The Association of British Travel Agents is recommending something that does not exist yet. Only a handful of 250 elephant camps in Thailand are observation-only, with many still offering rides and bathing with elephants. What’s an inbound travel agency to do? Where should the elephants go if everyone follows this suggestion, well-meaning as it is? The debate continues.
The Association of British Travel Agents revised its Animal Welfare Guidelines on Tuesday, including the biggest repercussion for Asia so far. That is a recommendation to ban elephant rides, and any tourist contact or feeding of elephants without a barrier, which means activities such as elephant bathing are out.
The association encourages travel companies to either not offer or move away from these practices, which it now deems “unacceptable” compared with “discouraged” previously when the guidelines were launched in 2013.
Thailand, in particular, is hardest hit, as it is home to three-quarters of tourist elephant camps in Southeast Asia, believed to be around 350 to 400, as reported by a Skift deep dive, The Complicated Business of Saving Elephant Tourism, published last week.
The UK travel body said the guidelines are part of its commitment to raise standards in animal welfare and its role to provide advice to members, which include more than 600 tour operators in the UK.
By and large, the guidelines are also heeded by Western European operators and, inevitably, are monitored by Asian inbound agencies that handle the UK and European markets.
The association said the revisions were based on its Holiday Habits Report 2019 study which found that 66 percent of British holiday makers were concerned about how animals are treated. As well, it said its animal welfare working group consulted multi-stakeholders including industry experts, scientists, zoologist organizations, associations and non-governmental organizations from around the world before making the revisions.
Nevertheless, it went ahead despite a roundtable organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand at the World Travel Market last month, upon which the tourism body issued a summary that said the reverse.
“The main takeaway message [from the discussions] was that there is a clear need for communication, cooperation and compromise. Guidelines are good, but they need to work with local communities to be successful. A transitional period will be needed for camps to make any necessary management changes. A standardized accreditation process would be beneficial, as there is a strong ability for industry reform and success,” said the Tourism Authority of Thailand summary.
A first by the Thai authority, the roundtable included the Association of British Travel Agents’ sustainability head Clare Jenkinson, Pacific Asia Travel Association’s CEO Mario Hardy, Chiang Mai University’s associate professor Chatchote Thitaram, and Ingrid Suter, co-founder of Asian Captive Elephant Standards, an elephant camp audit company.
Thitaram said during the roundtable,“We are discussing elephant welfare, but we also need to discuss mahout welfare. We need to teach and train elephants to live with humans. Cruelty is being phased out, as we train elephants in a positive way and from a very young age. Riding a saddled elephant places less stress on an elephant than elephants in free-ranging camps. The elephants with no riding activities get no exercise. What is actually best for elephants?”
Although the stricter guidelines are voluntary, they put Thai inbound travel agencies in a quandary. An Exo Travel representative said during the London roundtable “there is confusion at elephant camps. Initially ABTA had no problems with riding, now they do. Now, they have an issue with bathing. Why? Now, we cannot use these camps. Things need to be communicated better.”
Another inbound travel agent said: “Customers are still booking elephant-based tourism. There is still a high demand for elephant riding and bathing from many tourism demographics.”
Asked what it is recommending its inbound agency members do, the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s director of sustainability and social responsibility, Graham Harper, said, “PATA supports Tourism Authority of Thailand’s program to promote elephant care tourism. We recommend all [inbound agency] members to join this movement through recognized third-party audits and support better elephant welfare, local jobs and Thai culture.”
Of the estimated 250 camps in Thailand, only two, Chang Chill in Chiangmai and Following Giants in Koh Lanta, have transitioned as observation-only, no-touching elephant camps under the guidance and support of animal rights organization, World Animal Protection. There are others that the animal rights organization considers as best practice camps which involve minimal contact, listed here.
Moreover, a negative consequence of the pressure put on elephant riding/touching is a rise in camps that call themselves elephant “sanctuaries,” “retirement homes” and “spas” even when they are not, giving a bad name to legitimate ones. An open secret is camps that offer no-touching in the morning to one set of customers and elephant rides in the afternoon to another.
Inbound agents’ anxiety also goes beyond confusion. Privately, many have misgivings. Stephan Roemer, a majority shareholder of Diethelm Travel Group and its CEO, is one of them.
“There are animal protection organizations which restrict any direct interaction with animals by tourists,” Roemer told Skift. “But on the other hand how do they expect that the poor Thai or Lao farmer to spend roughly $20,000 annually per animal to keep it alive? The average annual income of a Thai farmer is approximately $4,000. The question is, who pays when an animal’s natural habitat is decimated daily and tourism restricts interactions with it?
“Speaking as a DMC [destination management company or an inbound specialist], we are compelled to follow the guidelines, yet [no one] has a solution how to fund the sustainability of these animals,” Roemer continued. “We follow the guidelines of Born Free Foundation and Travelife and thus we do not operate any elephant riding since 2013 to comply with the requirements of our clients. But we also fail to have a solution for the survival of the animals.
“The whole topic appears to me as double faced: Tour operators want to stand in their clean vest while on the other hand the poor farmer in Asia is left with his destiny because he really loves his animals.”
The Association of British Travel Agents acknowledged transitioning camps to observation-only won’t happen overnight. “ABTA is very aware that no longer selling an attraction doesn’t mean animal welfare issues go away,” it said. “Working with suppliers to transition away from unacceptable practices can take time.”
Meanwhile, its revised unacceptable practices also include tourist contact or feeding of great apes, bears, crocodiles or alligators, orca, sloths as well as contact, feeding and walking with wild cats.
New guidance sections on food and animal welfare, management of stray animals and developing an animal welfare approach have also been added.
The guidelines are available to members and their suppliers on the Member Zone of its website. For partners and non-members the guidelines are available to purchase via the ABTA shop at the website.
This story has been updated to include the list of best practice elephant camps in Asia as researched by World Animal Protection.
Photo credit: Animal and man at Elephant Nature Park, outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. The park rescues elephants and allows tourists to bathe and feed them, with all the money from visitors going into the project. Cedar, Flickr