Unfortunately the ugly truth is that this elephant, looking so majestic in his adornment, has been brutally conditioned since he was a baby to respond to the commands. The kids at the orphanage might not even be orphans; they are often used as tourist traps. And the ones who are actually orphaned can develop harmful attachment issues. The lack of balance and stability in their life causes much more harm than the one week you spent teaching them soccer has helped. Finally, the dolphins, usually swimming miles in the ocean in their natural habitat, are confined to pools that are too small, making them sick and irritating their eyes and skin.
The good news is that there are groups out there working on educating people to stop using each other and other living beings to make us feel better and superior. Now, not all of us have the time or resources to join these groups on their battles, but don’t worry; the first step is to change your own habits, and then to educate the individuals around you so that they can do the same. Here are a few tips to ensure that your travels are not detrimental to the people and animals of your host country, but that will ensure you still have an amazing time!
Animal Sanctuaries: One of the top things that travelers are looking forward to when visiting a new country is the activities that involve exotic animals. The obvious example is elephant riding in South East Asia. However, these poor animals are treated brutally until they don’t even recognize themselves. It’s heartbreaking.
When we visited Thailand, we did a little bit of research and found the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai where founder Lek and her team rescue abused elephants and give them a place to live out the rest of their life peacefully. I have to admit this was the highlight of my trip and the thing that impacted me most. From the thousands of yellow butterflies flying around like fairies when we drove in, to seeing the sense of freedom that these elephants now feel roaming around freely, it was an experience of a lifetime. Support sanctuaries or parks that offer help to abused, injured or endangered animals.
Go in the wild: Bigger animals such as giraffes, tigers, lions and gorillas are impressive on their own so imagine in their natural habitat! Instead of going to a place where the babies are taken away from their mothers and drugged so you can pet them safely (like tigers), why not take a safari type tour in the wild where you can see them interact with each other, hunt or play as they are meant to?
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving: There is nothing better than to immerse yourself in the deep blue to enjoy the sea life. Depending on the region, you can see a variety of coral life, fish, manta rays, sharks, whales and dolphins. Go snorkeling in shallower waters, or go all out and take your scuba certification to enjoy the mystery of the ocean to its fullest! The fish don’t need to be captive for you to get pleasure from swimming with them; I assure you it will be even more impressive in the open ocean. Bring an underwater camera and you’ll even have the cool profile pictures to go with it. And for those who aren’t fond of going underwater, you can always do some whale watching from the safety of the boat!
Volunteering: This is one of the hardest to figure out because everyone thinks of volunteering as a good thing. How can helping people and communities ever be harmful? Have you ever heard of the volunteers who painted a mural for an orphanage? After talking with some of the organizers, they learned that on the same wall, a mural had been painted just the week before; and the week before that, and so on. The walls were repainted between different groups’ stays to lead them to believe they were brightening the children’s lives! This is one of many examples of volunteer tourist traps.
The sad reality is that volunteering your time, even if you feel like you’re doing something useful, can have a lasting negative effect you might not have realized initially. Like I mentioned above, volunteering in orphanages causes more mental harm to the child than it helps. Alternatively, you could volunteer at a farm or fishing village, but how do you know you’re not taking the job of a local who now won’t be able to put food on the table. Before you sign up for this kind of opportunity, research carefully and ask lots of questions. Try volunteering instead in non-profit organizations such as women empowerment or self defense classes, or helping adults to learn to read or write.
Ultimately, the trick to ensure your travels are not harming any beings is to think a little deeper. How did the people/animals get there, naturally or by force? Why are they friendly, were they scared into obedience? Are they comfortable and well taken care of? Will it cause harm once you leave? These questions will help you determine what is wrong and right, and with a little research, you can find alternatives that you will enjoy and feel good about! Happy travels!
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