This article first appeared in TTG (Travel Trade Gazette)
Abta has teamed up with the Born Free Foundation to create new global guidelines on animal welfare in tourist attractions. Pippa Jacks finds out more
Britain is often described as being “a nation of animal lovers”, and it would seem animals form as important a part of our holidays overseas as our pet dogs and cats do of our lives here in the UK.
According to Abta members, up to 60% of all the excursions and activities we take part in while on holiday involve animals, whether in zoos, circuses, camel rides, or on safari.
In many cases the animals live in good conditions, but standards vary hugely from country to country. Wildlife charity the Born Free Foundation receives more than 1,000 complaints every year from tourists who have witnessed animals being mistreated. The charity highlights elephants chained up in Thailand and big cats forced to pose for photos with tourists in Mexico as two of the most common reports it receives.
Mistreatment of animals impassions some of us more than others, but another wildlife charity, Spana, found in a survey that more than half of British adults (52%) would be put off revisiting somewhere where they witnessed animal cruelty.
It’s a problem that destinations and tour operators need to sit up and take note of, then.
It’s also part of the reason Abta has drawn up the industry’s first Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism, which it launched at a European Parliament symposium in Brussels last week.
“Our members might wonder why we’ve got involved in animal welfare, but the business case for the travel industry is clear,” says Abta’s head of destinations and sustainability, Nikki White.
She gives the example of an Abta member who received a petition signed by every cruise passenger who took an excursion on which they saw animals being mistreated. “The passengers said they would never use the company again unless they stopped the excursion,” says White.
Because of social media, negative publicity regarding such incidents with animals will also spread fast and wide. “As soon as something happens with an animal, it’s out there; it’s big news,” she warns.
While White’s task will focus on engaging tour operators and tourist boards, travel agents play a key role in understanding the issues and advising their clients accordingly, she adds.
The guidance is available to all Abta members and contains minimum requirements in animal living conditions, including access to food, water and stimulation, and how well the environment replicates their natural habitat. There are also specific guidelines for dolphins and elephants kept in captivity; working animals such as horses, camels and husky-dogs; advice on wildlife viewing as on safari; and a list of unacceptable and discouraged practices – “no go areas”, White explains, such as animals used as props for photos and animals taken out of the wild inappropriately.
The guidelines have been drawn up with the help of scientists and conservationists around the world, but especially the Born Free Foundation – a charity set up by actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna after filming Born Free in Africa in the 1960s.
Born Free takes the stance that no wild animal should ever be kept in captivity, but the charity’s chief executive Will Travers says “the travel industry is ideally placed to influence the current situation and help bring about positive change”.
“Born Free’s expertise in the science of animal welfare and wildlife conservation ensures we can provide accurate information that can be used by other parties,” he adds.
Abta members Tui, Thomas Cook, Cosmos and Virgin Holidays have already committed to assess their supply chains and ensure the animal attractions meet these minimum standards.
“Our research shows that our customers care a great deal about animal welfare, while looking for holidays where they can learn about animals,” explains Jane Ashton, Tui Travel’s head of sustainable development. “We’re working to ensure best practice at such attractions, and we encourage our customers to highlight any concerns.”
It will be a long and slow process, White admits: “We’re not saying that by next year, every animal attraction will have met these standards. “It takes a long time to educate people and effect change. But we’ve made a start – and I’m very hopeful of the impact we could have.”