Elephant-based tourism is an experience sought by thousands of visitors to the Mekong region. Despite its controversy, elephant-based tourism remains a perennially popular holiday activity. While evidence shows that excellent levels of elephant welfare and wellbeing can be achieved at elephant camps, the tourism industry must acknowledge that a few bad players continue to damage the reputation of the entire industry. This is not a new problem, and despite the positive gains made by the industry and by many of the outstanding elephant camps, inflammatory and divisive debates surrounding the ethics of elephant tourism continues.
Mass tourism combined with inadequate regulation has long been cited as a leading contributor to environmental degradation in Southeast Asia. But there are a growing number of examples where governments and regions are reversing the seemingly inevitable march towards irreparable environmental destruction. The regeneration of degraded ecosystems caused by mass tourism is possible, and so too can elephant tourism be compatible with responsible travel.
COVID-19 presents a serendipitous opportunity for elephant-based tourism. With the bulk of elephant camps still closed, the industry has the time to reset itself and restructure camp management in a way that eliminates previously poor standards and methods of captive elephant management. As proposed by other tourism sectors vulnerable to mass tourism, elephant camps should consider offering a higher quality product, complete with better elephant welfare and improved camp practices.
When borders are open again visitors are looking forward to spending money. Given the popularity of elephant tourism, this industry will once again benefit. Elephant camps should be confident that offering a higher ticket price will not be a deterrent to visitation numbers. But of course an investment in fixing old practices will need to be made. Asian Captive Elephant Standards can assist camps to upgrade their old standards to meet international expectations of elephant welfare and camp quality. With time, elephant camps and national tourism markets will see that a short-term investment can bring long-term rewards to elephants and to the entire sector. Being in the presence of an elephant while on holiday in the Mekong region is a memory to be cherished for a lifetime. Post COVID-19, let’s ensure the future of this industry is a responsible one.
Dr Ingrid Suter
For Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES)