A thought about animal tourism and ethical traveling


Today I want to talk to you about ethical travel, and about how your presence in a place can impact it positively or negatively.

I am writing this post as a result of an article I read in a magazine while I was on a plane, yesterday. I had to read the lines twice and check the magazine the same amount of times, to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding. But no, black on white, it was written how a particular luxury hotel chain was offering “rare elephant rides in the jungle” as what they called “unique experiences” as a reward for their loyalty program.


Having this in mind, let’s talk about what does an elephant ride mean! Elephants are wonderful and intelligent creatures, docile in their natural habitat. In the wild they live in families, they feel the same feelings as us, they love and feel happiness, they get sad and they mourn the death of members of their tribe. When a baby elephant is born, the entire herd is celebrating.

The elephants used in the animal tourism (pretty much all “domesticated” ones) have all gone through a painful process called “Phajaan”. The baby elephants are captured and taken away from their mothers at a very young age. If this happens in the wild, then their mothers are killed in front of them, which is traumatising for the baby elephant. Remember, they have the same feelings as we do! The baby elephants are then locked in very small cages, with their legs tied up, and then beaten with sticks. They are constantly stabbed in the head with a sharp metal tool. They will be starved and constantly yelled at. In some places, nails and bull hooks are used to pin down the ears. When you look at an elephant used in the tourism industry you will notice the torn ears and the scars on their foreheads. They are all caused by beating. This is how the elephant’s spirit is broken! At the end of the torture, the trainer will come and release the baby elephant from the cage, giving him water and food. Because of the traumas the elephant has gone through, the loneliness and pain, he will see this man as his saviour and will trust him – another way of the man manipulating the baby elephant.

Do you want to ride an elephant? Watch this:

Elephants have not been created to carry things on their backs. But in many places where elephant rides are offered to tourists, you will see them carrying a heavy wooden box on their backs. The elephant’s spine doesn’t have round disks but sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards, which makes their backs very vulnerable to weight coming from above. A wooden box or a chair fitted on their backs is only crushing their spine, creating back pain, irreversible injuries, and often infections due to the rubbing of whatever they are carrying. Do you really want to contribute to that just so that you can say you rode an elephant?



My story

Rohini, the elephant

India, 2014. I have taken just a few steps in, after getting off the train, when a tuk tuk driver started to walk alongside me and offer me his services. At first I refused politely but after answering his questions about where my hotel was and what my plans were for the day, I agreed to hire him, as his day rate was very reasonable, about 1000 rupees (which at the time was the equivalent of £10). So, I hopped in his vehicle and he drove me to my hotel. As it was quite a way from the station, we had time to talk, and he recommended me a unique experience of Jaipur, a farm where I could see, play with and feed an elephant.

I had an amazing day with Rahul, my driver, he was very knowledgeable about Jaipur and also showed me a lot of places out of the guidebook. He even let me give it a go at driving the tuk tuk and in the evening we went for a beer on top of a haveli, where a hand puppet show with traditional music was taking place. So, I decided to go to the elephant farm with him the next day, which was a few kilometers outside of Jaipur.

As we arrived the place looked peaceful and quiet, with large buildings from place to place, which later I found out they were the overnight homes for the elephants. Strangely, there weren’t many elephants around. The owner of the farm greeted me warmly and we got talking straight away, as we both had something in common: we were both active couchsurfers, which promptly made him invite me for lunch, made by his mom.


Soon enough, after they’ve put a turban on my head and a flower garland around my neck, as traditional, they brought Rohini out, a beautiful elephant which I fell in love with from the first sight. She was so docile and lovely, adorable when she was trying to eat from the flowers around my neck with her trunk. I pet her, I gave her bananas and chapatis, as apparently those were her favourite treats. Her mahout (the elephant’s keeper) kept telling me how much she liked me back as well, by the way she was behaving around me. I remember telling to myself how lucky I was to have such a special moment with such a special creature.

