Time to rethink elephant tourism

Elephant family in the elephant camp in northern Thailand

With global tourism remaining at a standstill, now’s an opportune time for tour operators who play an important role in shaping the future and vision of elephant tourism in South-east Asia, to rethink their approach to the industry, according to the founder of an elephant camp audit company.

Ingrid Suter, co-founder at Asian Captive Elephants Standards (ACES), which audits camps across Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia, said that there was enough scientific evidence to support the promotion of elephant tourism and that tour operators should educate themselves on the topic of captive elephant management with academic literature and resources.

Elephant camps have been deeply impacted by the Covid-19 crisis as tourism grinds to a halt; an elephant family in an elephant camp in northern Thailand pictured

She urged tour operators not to be intimidated by “emotional people warriors” who will condemn, attack and target supporters of elephant camps that does riding or bathing activities with its mammal residents. She said that critics of such camps “will simply not accept or probably won’t even read the academic papers (supporting elephant tourism).”

Speaking at a webinar organised by PATA, entitled Tour Operators for Elephants: Standards for the New Tourism, Suter said that elephant tourism was popular in South-east Asia before Covid-19, and she believes it will continue to be popular post-pandemic, thus, tour operators need to play their part to boost the industry’s sustainability.

She, however, warned tour operators against performing self-audits of non-accredited elephant camps and then recommending these camps to guests, as such reviews would likely be superficial, excluding back of house assessments to give a true picture of the goings-on at the camp.

Instead, they should team up with an elephant camp and recommend that the operators apply for an ACES evaluation. “We can tell them what they need to do to get their standards raised high enough to meet our strict requirements,” Suter said. Tour operators should “have confidence in our integrity and professionalism, and that we have examined all aspects of elephant welfare and management,” she added.

Tour operators who choose an ACES-accredited camp for their tour groups can be assured that those camps are doing good, and are assisting elephants, mahouts and local communities through tourism.

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