Could the landscape of elephant tourism be changing?

Tourism elephants

Baby elephants stay with their mothers for at least the first three years. Source: Shutterstock

“IF you can ride, hug or take a selfie with a wild animal, then it’s cruel – don’t do it, no matter how many ‘likes’ it will get on social media.”

That’s Steve McIvor’s advice to vacationers around the world. McIvor, who is CEO of World Animal Protection (WAP), also wants travelers to boycott travel companies that promote and support venues he calls “cruel”, where good animal welfare standards are not upheld.

This might be easier said than done for holidaymakers heading to destinations in Southeast Asia, where such standards are often not even heard of.

Compounding the problem is the lack of traveler awareness; travelers don’t ever get to see beyond what they are shown at wildlife tourism venues, and chances are, don’t realize that no matter how well an animal is looked after in captivity, only in their wild environment can their needs be fully met.

As WAP’s recent report “Animal Abusement Park” highlights venues in Indonesia’s Bali, Lombok, and Gili Trawangan: not a single one meets the basic needs of its captive animals.

But this could be changing.

According to WAP, its animal conservation efforts have helped convince nearly 200 travel companies to stop including elephant rides and shows in their travel packages.

And just a week after publishing findings from its Indonesia investigation, the group issued a release announcing a pioneering effort by Happy Elephant Care Valley in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to become a genuinely elephant-friendly venue.

But how? 

By ending all contact between tourists and animals at the camp, including activities like bathing and feeding them. The creatures can be observed at a safe distance, which eliminates the need for the use of bullhooks to keep the animals under control.

WAP credits the “landmark transition” to its coalition of travel industry leaders, which includes companies like TUI Group, The Travel Corporation, Intrepid Group, G Adventures, EXO Travel, and the Thomas Cook Group, among others.

It noted that until recently, tourists were allowed to ride the elephants at Happy Elephant Care Valley. The practice stopped, however, when tour operators were informed that demand for such activities was declining, with more tourists wanting to see elephants “be elephants”.

“Our travel industry coalition was the catalyst of this change,” WAP said. “In September 2017, we presented a business case together, demonstrating the fact that tourists are becoming increasingly aware of the cruelty behind elephant rides and shows, and that the demand for ethical tourism is rising.”

According to findings by research company Kantar in 2017, the number of people who found elephant riding acceptable dropped by 9 percent to 44 percent in just three years. The study also revealed that 80 percent of tourists said they would rather see elephants in their natural environment than in captivity.

“This proves elephant-friendly tourism is on the rise,” WAP said.

With tourist attitudes changing, travel agents and tour operators are adapting their offerings to fit new demands.

Tour agent Khiri Travel is one such company focused on ending cruelty and the exploitation of elephants. It has been working with Travellife and Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata), both non-profit organizations which strive toward sustainable and responsible tourism.

“Based on our company’s core values of people, planet, profit, our concerns and those of our clientele over the last few years it was clear that we had to do something about the state of elephants in Asean,” Khiri sustainability manager Gili Banks told Travel Wire Asia.

But completely doing away with all forms of animal-human interaction was not possible at this stage “for many reasons”, she said, pointing to creatures born in captivity.

“If the elephants cannot be supported, fed and cared for, they will more than likely end up being trafficked in the illegal wildlife trade as skin, teeth, tails, and tusks.”

Banks also said there were methods that trainers could use to ensure the elephants in their care were being treated kindly. She said a number of elephant welfare experts and veterinarians were working together with Mahouts (elephant riders) to teach them such techniques.

Some activists, however, might argue that there’s nothing ethical about training an elephant, a creature WAP says is meant to live out its life in the wild.

A 2016 article in The Telegraph points out:

“Whether a baby elephant has been born in captivity or captured from the wild, its mind, body, and spirit are first broken through a process called the phajaan.

“This ancient technique involves separating calves from their mothers – a highly traumatic experience for these tightly-bonded animals – before being tied down or squeezed into a small space, starved, dehydrated, and beaten repeatedly.”

So what’s cruel and what isn’t?

While many sanctuaries may claim they employ cruelty-free training and take good care of the elephants, it very hard to know for sure.

So, apply this straightforward rule when researching:

If a sanctuary offers elephant rides, shows, painting and uses chains to restrict the elephants, don’t go there.

Still unsure? WAP has this simple guide on how to become an animal-friendly tourist.

And if you’re dropping by Thailand, here are a few certified cruelty-free sanctuaries aiming to change the landscape of elephant tourism:

Surin Project

The Surin project is run by Save Elephant Foundation, a Thai non-profit organization. The project houses rescued elephants and also develops outreach programs so owners can better look after their elephants.

You can either book a leisurely visit, or request to volunteer at the charity.

  •  Ban Taklang Tambol, Krapoh, Thatum district, Surin province, Thailand 32120
  • +66 (0) 844821210

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation park in the north of Thailand.

Visitors can also find dogs, cat, and buffaloes roaming alongside elephants at the park.

The natural environment offers these gentle giants a chance to recover from the suffering they endured before their rescue.

  • 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
  • +66 (0) 53 272855, +66 (0) 53 818932


Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is passionately devoted to creating a safe home for Thai elephants.

The elephants here have 600 acres of land to roam and aren’t required to do a single thing for their upkeep.

  • BLES, 304 Mu 5, Baan Na Ton Jan, Tambon Baan Tuek, Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai, Thailand 64130