But then, in a split of a second, the mahout asked me to place my knee on Rohini’s trunk and before I knew what was happening, she lifted me up and dropped me off her back. And that was the moment when I knew this was all wrong. This wasn’t an ethical elephant farm, this wasn’t a safe place for the large mammals, Rohini wasn’t a rescued elephant and there was no freedom in her life! No wonder there were no other elephants around…. They were all at the fort, carrying tourists up the hill, in wooden boxes fit on their backs. Rohini wasn’t liking me back, as her mahout was telling me, she was probably just relieved that she wasn’t at the fort that day. And I felt horrible and guilty, I was contributing to her pain!


Mark, the dolphin

Mark was a bottlenose dolphin who lived for 23 years in captivity, at the Constanta dolphinarium, in Romania. He died aged 31, after suffering from a pulmonary haemorrhage, in 2009. As a child I used to go with my parents every year to the seaside, and seeing Mark performing was one of the highlights of the trip. He was an extremely intelligent dolphin, very playful and he loved to “sing”. I still remember how he would get up on his tail and start “singing”.

I was about 12 when I touched Mark, after one show. I went down to the pool to take a photo and he came to the raised platform, towards me. I reached towards him with my hand and he came closer. As a kid, I felt like it was a magical moment. Now I realise how wrong that was.

The truth is though that Mark lived his entire life in a pool as big as a residential one. He couldn’t swim freely, and he was alone. The bottlenose dolphins are very sociable creatures who live in groups of a minimum 15 in the wild, they are very intelligent, with a brain bigger than a human’s, and they love to swim in open waters but also in lagoons and reefs. They tend to swim up to 100 miles every day.  However, Mark lived alone, in a few meters long pool. He was captured in the Black Sea in 1986 and was forced to adapt from the freedom of an entire sea, to a tiny pool, to entertain people. And 23 years later, he died, in the same pool, not knowing the feeling of being free ever again.

This is where Mark lived and performed:

About animal tourism

As long as there is demand, animal cruelty will never stop. There are so many companies that make money out of animal tourism, which are some of the cruellest attractions in the world. World Animal Protection has made a list with the top 10 cruellest tourist attractions that cause animals lifelong sufferance and pain, and among them you will find riding elephants, tiger selfies, holding turtles, or swimming with dolphins.


If you want to take part in a tourist activity that involves animals think first if what you are about to do/see is part of the natural behaviour of the animal. There is nothing wrong with observing the wildlife in a natural park in South Africa from the inside of a jeep for example, but there is a totally different story if you are offered to pet a baby lion.


What is ethical travel?

Ethical traveling means simply being aware of how your actions will impact the place you are going to. For example, as most of our destinations require a flight, to reduce your carbon footprint you could choose to fly economy over business and take direct routes. As most fuel is consumed at landing and take-off, direct flights are the most environmental friendly. The more people are on a plane, the less the carbon emission will be per passenger. Using low cost flights is another option, as they don’t have business class and they try to squeeze as many passengers as possible on a plane. When you are on vacation don’t take helicopter rides or private planes.

Use packing cubes for your suitcase instead of plastic bags. Not only that your bag will be neatly organised and you will save space as well, but you will also be able to reuse them over and over.


If you plan on renting a car, opt for a low CO2 emissions one. Even better, go for a hybrid or choose an electric one if you have this option. If you are not renting a car, take the public transport as much as possible rather than taxis.

Try to eat locally in your vacation and buy your groceries from the market. Don’t go for imported products that you can easily find at home. Do not waste food or water.  When going to the market bring your own bags and avoid taking new plastic ones, which will end up in the bin anyway.

Support the local communities you travel to by buying crafts and handmade souvenirs, but don’t haggle too much. The few pennies you are saving can mean someone else’s dinner. Not once I have seen people haggling for the equivalent of less than 25 cents, as if it was £100!

Do not engage in animal tourism, unless it is ethical. There are ethical sanctuaries where animals have been rescued from circuses, zoos or people who used them to gain money, where you can learn more about why this type of tourism is so bad by seeing the scars they left on the poor creatures. In some of the places you will be allowed to interact with the animals but not ride or do anything that would hurt them.


How can you, as an individual, make a difference?  

You might feel and think that alone you can’t really have any impact on changing the “game”, but it’s not true. By saying no to animal tourism and by starting to travel ethically, you are making a change! Because you have friends and family who will follow your example. And even if it’s just a small step from you, as more and more people join together and say no, the demand for animal tourism will decrease.


