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  • Writer's pictureDorien Scheets

10 Unethical Travel Experiences to Avoid

We've all seen photos of people riding on the backs of gigantic and imposing elephants or that video of Mariah Carey swimming with dolphins. We've also seen lots of pictures or videos of wealthy *cough usually white cough* folks handing out food or money in slums. But there is one thing all of these different issues have in common--they're SUPER unethical and really irresponsible. In this article, you'll learn about 10 travel experiences you should avoid like the plague and why.

1. Riding elephants

Unfortunately, it has become all too common for travelers to go to Asia and participate in elephant rides. While seemingly harmless, the reality behind elephant rides is more horrifying than many of us can imagine. Animal rights organisation Peta confirms that, "Elephants are repeatedly hit with bullhooks--a heavy weapon with a sharp steel hook on the end. They learn to obey commands or face the painful consequences. Even though elephants are meant to roam with their families over vast distances, captive elephants are typically kept tightly chained and separated from their friends and loved ones."

Given how smart, social, and emotionally intelligent elephants are, it cannot be more apparent how cruel and unethical these kinds of tourist experiences are. If you feel passionately about meeting an animal on your next trip to Asia, consider visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary or volunteering with one.

2. Swimming with dolphins

Though swimming with dolphins is a bucket list experience for many travelers, very few realize the hugely negative and inhumane consequences of this industry on these highly intelligent creatures. The grand majority of dolphins that have ended up in dolphin swimming experiences for tourist have been forcibly removed from their families in shocking and distressing ways. Many dolphins forced into this life will die at a young age due to heightened and prolonged stress, usually managed by their captors with drugs. There are many more reasons described by Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

There are responsible dolphin or whale watching excursions out there that can offer a positive alternative to captive dolphin or whale encounters. You can find a well-curated list here.

3. Shark cage diving

Shark cage diving involves being lowered into ocean water in a metal cage while "chum" (a gloopy mix of fish parts, bone, and blood--yum) are thrown into the sea around the cage to attract sharks.

It's generally not a good idea for people to taunt an apex predator. This is particularly the case when that taunting takes the form of throwing food and blood directly in front of it and assuming that it won't get aggressive. We wouldn't do this with tigers or bears, so why do we do it with sharks?

Shark cage diving of this kind can have serious impacts on sharks' natural behavior, changing their habitats and territories as they may shift away from these traditional areas in search of easy meals, and changing their hunting and feeding behavior. It can even lead to more shark attacks.

4. Visiting coral reefs

Coral reefs are biodiversity hotspots that provide habitat and food for a wide variety of marine life, including many endangered species. However, the increased human activity associated with tourism can damage and disrupt these ecosystems, leading to a decline in biodiversity and a loss of ecological services. For example:

  • Tourists may unintentionally cause physical damage to coral reefs by touching, standing on, or breaking off pieces of coral.

  • Tourists may introduce harmful chemicals to the reef ecosystem, such as sunscreen, which can cause coral bleaching and even death. Many sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, which can be toxic to corals.

  • Climate change is already causing significant damage to coral reefs, and tourism can cab exacerbate this problem. As more tourists visit coral reefs, carbon emissions associated with travel can contribute to the warming of ocean temperatures, leading to coral bleaching and death.

But there is hope. The tourism industry can support better conservation outcomes for corals--they could be the poster child of nature-based tourism!

5. Purchasing products from endangered species

Animal populations around the world have plummeted. Thousands of species face extinction and are critically endangered. A big reason for this is the demand placed on animal products such as ivory, furs and skins, bones, horns, and other goods that are used to make luxury goods and traditional medicines, despite international laws and regulations aimed at protecting them.

However, buying these products contributes to the decline of already vulnerable populations and supports illegal poaching, the illegal criminal enterprise that fuels corruption and violence as a part of the trade of these goods, and it undermines efforts of conservation associations and governments to protect these precious species.

6. Slum tourism

Unfortunately, there is a growing market for excursions that take primarily wealthy, privileged, white, Western tourists to some of the poorest and most impoverished places in the world, treating locals as an "attraction." With slum tourism, also known as poverty tourism, tour operators often advertise such trips as "educational," but in reality they cause incredible harm:

  • Exploitation: Slum tourism can exploit the local population for financial gain. The residents of slums are often living in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, and may not consent to being observed by tourists. They may feel pressured to participate in tours in order to earn a living, or may be treated as spectacles for tourists to view.

  • Stigmatization: Slum tourism can reinforce negative stereotypes and stigmatization of people living in poverty. It can also create a sense of "otherness" and distance between tourists and the local population, further marginalizing those living in slums.

  • Lack of benefits: Slum tourism often does not benefit the local community in any meaningful way. Tour companies and operators may profit from the tours, but the local residents do not see any direct benefits, such as improved living conditions or increased economic opportunities.

  • Invasion of privacy: The residents of these communities often don't want their living conditions to be observed or photographed by outsiders, and may feel violated by the presence of tourists.

7. Human safaris

Human safaris, more often coined "people watching tours," is a form of tourism where often privileged westerners visit marginalised or isolated communities to observe their lifestyle, cultural practices and behaviors, often without their consent.

This form of tourism is highly unethical because it treats people as objects of entertainment rather than human beings with dignity and rights. It can also reinforce negative stereotypes and cultural biases, further marginalizing already vulnerable communities. It may also place remote groups at high risk of disease, predatory sex, and exploitation. Additionally, human safaris can perpetuate colonial mentalities and power dynamics, wherein tourists assume a position of superiority and authority over the local community.

8. Orphanage tourism

Orphanage tourism is a form of tourism where visitors, often foreign tourists, visit orphanages or children's homes to volunteer, donate money or goods, or simply to observe and interact with children. This practice is widely considered to be unethical due to several reasons.

Firstly, it can exploit vulnerable children and treat them as objects of entertainment or commodities for financial gain. Orphanages can create a demand for children to be institutionalized, leading to the separation of families, child trafficking, and abuse. Secondly, it can perpetuate a harmful cycle of poverty, as orphanages may receive more funding and support from tourists than from the government or community, leading to a disincentive for children to be reunited with their families or placed in alternative care. Lastly, it can be emotionally damaging to children who are already experiencing trauma and instability, as it can create a sense of attachment and abandonment issues.

9. Eating products from endangered species

There are many times when we might say the popular phrase to ourselves, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." While this typically means embracing local norms when visiting another place--and typically I'm all for this--there are some really important exceptions. One of these is when it comes to what we eat.

Despite there being a plethora of laws that protect sea turtles (an endangered species), in many countries their meat and eggs remain a delicacy. Similarly, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in several places in Asia. By avoiding food products made from endangered species of animals, we can contribute to efforts to protect these incredible animals and consume ethically.

10. Bull Fights

Bullfighting is widely considered to be unethical due to the extreme cruelty inflicted upon bulls. During the fight, the bull is taunted and weakened by the matador with sharp spears and barbed sticks, before being killed in front of a cheering crowd. The bull is often drugged and physically abused before the fight, and may suffer a slow and painful death. Los Angeles Times says it right--bullfighting is not an art form and rather "more like a barbaric act of animal cruelty."

Responsible alternatives to bullfighting include promoting cultural traditions that are not based on animal cruelty, such as folk dances or music. Additionally, some bullfighting arenas have been converted into cultural centers, museums, or sports facilities, providing opportunities for community events and recreational activities. You may also consider more animal-friendly alternatives such as recortadores (a nonviolent form of bullfighting) or even Korean bullfighting which involves no humans.

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