Major global travel trade expo, ITB Berlin, kicks off today, and elephant tourism is at the top of talking list, with a big push for friendlier approaches to incorporating the gentle giants.
Animal welfare NGO, World Animal Protection, is lining up a swag of industry heavy hitters to help fight the cruel elephant tourism activities still happening around the world, from riding them to using them for tricks, to ones that ensure better welfare for the creatures.
The end goal? Appreciate elephants in natural settings without subjecting them to unfair conditions.
Among the industry leaders driving the initiative is newly minted Intrepid CEO James Thornton.
“Elephant riding was on every traveller’s bucket-list when Intrepid made the decision to remove rides from all our trips,” he explained.
“South East Asia made-up around 40 per cent of our business, so we took a huge commercial risk when we decided to be the first global travel company to end elephant rides. But we couldn’t ignore the research and we believed our travellers would support our decision once they had all the information.
“That leap of faith paid off, people want to do the right thing. It’s now up to the tourism industry to help them in doing so and encourage elephant owners to offer truly elephant-friendly experiences.”
The joint efforts also aim to come up with consistent standards for captive elephants in tourism, so as to help travellers and travel operators alike to recognise genuine venues, and call out those that aren’t.
Directly in the firing line will be the places who use specific labels to improve their image despite poor treatment of the elephants, including ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Rescue centre’ and ‘Retirement home’.
Across Asia more than 3,000 elephants live in captivity and are used for tourist activities. Most of them are kept at venues with severely inadequate welfare conditions to provide elephant rides and shows for tourists.
When not giving rides or performing, most of the elephants are chained day and night. This life of captivity begins with severe trauma, with young elephants separated from their mothers before suffering a harsh training process to break their spirits.
The group started discussions on the elephant topic during last year’s ITB Berlin. Since then the members have shared data – including customer numbers visiting elephant attractions – and polled consumers on their willingness to pay more for humane and natural elephant experiences.
The group includes tour operators TUI Group, The Travel Corporation, DER Touristik, Intrepid Group, and EXO Travel. Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) and sustainability certifier Travelife for Tour Operators are also members and participating in the meeting brought together by World Animal Protection.
“Global responsibility for sustainable economic, environmental and social activity is something we promote at TUI Group,” said Jane Ashton, Director of Sustainability at TUI Group.
“As market leader, demonstrating respect for the natural environment and the protection of animals is a responsibility we take seriously.
“As a result, we have stopped offering excursions with elephant rides and shows to our customers and we continue to seek out elephant-friendly excursions to ensure we give customers the opportunity to experience elephants in a responsible manner.”
Julie Middelkoop, Head of Campaign for Wildlife – Not Entertainment at World Animal Protection, added, “The travel industry has the fantastic opportunity to change the lives of thousands of elephants by proving there is a strong demand for tourist experiences that allow elephants to be elephants.
“This shift in demand will we hope encourages elephant camps to move their venues from exploitive, to a better quality of life for these intelligent and social giants.”