Tourists don’t ride elephants on purpose, don’t swim with dolphins inside pools because they want to hurt them, they don’t go to the zoo because they enjoy seeing caged animals. No, tourists do all these things because they are offered to them as a reasonable low price, and because they don’t know how those elephants are broken… how those dolphins are miserable… how those lions never felt the freedom to run in an open savannah. And if they do know all of this, they might be thinking that the animal is suffering anyway, and their actions won’t have consequences.

So it is up to me, it is up to you, to tell them no, don’t ride that elephant, don’t give money to that snake charmer, don’t take a photo with the monkey on your shoulders!

It’s tempting to ride an elephant, after all, it has been broken already, right? But if you think further than this statement you will realise how you riding that elephant will finance the breaking of another one. And as long as people will ride elephants, the cruelty against these beautiful creatures won’t stop! It’s time to refuse animal tourism, no matter how small or big the animals are!

Choose to observe animals in the wild, in their natural environment!


Do you really want to ride an elephant just for the sake of bragging about it or do you want to say no, and take a step towards stopping animal cruelty?   

Disclaimer:  Some of the links one this website are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on the link and do a purchase, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost for you. This helps me keep my website running and continue to share my traveling knowledge with you. I thank you for booking your flights or hotels using the links on my website. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

Traveler. Dreamer. Cat lover. Wondering around the world with my backpack and my camera. Contributing to make the world a better place.


  1. Great write up Joanna! This is an area that really concerns me and I feel there needs to be more awareness about these issues. I am currently working on a piece about the bear sanctuary in Romania, and using this opportunity to bring to people’s attention that not all is what it seems when it comes to wildlife attractions. It’s all about research, research, research. Thankfully the bear sanctuary does not fall into this category. Quite the opposite.
    Thanks for such an inspiring piece!

  2. Thank you for writing this article. It is important to educate others on this topic. I swam with the dolphins years ago, before I realized I was doing anything cruel. This weekend I am going to Mole National Park in Ghana to see elephants in their natural habitat. I will never ride one and try to travel more ethically at this point in my life, but the reminders are good and necessary.

  3. I have also been to Jaipur and seen the elephants at Amber Fort. I rode an elephant and afterwards I discovered about the abuse and poor conditions they experience, and I felt awful.

  4. Thank you for highlighting important issues that so many people are unaware of. I made the mistake of riding an elephant years ago. I naively thought I was supporting saving elephants. One of my biggest regrets!

  5. Thank you so much for a really interesting and informative read. Its so important to look at and understand our impact on the world around us as tourists. A great reminder that we need to fo our research and make sure that we are supporting organizations that have the welfare of animals in mind.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this information! I’m a huge elephant lover and had no idea the trauma elephants went through from animal tourism. This is such an important topic to continue talking about with other travelers!

  7. Could not agree more on ethical and responsible travel and glad we never endorsed any elephant riding ! Also best way to observe playful dolphins is in the wild, where it’s entirely up to them to seek human interraction or shy away! We have an article btw with our best 7 encounters with dolphins or sharks worldwide and coming shortly rays and turtles. Thanks a lot for sharing & educating, it’s not an easy topic! X

  8. I think the best thing we can do is this, spread the word about reality of elephant tourism. I’ve found that most (but not all) people, once they learn, never go back to the cruelty of elephant rides or performances. We can help by helping them find truly ethical experiences, I’ve written about similar on my blog today, more to come in a future post!

  9. We love to explore wildlife and have done a couple of jeep safaris but elephant ride through the jungle is definitely a no. We have even stopped visiting zoos seeing those animals in the cramped space and cages is frustrating. We need to have many more such posts to create awareness amongst the tourists and the travelers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  10. This was such a difficult, yet very important read. I know exactly how you felt after your elephant experience in India. I had the same thinking when I did it in Thailand many years ago. Nothing seemed right about the elephants taking humans for rides, and taking part in shows and painting/playing football! I’m definitely more of an ethical traveller now, not just with animals, but also in the decisions I make on a daily and domestic basis. A very inspiring read.

