2019.5.21 - selfie, the rumps, near polz
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Our Experience With Elephant Tourism In Thailand & An Unethical Elephant Sanctuary Visit (we think)!

With some hindsight on our time spent in Thailand a few years ago, there really is only one experience that we think of with regret…

We found ourselves in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, having heard so many good things from so many people. Of course, we were excited to get straight to some exploring as soon as we got there, but it’s not exactly the sightseeing that draws thousands of tourists to the area…

That would be the chance to see elephants!

elephant sanctuary photo with posing elephant, chiang mai, thailand

A quick disclaimer: because of elephant tourism’s ties to “traditional” cultural practises, it can be a controversial issue. We are not experts on those cultural practises, the natural behaviour of elephants, and what may or may not be “necessary” for the welfare of them. This post is not a criticism of culture, but a look at why elephant tourism exists, why elephants need better treatment and how exactly we can help as tourists.

What Is Elephant Tourism? And Why Is It A Thing?

Being traditionally considered a working animal, elephants have been a massive part of many cultures across Asia for centuries. For a long time, elephants were used for transport and farming amongst many other things including religious ceremonies. Most notably though, elephants were used in the logging industry.

After logging was officially banned in 1989, thousands of elephants and their owners were without work. The now-captive elephants couldn’t exactly be returned to the wild, and many elephant owners had to turn to begging with their elephants on city streets.

Around the same sort of time, tourism in Thailand was on the rise. Western tourists had taken a liking to the incredible animals - wanting to see, feed and touch the elephants, and willing to do so for a fee. Elephant tourism had not only become a source of income for communities, but a bucket-list activity for tourists.