Travel operators have been enacting wildlife welfare policies for years now, but recent events are marking salient change. Attitudes toward wildlife tourism are shifting. Some commercial practices are cringe-worthy – quickly falling out of vogue – but not all exploitation is necessarily obvious. Here, KNOT takes a look at the industry partners and operators stewarding positive change and examines how travel advisors can become allies to animals.
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PLAYING AND POSING WITH dolphins was once considered the highlight of a family vacation to Mexico or Hawaii. An elephant ride was a must in Thailand. But as the conditions captive animals live in have become more widely understood, these and other tourism products involving wild animals have become socially unacceptable, and in some cases illegal.
Last June, Canada passed legislation banning the captivity of whales and dolphins. Air Canada and Transat followed this move by committing to stop selling and promoting captive dolphin entertainment. Air Canada will implement the change by August 2020, while Transat is phasing these activities out over the next two years.
“There will not necessarily be any change at destination this winter and next winter but certainly more awareness,” said Odette Trottier, Transat’s Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs. “The company is asserting its leadership in responsible tourism and responding to the concerns of travellers who are increasingly sensitive to the well-being of these wild animals.”
“Air Canada prides itself on being a progressive organization, including in the area of animal welfare,” said Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick. “More generally, it is our stated policy to comply with local regulations where we operate that protect endangered wildlife in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The Emergence of Wildlife Policies
It’s becoming more common for travel operators to have – and promote – animal welfare policies. Collette introduced a new “no-touch” policy in 2019 and has committed to auditing all of its tours against the ABTA’s Global Welfare Guidelines for Animals in Tourism by May of next year.
“We know that our guests and our employees care about the welfare of animals and we didn’t have a policy in place, so we felt there was an opportunity for us to make sure that we were following industry best practices,” said John Sutherland, Collette’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility. “Overall, we have received praise from those in the industry we often work alongside.”
G Adventures has had an animal welfare policy based on the ABTA guidelines since 2014, but the company launched a thoroughly updated policy in October 2019 based on additional input from The Jane Goodall Institute, World Animal Protection and The World Cetacean Alliance. Based on the policy, G Adventures does not offer tours that involve captive elephants, whales or dolphins, or activities that involve handling or touching wild animals.
“Just saying we’re not going to do elephant riding anymore isn’t enough,” said Rachel McCaffery, Senior Sustainability Advisor at G Adventures. “What we tried to do with our animal welfare policy is to really say that humans shouldn’t have contact with wild animals. We’re very clearly drawing a line and saying for animals that would naturally live in the wild, it’s not appropriate to get so close to them."
Of course, there’s still demand for wildlife experiences, and the industry will have to get creative with new ways to meet travellers’ expectations.
“It gives the opportunity for other tourism experiences to be created,” McCaffery said. “What’s going to be more of a trend in the next decade is bear and whale watching or getting involved in a conservation project – much more low-impact and more conservation-focused.”
One approach is to give guests the opportunity to interact indirectly with wildlife by improving their habitats. G Adventures and Hurtigruten both offer beach cleanup excursions, with Hurtigruten passengers removing several metric tons of waste from Arctic and Antarctic beaches, and G Adventures guests using sieves to remove microplastics from beaches in the Galapagos.
“They’ve completely cleared one beach,” McCaffery said. “It’s a way in which we’re trying to make the tours more wildlife-friendly and giving something back, rather than just seeing the animals in the wild as a resource to be extracted.”
As offerings shift in the coming years, tour operators will have to become nimble, and ongoing product education will take centre stage.
“This trend will continue, and Transat will continue to adapt our product portfolio to meet consumer expectations,” said Trottier. “In general, we want to improve the responsible aspect of our excursions. We will continue our actions by relying on the expertise of, among others, World Animal Protection and by collaborating with our local partners. It’s a long-term work in progress.”
“We know that guests will continue to need education as practices are updated and changed in the future,” said Collette’s Sutherland. “It’s our hope that we can partner with others in the industry to ensure that animal interactions are handled in a safe and standardized way.
The Travel Advisor's Role
Travel advisors play an important role in setting expectations for clients seeking wildlife travel experiences.
“We know that most guests already care about animal welfare,” Sutherland said. “Travel advisors are key to educating guests about how to put their values into action when they travel. Advisors can inform guests about which practices are meaningful and which ones to avoid. More importantly, they can provide the ‘why’ behind their explanations so that guests truly understand the issue and can make educated travel decisions.”
Some great resources for understanding that “why” include the ABTA and World Animal Protection industry guidelines, as well as National Geographic’s recent indepth reporting on the underbelly of the wildlife tourism industry.
“Educating yourself as an agent about what goes on behind the scenes is the first thing,” said McCaffery of G Adventures. “It’s quite a bit of work, because there are the bits we know about – we probably know by now that the Tiger Temple in Thailand is not a great place to send people, and that Sea World in Florida is not great either, but what about civet coffee production? What about going to an alligator wrestling show in Florida?”
For the record, the G Adventures' stance on both of those activities is a firm no.
There’s no single right path for agents trying to negotiate this ongoing change, and it will take some time for client expectations, awareness and product offerings to align.
“These are things that have been going on for hundreds of years in some cases, so they’re not going to change overnight,” McCaffery said. “But we certainly know more about them than we ever did before."