  11. I wonder which luxury hotel chain it is – I wouldn’t be comfortable if it was one I collect points on. Maybe I should pay more attention to the redemption offers in future so I can lodge objections if it’s stuff like this.

  12. Great article! A few years ago, when I was in Ciang Mai in Northern Thailand, I wanted to do a day trip visiting the jungle and the small waterfalls in the area. In the end I ended up not going on any tour because it was simply not possible to find an operator that offered tours that did not include an elephant ride in the program. There are so many tour operators in the area and I didn’t find a single one without elephants in it. Crazy and I hope these days the situation has gotten better for the animals.

  13. The PDA Hilltribe Museum in Chiang Rai had an interesting poster on this topic. Specifically, it addresses that some elephant camps are cruel to the animals but some do treat their elephants well (i.e. no differently than a horsebacking riding operator or a dog trainer would treat their animals). It also notes that people have gotten up in arms over elephant tourism over the past few years. And it asks this question: if we don’t support them here (in more rural, open forest areas), the mahmouts and elephants will have to go to big cities and do tricks to make a living and feed themselves. Are they not better out in forest camps?

  14. Thank you for writing this. It was certainly difficult to read, which is good. We need to keep spreading the word about the conditions that these wild animals are forced into, all for a quick buck. It pains my heart to see people doing this.

  15. Interesting article which really sheds light on the problems caused by animal tourism. While it may seem exciting interacting with these creatures, it pays to take a minute to think about whether it truly is beneficial for them and possibly how they have been treated and trained in order to make them “domesticated”.

  16. Such an important and meaningful post that carries extremely shameful truth that we should all be aware of. I am not at all proud to say that I went on an elephant ride when I visited the island of Koh Samui, Thailand. I had absolutely no idea then of the practices involved as part of ‘animal tourism’. Certainly I don’t believe anyone in our group did. We all owe an obligation to speak out against this practice in the hope of eliminating the demand for animal tourism. Thank you for making me aware.

  17. I appreciate you for speaking out about this particular side of tourism. I was once myself guilty of exploiting unethical animal practices – back when I did not know better. But I wanted to spread the word out that this is wrong. Exploiting animals for financial gain and tourism is not right!

  18. Thank you for this post! Although many have written about this subject before I belive its never enought! I have to admit, I did once ride on a back of an elephant in Nepal in 2014 and if you only knew how I regret it badly! I have pinned the post and will equally share it with my friends on facebook!

  19. I am a big fan of nature and wildlife tourism, but even that has many ethical implications you need to look up. I was horrified to read about the damage tourism is doing to the Galapagos, even with the tight restrictions around visiting. It’s a shame that we can’t just enjoy the natural world without damaging it. Seeing an elephant in the wild would be amazing, but I would never ride one in captivity. I did swim with dolphins around 12 years ago in captivity and I thought it was such a great experience at the time – but I would never visit a dolphin attraction now I’m aware of how restrictive and unnatural their lives are. Since then I’ve seen dolphins a dozen times in the wild and it is a much better experience!

  20. This is such a beautiful touching tribute to those animals who have been such hardship due to the cruel industry of animal tourism. Honestly, thank you so much for sharing this post. I have teared up reading your post because it makes me sad that this is still happening. It was so insightful reading about elephants and how the whole herd celebrates the birth of a baby elephant. And what beautiful and smart animals they are who have such strong memories. No wonder they are traumatised when such cruelty happens and they are pulled away from their mothers. I really hope more people will read this post and realise how important it is to say NO to animal tourism. Am pinning this post to share.

  21. Oh no Joanna, this makes me so incredibly sad. We just don’t understand what these beautiful creatures have to go through to provide a touristy experience. Thank you so much for putting it out there. Beautifully written too.

  22. Excellent piece about ethical tourism, especially as concerns animals. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit at elephant sanctuary in Thailand where they help tourists understand the horrific things these beautiful creatures have had to endure., including the damage to their spines caused from tourists riding them. Thank you for bringing more exposure to this issue.

  23. I really liked the fact that you researched on this topic after having read about it in the plane and then decided to write about it. Thank you for sharing this information.

