Travel Agents

“We have to consider the impact”: Flight Centre’s holistic stance on elephant riding

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

Flight Centre Travel Group’s Worldwise leader, Sandra Vardanega, has highlighted the importance of taking a holistic approach to responsible travel.

Speaking at Travel DAZE 2019 late last month, Vardanega discouraged forthright boycotts of travel attractions in favour of education on social responsibility.

“When I go to work each day, I remind myself that I once rode an elephant in Thailand, and I remind myself that I once walked with lions in Zimbabwe,” she told attendees.

“And I also remind myself that at that time I wasn’t educated … but with these memories also comes the reassuring fact that if I knew then what I know now, I would have made some very different choices.”

Vardanega said that informing, educating and empowering the industry, her staff and their customers with facts, so that they can make ethical and responsible choices, is more important than discouraging travellers.

This means equally bearing in mind social, environmental, wildlife and economic costs on promoting or discouraging certain travel experiences, according to the Flight Centre leader.

Illustrating this point was Flight Centre’s plan to remove elephant riding from its offering – a controversial type of tour that, as of now, remains in the company’s catalogue.

Long-term, the company will remove these experiences, but Vardanega explained the reason why Flight Centre had not yet removed them from its line-up was because it was taking a “holistic approach to responsible travel”.

“When we consider animal welfare and the environment, we need to consider the social and economic impact of our actions,” she said.

This means bearing in mind how the closure of a tour and ceasing operations with a supplier effects small business, the people that work for them, and – in some instances – the animals that remain in their care, according to Vardanega.

Speaker Sandra Vardanega, Worldwise leader at Flight Centre Travel Group, was the T-Rex's first victim at Travel DAZE 2019
Flight Centre’s Sandra Vardanega was the T-Rex’s first victim at Travel DAZE 2019

Instead, the company favours informing, educating and empowering customers, staff and communities to effect beneficial long-term change. Alongside this is giving stakeholders the opportunity to “change and grow for the better,” Vardenega explained.

“When you withdraw yourself from a relationship, you’re removing any influence that you have over change … thus, you remove the ability to effect positive change,” she said.

“At the size of the travel company that we are, we have to consider the social and financial impact that removing a product may have on those small businesses.”

Vardanega did, however, advise that Flight Centre does not promote or market attractions that do not align with the four pillars of Worldwise’s Responsible Tourism Charter.

Outlined in this charter is the company’s commitment to selling travel that respects human rights, the environment, wildlife and social equality.

“The economic, social, environmental health and the welfare of wildlife in the communities and places to which we are connected through our business are very important to us, not only as a company, but to the individuals who make up the company,” Vardanega said.

“It is in these four pillars that we believe we can deliver the greatest benefit.”

She also revealed how Flight Centre is developing its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) blueprint, addressing 12 of the 17 goals set out by the United Nations. Among these is the company’s collaboration with SolarBuddy to end energy poverty.

As Vardanega explained, one of Worldwise’s – and by extension, Flight Centre’s – Australian priorities is working to end energy poverty in Vanuatu by offering customers the opportunity to purchase solar lights for school children in impoverished communities.

Furthermore, as a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), Flight Centre – and Worldwise, which develops and implements the company’s Responsible Travel Charter – is committed to making the world a better place through travel.

Vardanega also noted that Worldwise was developing several trips that will give back to local businesses and communities, avoid single-use plastics, include ethical animal experiences and include charitable contributions through Flight Centre’s partnership with SolarBuddy.

She said this approach isn’t an “instant fix”, but it was a start.


Kudos to all the sponsors for Travel DAZE 2019, which you can check out below…

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