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Animal Tourism: Be a Friend, Not a Felon

Australia is well known for their wildlife, and animal tourism is especially booming in Queensland. This is the only state that allows you to make close contact with many animals, like hugging a koala. I went to Queensland to swim with humpback whales - an experience I will never forget.

In the morning we got a briefing about what was about to happen that day. We put on our wetsuits and left on a boat with 20 people on board to see the whales. About 30 minutes sailing into the ocean we arrived at the migrating route the whales take every year, from the Antarctic to the tropical waters of the south pacific. From a distance we saw the whales migrating back to the south. When the boat was within a 100 meter range from the whales the skipper had to turn off the engine and let the whales come to us. The first hour none of the whales we approached came closer. We were told that when the whales were close we would have to make noise, because whales are very curious animals. So we started shouting. After many tries sitting on the side of the boat waiting to dive in, we finally got the signal from the skipper to jump in. After just a few seconds in the water we could see the massive whales swim close to us: an experience that words cannot do justice. The whales were also interested in us and very aware of what we are. They stayed just for a brief moment and then swam away again into the deep blue.


Swimming with whales is probably one of the more ethical tourist attractions when we want to see animals in their natural habitat, but still, we never know how the animal will react to our visit, and how our visits impact them.

As you can imagine, swimming with wales is just one of the many ways animals are incorporated in the world of tourism. Most likely you have wandered in zoos when you were little, or drove through national parks to see the beauty of wildlife. In order to dive deeper into the ways that animals are used as - let us tell it as it is - attractions, the four categories of animal tourism and its implications are explained.

Captive interactions

Marine mammal parks, zoos, tiger interactions and elephant parks are the most known attractions in this category. While many people are becoming more aware of the ethical issues around zoos, it's still one of the biggest animal tourism businesses. Most of the zoos breed endangered species and help in conversation. It is also true that 90% of the animals in zoos are not endangered at all. Those animals are only kept for our entertainment, in which i don’t think it's ethical

Wild attractions

In the tourism industry, they say that wild attractions can provide opportunities and livelihoods for local communities, which in return gives the local people an incentive to protect the wildlife, and thereby helping promote long-term conservation efforts. This all sounds harmless, yet it's not as friendly as it seems.

Especially in Africa, local governments have seen that regulating trophy hunters into their lands helps with the conversation of the animals living in their region. Back in 1895, there were less than 50 white rhinos left in South Africa as a result of illegal poaching. In 1968, South Africa legalized and regulated the trophy hunters into the lands. Nowadays, the rhino population is higher than 20.000.

It seems odd that hunting an animal helps with the conservation of that animal. Kenya banned trophy hunting in 1977, but has seen a 70% decline of wild animals. This is because the government has no funds to protect wild animals from poachers. Luckily more and more people are choosing not to shoot with a gun but with a camera, helping the locals and conservation of the land the same way trophy hunting does.

Wild attractions are very common in other continents as well. Gibbon watching and shark diving are both popular activities when backpacking in South East Asia. According to Oxford University’s Wildlife conservation Research, gibbon watching is one of the best wild attractions to undertake. It scores high for conservation and has no negative welfare issues when executed correctly. It also provides an income for the local community and helps protect the rainforest from illegal logging.

The ethics around shark cage diving on the other hand aren’t as clear as some other wildlife attractions. The operators insist there is no association with feeding the sharks and human attacks. The operators suggest that learning more about the sharks’ behaviour improves the visibility of these species. However, many believe this is not true. The US state of Florida banned shark feeding in 2001 and claims that it leads to more shark attacks.

Sanctuary attractions

A wildlife sanctuary should be a place of security for the animals, where they can roam without fear of harm. There are many examples of sanctuaries providing excellent care of animals. However, more and more wildlife attractions have marked themselves as a sanctuary, in which it's hard to see if it's just an attraction or a real sanctuary. According to the World Animal Protection “If you can ride it, hug it, or have a selfie with the wild animal, the chances are it is a cruel venue. Do not go.” (Alyx Elliott, 2016)

Street performance

Street performance is probably the most cruel form of animal tourism. The animals are transported across the country in cramped train containers or small trucks, chained or caged and separated from their natural environment. They are trained using violence and fear, ensuring they diligently perform their acts. Nonetheless, posing with animals is a lucrative business and tourists are willing to pay money for this experience. Some practices still used are:

  • Bear dancing Snake charming Hyena’s performances Selfies with caiman


Animals in tourism can be a good thing, it helps with the conservation of the land and local animals. It boosts the local economy and helps prevent illegal activities like poaching and logging. As a tourist, you are responsible to ensure that your holidays do not cause more harm than good. Try to support local people and organisations and protect the environment and do not exploit the native wildlife.

Some tips to help you with choosing your wildlife attractions

1. Do your research

2. Wild animals are not pets

3. Culture is not an excuse for animal cruelty

4. Consider your own safety

5. Don’t support the use of animals as photographic objects

6. Remember that viewing animals in the wild is not guaranteed

8. Don’t support bars or hotels that display captive animals

9. Don’t buy a wildlife souvenir

10. Use a trusted and ethical tour operator

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