  24. This is a really thought-provoking article I’ve heard some awful things about animal tourism, it is sad to think of some of the things they are made to go through for fun for humans.

  25. This is so powerful and so very current! I honestly can’t believe people still ride on animals, it’s so cruel and unfair. I recently went to Sri Lanka and seeing how the elephants are treated is heart breaking!

    I’m always looking for new ways to help and especially help with things to do with the planet too! I bought my first set of packing cubes for Christmas, it’s small changes that make a big difference like you say!

  26. I am also a travel bug myself and glad to come across this blog! What an amazing write up about animals and travel around the world. I didnt know riding on an elephant will cause so much pain to the elephant spine. Glad you share it so that more people are aware and may be visitor should think twice before riding an elephant.

  27. This is SUCH an important issue – I can’t stand seeing people still riding elephants in 2018. People need to wake up and do some research before undertaking such horrible actions. When I visited Santorini in 2009, I was 18 and my mother booked us to ride to the top of the cliff on a donkey. I felt awful doing it and I still feel awful whenever I think about it. I wish I could go back and tell 18 year old me not to do it 🙁

  28. I’m glad your brought this important topic because it needs to be publicized more. I can not understand why people would be so cruel to animals.

  29. Thank you for covering such an important topic! Many people don’t take the time to find out the harm that they can do by participating in tourism activities such as elephant ride and swimming with dolphins. I went to the circus a few times as a kid, but once I learned of the cruelty that the animals endured, I refused to ever go to one again. I’m very interested in learning more about ethical tourism.

  30. I have great memories of riding an elephant when we visited Sri Lanka when I was a child and had no idea they treated them so badly. I will certainly be avoiding it if we get to travel there again

  31. What an amazing and inspirational post to write. I have never even heard of ethical travelling, which I am ashamed to admit! YES to all of this! Sharing this with everyone I know!

  32. I think it’s so sad when animals have been hurt in order to make them domesticated. Although I’d love to swim with dolphins or ride an elephant unless I could research enough to find somewhere totally ethical I’d rather not do it x

  33. This is such well-written post and great tribute with the animals. I remember when I back ride with the elephants and I think that is such the most unforgettable moment for me.

  34. This was a profound post especially for avid travelers. I will never ride an elephant I know they get abused and its not worth it poor animals.

  35. This is so heartbreaking. I’m sorry but I couldn’t bear to finish reading this post as I was already tearing up and getting upset. No animal deserves this kind of treatment. I hope the authorities do something about this. Thank you for sharing this.

  36. A truly eye opening post, thank you for sharing your experiences. I have heard about the elephant rides and never will take part. I’ve always enjoyed seeing nature and its beautities in their purest enviorment if I can, animals are not placed on this earth to serve or amuse us. I would have loved the experience you had and would have had a warm and heavy heart before she picked you up, maybe she wanted to do it or maybe she was instructed.. I think You’ve taught a great deal in this post.

  37. It is so sad that these beautiful animals get treated in such ways. I like that you have raised awareness with this post though I think it’s important to speak out about this.

  38. Wow, I love this blog post hun! I didn’t know about ethical travel but it is so heartwarming to know what it’s about. Love these posts about the animals that have impacted you.

  39. such a thought provoking article. It is heart breaking that how humans have deployed nature and its creatures for their own benefit, be it industrial or entertainment. Thanks for sharing.

  40. What a brilliant post Joanna! Thanks for creating awareness about such an important topic! Animal tourism is awful and people should understand the pain of those poor animals who have become victims and suffering continuously because of someone else entertainment!

  41. I have always wanted to swim with dolphins or ride on top of an elephant, but I suppose that you are right that it isn’t what is best for the animal. Although we like our entertianment it is always right to take a step back and see it from another point of view. Thanks for sharing!

  42. I want to see the world and the animals that inhabit it, but do so in a way that celebrates their lives. I will be mindful of ethical animal experiences when I travel.

  43. I agree its so alarming how us people dont really consider the welfare of the animals. Its just so selfish, ethical traveling is one of the steps we can try to help and save the animals from being abused or harmed.

