Thailand and its Tourism - Are We Making The Right Choices?

Thailand and its Tourism - Are We Making The Right Choices?

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on 16th Jul 2018

In today’s connected world, it’s impossible to go more than a few minutes of scrolling through Instagram without seeing a picture of a friend, celebrity or just about anybody posing against the backdrop of foreign lands. For gap-year students in particular, uploading shots of their adventures to social media has become almost as integral as the idea of travelling itself. Perhaps more than any other destination at the moment, Thailand is consistently hashtagged and geotagged as a destination youths flock to, to find themselves and, in turn, witness the beauty that Thailand has to offer. From serene seas, crystal shores and white sand beaches, to the array of wildlife roaming the lands, Thailand certainly has a lot to offer – but are the animals we see really as free as we’re led to believe?

Taking photo of an elephant

Since the 1800s, the population of elephants has dropped significantly. A huge part of this was due to poaching and ivory trade, but while you may think this prehistoric method has been left in the past, the sad fact of the matter is, trade is still rife today alongside other cruel methods of torture that many well-meaning tourists may not even be aware of. Tourism in Thailand can, unfortunately, be irresponsible, which means that the numbers of these glorious creatures continue to dwindle. On a basic level, elephant habitats are constantly being destroyed in place of hotels and resorts, and the animals themselves are tragically still being captured for trade and to become slaves to tourism. Today, there are less than 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild – with estimations as low as 1000 wild elephants left in Thailand alone. However, it is estimated that there are over 3000 captive or domestic elephants in the country. 

‘The selfie generation’ as we know it can, at times, care more about the amount of ‘likes’ they get on their posts – so much to the point where inadvertent harm can be caused to animals. Many tourist hotspots in Thailand have come under fire in the past due to their shocking treatment of endangered animals - take Tiger Temple, for example, where the captive creatures were frequently sedated, whipped and beaten into submission to enable tourists to get as close as possible to the animals. Behaviour like this is obviously harrowing, with footage circulating the internet and, sometimes, even resulting in these tourist destinations being shut down. But what could be so awful about the treatment of elephants that we don’t yet all know about?

Elephant back riding

While sitting atop such a huge, glorious creature like an elephant may seem like a relatively harmless thing to do, the truth is, elephants go through horrific torture from a young age which forces them to be submissive enough to allow tourists to sit on their backs. This method of spirit-breaking is known as ‘Phajaan’, or ‘the crush.’ Disturbing footage of this has circulated online, garnering plenty of attention and outrage from animal lovers worldwide. Many people’s opinions on elephant back riding have been changed by this footage, but perhaps the story of a British man being trampled to death (Independent, 2016) would be enough to signify to the rest of us that elephants should not be subject to this amount of stress and torture.

Most recently in June, you may have stumbled across a news article describing the moment an unsuspecting tourist was knocked to the ground by an elephant he was trying to touch. Any tourist attraction which allows contact with animals for human entertainment, and does not benefit the animal in any way are normally the kind of attractions we are recommending to avoid. Of course, irresponsible tourism poses harm and stress to the animals, but a lack of education regarding the matter is extremely dangerous for humans too. Luckily, the man was uninjured, but he or the next person may not be so fortunate next time around. 

Additionally, elephants were used by a resort in Thailand to 'kick off World Cup fever' by raising awareness for illegal gambling surrounding the international event. Elephants were painted with flags of some of the countries who would be competing in the World Cup and passed balls around to each other. Many have risen to this as a cause for celebration, but the irony is that something so sinister has been used to campaign for something worthwhile. This goes to show how easy it is to fall into the trap of irresponsible tourism, and it raises questions as to whether even the organisers of the event are aware of the cruelty behind domesticated and working elephants themselves. The bottom line, however, remains the same: this kind of practice is cruel and exploitative to elephants. 

So how are we able to help? While tourism isn’t an inherently bad thing, making the right choices while on our adventures is increasingly vital to the survival of elephants and other animals, ensuring that these already endangered species are able to survive for generations to come. It’s still possible to help the elephants through sustainable tourism, with many wonderful sanctuaries and conservation's existing which people are able to visit. People should be witnessing them in their natural habitats as they are meant to be, and there are plenty of tours, volunteer projects and destinations which enable you to responsibly view animals, as well as the opportunity to take plenty of photographs and to create memories that not even an elephant could forget.

Feeding an elephant

You may have read our blog about the re-opening of Thailand's 'Tiger Temple.' Unfortunately, it seems as if our concerns for these animals have fallen on deaf ears, as the group behind Tiger Temple have now received new licensing under the name 'Golden Tiger Co.' This, in turn, has allowed them to reopen their doors - and tragically, they are still receiving guests who want to get up close to the abused animals. You can read more about that here.

On a more positive note (and linking more closely to the animals featured throughout this article), since the time of writing Tripadvisor have withdrawn their support for any attractions involving the use of animals, meaning the operators that once made money through activities such as elephant back riding have now lost a huge platform. This is a big step forward for animal conservation, but we must continue to push for an overall ban of such trips. 

All it takes is a little care and education, and we really could change the world. 


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