14 Jun
2019

How the travel industry is working to improve the welfare of elephants in tourism

The welfare of animals in tourism is a very important issue for ABTA and our Members and we have been working together to drive up standards. It is also a priority for our work to encourage more positive and responsible ways of involving animals, including elephants, in the tourist experience, so that tourists can enjoy their experience, local communities can benefit and the animals themselves are treated well.   

ABTA believes strongly that elephants should not be subject to punishment and cruelty in order to make them submissive to humans. There is a now a strong weight of evidence to suggest that harmful training methods of elephants are widespread. For that reason, ABTA is revising its guidelines, working with experts and Members to update these, which includes a move to categorise activities such as riding or bathing not only as a discouraged practice (as the guidelines current state), but as an unacceptable one.  The vast majority of Members, including the UK’s largest travel companies, have already stopped selling elephant rides and similar activities and we would encourage consumers to avoid these activities.  

We are acutely aware that UK travel companies stopping selling an attraction doesn’t mean that the problem of poor treatment of elephants goes away – the attraction can still exist and be visited by tourists from other parts of the world, or booked independently by UK travellers. This is why ABTA Members are also working with local suppliers in destinations to help them develop responsible environments for tourists to admire elephants.

Understanding the complexities around elephants in tourism, such as the dependence on these animals for communities’ livelihoods and cultural attitudes towards animals, is an important part of this work. Working with local suppliers to change practices takes time. This is not something that will happen overnight.
 
Despite these challenges, progress is being made as travel companies work together with local communities to develop more positive and responsible ways of involving elephants in the tourist experience. A responsible activity would include viewing elephants from a respectful distance while providing them with as much access to their natural habitat as possible and ensuring they are not subject to any punishment or cruelty. 

ABTA’s guidelines on elephants in tourism

ABTA’s current guidelines for travel businesses and suppliers on elephants in tourism are very clear that contact with elephants is discouraged, including riding and bathing elephants. It also states that elephants shouldn’t be encouraged or forced to perform unnatural behaviours such as headstands, football or painting. They also say that elephants should be treated in-line with the five freedoms (as defined by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC 1979) which means good access to food, quality housing, be in good health, demonstrate natural behaviour and are protected from fear and distress.

As an industry we continue to learn and respond as new issues and evidence come to light, this means some of the content in our original guidelines on elephants, which were published in 2013 following consultation with more than 200 stakeholders, no longer reflects the position of ABTA or its Members.  We are now carrying out an extensive review of our guidelines working with Members and experts to update these, which would include a move to activities such as riding or bathing being an unacceptable practice. We expect to release these by the end of 2019.

ABTA develops and provides guidance to our Members and their suppliers on animal welfare, we do not have the powers to make legally enforceable regulation, in the UK or overseas. 

Find out more about the guidelines and the work ABTA Members are doing on animal welfare here.