  44. I remember taking a ride on the back of a baby elephant at a circus when I was a child. I remember loving every minute of it, but of course I didn’t think about the welfare of the elephant. Knowing what I do now, I’m disappointed that my parents let me do it. Hopefully one day this cruelty stops.

  45. This makes me sad that in 2018 we still take such liberties with animals in this way. I think we need to realize that these animals are wild and are were not ever intended for our pleasure but to look at them from afar.

  46. I would love being able to help change the “game” in animal tourism. It should be against the law to work animals in such a way. I always travel ethically, and never follow the beaten path. Those who entertain themselves in such a way do it to have Monday morning idle conversation and bragging rights.

  47. Oh my gosh – I think that we are soul sisters. I know of the cruelties of animal tourism and it absolutely breaks my heart reading more about the situations around the world. I will never go to Sea World, nor will I attend a circus. If I ever have the opportunity to swim with dolphins it will only be in an open water situation. Thank you so much for shedding light on this horrific industry.

  48. This is such a provoking post!! Such a great awareness for the animals. I don’t understand why people would be so hard-hearted to the animals. It is very difficult to think of it.

  49. I undestood the plight of the elephant in circuses but it just never occured to me how mistreated they were for the sake of tourism. We are planning a trip to Thailand and I am so happy I saw this before we left.

  50. What an amazing write-up. You are doing a great job raising awareness about this so important cause and topic. Reading your post brought tears to my eyes, I would definitely share this with friends and colleagues. Always No to Animal Cruelty and Animal Tourism.

  51. If everyone would look beyond what their eyes could see, the World would be a better place. But most people can’t see it. They will even pay money to slaughter an animal, or to see animals fighting.
    You written this post beautifully, hope that this will serve as an eye openner to many.

  52. An interesting and thought provoking piece, it really made me think about the impact I have on animal tourism when I travel. Personally, I have chosen to never ride an Elephant whilst in Asia because I had read so much about them being mistreated. I enjoy visiting Zoos because I believe they are educational (I am a teacher) but I always do my research about the zoo before attending. Thank you for raising awareness.

  53. A really interesting and important read – we are travelling in India and Sri Lanka at the moment and have been so surprised by the amount of elephant rides on offer, it is so sad. Hopefully your article will help spread awareness and so people realise the impact animal tourism can have.

    1. So sorry I was so short in my reply…your piece was very well thought out. I’ve never been to a destination that offered animal rides, but if I did I would certainly pass it up. I was never a supporter of these events but now that I know exactly how horrible these poor creatures are treated my heart just breaks for them. Thank you for this eye opening piece!

  54. You never realize the bad you are doing until you’ve done it. This is sad. I would never ride an elephant or any animal because of this reason right here. It’s just heartbreaking.

  55. Thank you so so much for writing this. I always notice these things and avoid any kind of animal rides and after being to sea world,I have stopped going to aquarium and Zoo. It’s so sad to see how this wonderful creatures are treated for the sake of making money and pleasure.

  56. It hurts me so much to see all this violence! I just couldn’t watch the video completely. What you sa it is soooo true. When I was a child my parents used to take us to an Aquarium, the largest in South America, and there was a show with dolphins and whales trained to perform different acts. They told us how these animals were rescued from difficult situations, especially oil spills in the sea, and they were recovered to later be released in nature. We believed all that!! We never thought we were doing something terrible! But now that I am a mom, I am never taking my children to a place like that.

  57. Its really interesting. Reading your post brought tears to my eyes, I would definitely share this with friends and colleagues. Thanks so much for sharing!

  58. This was such an eye opening, informative and heartbreaking read! I hate thinking of the elephants being treated that way!! I have never ridden one but I definitely won’t want to now!

  59. good read. I always have this internal battle whether I should be happy seeing wild animals in zoo or be sad that they are not in their natural habitat. Just like what you’ve written, sometimes these animals experienced abuse and hardships in order to give entertainment and fun to people. it is a sad reality.

  60. Great post. I’m glad to see that there is much more awareness of animal “imprisonment / training” issues these days and that animal tourism is one of them.

  61. Thank you for such a great read. It genuinely made me cry. A family member came home from Thailand and was so pleased they he got to ‘ride’ an elephant, and it just made me feel sick. Great post 🙂

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