as Chitwan, means that poaching has been reduced or in some cased stopped altogether. Read more in our guide, here.

Orphanage tourism
Quite simply, we don’t believe that children should ever be treated as tourist attractions – and especially not in the case of vulnerable children, such as orphans. There are many, many issues with allowing tourists into orphanages. Most people, when at home, would not dream of taking a photo of an unknown child, and certainly not posting it online – this happens all the time in overseas orphanages. Tourists are not CRB checked, but there may be opportunities for them to be alone with children. These vulnerable children are encouraged to form attachments to people and are then abandoned repeatedly. And finally, the money from tourism – whether volunteers or day visitors, means children have become a lucrative commodity in some parts of the world (Siem Reap, a town of 100,000 people, has 35 orphanages). Consequently, many of the children are not orphans; rather, their parents have been coerced into giving them up for a “better life”.

Our decision not to promote orphanage tourism came following discussions with volunteering organisations, child protection charities and tour operators; we followed this up with an orphanage volunteering campaign to raise awareness of these issues.

Note: Some vacation itineraries include a day/short visit to an orphanage/children’s home/community or family setting/youth or drop-in centre. We will only promote these if the children are NOT present or involved in the visit, due to the reasons above.

Large cruise ships (250+ passengers)
Plenty of laws exist around the world controlling air and water pollution, how waste is disposed of, and how employees are treated. Unfortunately, many of these laws do not exist once you travel far enough away from the shore, which leaves many cruise ships to sail off into a regulation-free sunset. There are many, many reasons why we do not promote large cruise ships. For example, a 3,000 passenger cruise ship generates 150,000 gallons of sewage per week, which can be dumped in the ocean untreated if more than three nautical miles from shore. And the lack of applicable employment laws mean that some workers can be forced to work up to 18 hours per day, with salaries as low as $1.25 per hour. Add to this the coral reefs dredged up by anchors, the mangroves destroyed to build immense ports and the lack of money put back into the destinations, and it all starts to look rather unethical. Read more here.

Captive orcas & dolphins
This is another issue which has suddenly hit the limelight, largely following the release of the film Blackfish and the worldwide campaigns that followed, including our own, to shut down captive orca and dolphin facilities. SeaWorld has since promised to stop breeding orcas and its share value has fallen dramatically as a result of the negative publicity. It is only a matter of time before smaller venues follow suit. One way to speed this process up is for tour operators and travel agents to stop selling tickets to dolphinariums – something which we believe will soon be viewed as tasteless as animal performances in circuses.

The Tiger Temple, Thailand
The Tiger Temple has been in the news on and off for months, following pledges by the Thai authorities to close it down and re-home the tigers – as well as incidents where tourists and the resident monks have been mauled by tigers.

We do not promote the Tiger Temple for several reasons. The tigers are kept in bare, concrete enclosures, often exposed to the Thai sun for hours without shade. There are reports that the tigers have been drugged – which is why they permit visitors to stroke them and children to sit on their backs for photos., and the facility is known to breed tigers – though this has no conservation value, as they are fully habituated to humans, meaning they can never be released into the wild. More concerningly, in May 2016, the bodies of 40 newborn cubs were found in a freezer.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
We used to promote trips to Pinnawala, believing it was genuinely an orphanage, but were alerted in 2007 by several members of staff concerned about the animal welfare. After speaking to travel companies in Asia as well as the wildlife charity Born Free, we decided to no longer promote Pinnawala for several reasons, including the chaining of bull elephants during musth, the use of bullhooks and the fact that the elephants are used as photographic props for tourists. In addition, there were reports of elephants being bred, with the sole purpose of keeping them in captivity.

Walking with lions & interacting with lion or tiger cubs
Another activity sought out by well meaning volunteers, feeding, cuddling and playing with lion and tiger cubs which have supposedly been rescued is usually a ploy of the canned hunting industry. Habituated lions are unlikely ever to be released – instead they are sold to canned hunting facilities where they can be shot by trophy hunters for a high fee. Worse, the volunteers have virtually cuddled their fear of humans out of them, making them an even easier target. And tiger cubs in Africa should ring alarm bells regardless: they are not native to any African country.

Mass tourism operators
We do not promote tour operators that leave as little money in the destination as possible. This can include large cruise ships, where all drinks, meals, entertainment and transport are provided through the cruise company, as well as all inclusive resorts and package vacations, which do not encourage guests to spend money in local restaurants or cafes, hire local guides or pay for taxis or public transport. This creates a one-way system where tourists are taking from the destination without giving anything back, which does nothing for local livelihoods or environmental protection. In addition, it does nothing for the image of tourists overseas, and does not encourage people to learn anything about the destination they are visiting, or the local culture. This is the opposite of responsible tourism.

Other activities that we do not promote
Ostrich riding
Rodeos & stampedes

Activities that we promote under certain circumstances
Shark cage diving – when chum is not used
Golf, if the course has been GEO Certified™ with the Golf Environment Organization
Downhill skiing

Read more on our views about other tourism issues here.
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