Copyright Neil D'Cruze
Tourism is big business. Already worth over a trillion dollars globally, 1.2 billion of us will travel abroad for our holidays this year alone. A rapidly growing industry, travel experts predict that it is set to increase by 50% before the year 2030.
While we are there, many of us will visit local wildlife tourist attractions. Which, when done right, can help to protect wild animals. By spending our tourist dollars, either to see animals in the wild or in genuine rescue centers, we are often helping to support those local communities by providing a vital source of income.
When done wrong, our holidays can have the polar opposite effect on wild animals. Sadly, every year many of us are blind to the extreme cruelty these animals undergo in the name of entertainment. Some wildlife tourism may even be helping to push endangered species closer to extinction.
Given the growing demand for wildlife tourism, we decided to carry out the first global review of wildlife tourist attractions with the aim of assessing the impact they are have on wild animal welfare and conservation.
Safe to say, the results from our study at WildCRU are shocking. Almost 75% of wildlife tourist attraction types included have a detrimental effect on animals involved - affecting their welfare, conservation or both. This means up to 4 million tourists may unknowingly be supporting harmful wildlife tourism each year.
These results made us even more curious about this rapidly growing industry: are tourists aware of the harm they inadvertently cause wild animals? And, who do they turn to for advice when deciding whether or not to visit a wildlife tourist attraction?
Our findings were clear - no one is regulating this industry. Rather, as tourists we are largely being left to our own devices to determine what is or is not acceptable. And so, increasingly, we are turning to information provided by other tourists online.
One key resource is TripAdvisor, one of the biggest online tourist review sites in operation. Available in 45 different countries and 28 different languages, to date at least 480,000 tourist attractions have received public ratings using their '5 star' rating scale.
Given its global reach, we compared our own assessments with the tourist reviews on TripAdvisor. We found that around 80% of people left positive reviews irrespective of the animal welfare conditions at a given tourist attraction.
Some of the most concerning types of wildlife tourist attractions, such as elephant riding, tiger 'selfies' and turtle handling received overwhelmingly positive reviews from visitors, encouraging others to visit them too.
But is it TripAdvisor's responsibility to help us avoid harmful wildlife tourist attractions? After all, its aim is to provide customers with a forum for independent tourist reviews. TripAdvisor staff themselves do not write the reviews. It's the job of you and me as tourists.
Well, a precedent has been set. TripAdvisor already has a 'Green Leaders' environmental sustainability accreditation scheme. If they are able to provide us with advice regarding whether an attraction is sustainable, can it not then be possible to advise whether it is also cruel?
TripAdvisor, and sites like it have the potential to help protect wild animals in tourism. In the meantime, if you care about wild animals, be aware that a '5 star rating' on TripAdvisor does not currently take wild animal protection considerations into account.
Instead, have a look for any negative reviews on TripAdvisor relating to a wildlife tourist attraction of interest. If there are a high number of negative reviews specifically mentioning animal cruelty (e.g. 10% or more) then this is most likely one you should avoid.
Find out more about ethical wildlife tourism here.