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“I rode an elephant”: Intrepid’s CEO challenges agents to confess to travel mistakes

James Thornton

James Thornton

There are plenty of things I’ve done over the course of my life that I’m not proud of. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t made mistakes in their lifetime.

If we never made mistakes, we’d never grow into functioning, morally-minded, opinion-having adults. And sometimes you need first-hand experience of a particular issue to know where you stand on it, and what you do the next time you’re face-to-face with it.

And so, as CEO of one of the world’s largest sustainable travel companies, a travel company that five years ago made the decision to ban elephant rides on all of its trips, I have a confession to make:

In 2004, I rode an elephant in Thailand.

I know. I don’t feel great about it. In fact, I didn’t feel great about it at the time, and that was before we knew how much these animals have to suffer for our enjoyment. But – and this is going to sound like a complete cop-out – it’s just what people did back then.

We’ve all been in those situations, and they can be particularly prevalent when we’re travelling, when something might just seem a little bit off-kilter (lukewarm food, I’m looking at you). But everyone else goes along with it, so you do too.

I’m no veterinarian but those elephants in Thailand didn’t look particularly happy. But there was part of my brain that said, “surely, if this was dodgy in any way, we wouldn’t be allowed to do it.” And so on I went, just another one of the tens of thousands of tourists sucked in by this heavily-touted ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.

elephants on safari in National Nature Park Udawalawe in Sri Lanka

As I mentioned above, mistakes are an essential part of life. As a company, Intrepid made the mistake of offering elephant rides for nearly 20 years. And as a company, as soon as Intrepid realised that mistake, we invested the necessary time, money and energy to fix it.

In 2010, we partnered with World Animal Protection, a global not-for-profit animal welfare group, to commission one of the first studies into elephant conditions on the ground.

We looked at 118 wildlife projects and businesses all over Thailand. The results revealed an industry that was trading on animal cruelty.

In 2014, we removed elephant rides on all our trips. It was an industry-shaking move at the time. Intrepid was the first global travel company to take this stance, but happily, we weren’t the last. Since then, over 200 travel companies around the world, including heavyweights like TripAdvisor, have followed our lead and removed elephant riding from their itineraries.

Now every action has a reaction, so from 2020, Intrepid will be offering new trips and initiatives in Thailand and Laos that help support the animals and mahouts (elephant handlers) impacted by our 2014 decision.

Travellers will be able to watch elephants roam and swim in their natural habitat at MandaLao, the first non-elephant riding sanctuary in Luang Prabang. And Intrepid’s not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation, will also be raising funds to help support the organisation.

In Thailand, travellers will be able to visit the ChangChill, an organisation that supports the protection, conservation and lifestyle of free-roaming elephants in the area. These new experiences will be totally immersive, educational and experiential – and they will cause absolutely no harm to the elephants.

I wanted to talk about this on World Elephant Day because I think it’s important for us all to face up to the mistakes we’ve made – whether in travel or everyday life. Positive change doesn’t happen when we’re living in regret, fear or shame. Positive change happens when we’re able to be honest and open with our community and say, “Yep, I messed up. But here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

It doesn’t end with being honest about our mistakes, either. We also have a responsibility to listen to what other people have to say without judging of chastising them. One of the best things about mistakes, actually, is that we can also learn from the mistakes of others. So the more we share, the more likely we are to make better decisions moving forward.

So, I’ve told you mine, now you tell me: what mistakes have you made since you’ve been exploring the world?


Speaking of responsible tourism, this year’s Travel DAZE focuses on sustainability, and we’re not just talking about planting trees. Find out more here.

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