Skip to Content

Animal Tourism: Cruel or Ethical?

Cheetah at Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

Rescued cheetah at an ethical sanctuary in Namibia

As an animal lover, I always dreamed about getting close to wild animals one day. I went on many excursions to zoos all over the world when I was younger and even watched some dolphin shows. As a young, naive individual, I didn’t see anything wrong with this.

However, as I’ve got older and gained experience, I now deeply regret ever feeling like these activities were fine. I cringe whenever I think back to the time when 18 year old me was dying to go on an elephant ride in South Africa and when I felt envious of a close friend of mine posing with a tiger at Tiger Temple in Thailand.

The sad truth is that animal tourism can often have a negative impact on the animals themselves. It’s only in recent years that the issue has truly come to light. Tiger Temple has actually been shut down after they were exposed for beating their tigers with sticks and for drugging the animals and chaining them up for selfies (they’ve actually sadly reopened under a new name, but that’s a story for another day). SeaWorld has also vowed to phase out orca shows and stop breeding orcas after the movie Blackfish came out which showed just how cruel it was to keep orcas in captivity. This is a great move for the animals. However, many dubious activities still exist today.

Amongst the many questionable activities are genuine animal experiences, some actually beneficial to the animals. Therefore it is important that we can easily differentiate between an ethical animal encounter and a cruel one. But don’t panic! You don’t have to work this out for yourself. I’ve reached out to fellow travellers from around the world to find out about their animal encounters and how ethical their encounters were for the animals involved.

We already know by now that elephant rides and orca shows are a big no no. So let’s talk about some of the rarely discussed animal tourism activities that are out there today.

Ella swimming with stingray at Anse Royale beach on Mahe island, Seychelles
A photo of myself in the ocean near a wild stingray that just happened to swim past me

Swimming with Whale Sharks in the Philippines

Philippines is renowned for its whale shark encounters. All over Instagram I see images of people swimming up close with these majestic giants. I reached out to Katherine from Tara Lets Anywhere to learn more about her experience swimming with whale sharks in Cebu.

“A few years ago, we visited Oslob in the province of Cebu, Philippines.” Katherine begins. “We attended a short orientation first about the whale sharks and learned some do’s and dont’s, and then a boat took us to the part of the sea where the whale sharks were. There we had some 30 minutes or so to see the whale sharks, swim with them and take pictures. Some agencies offering this activity even have GoPro rentals if you don’t have one. It was a fun experience so we didn’t really think anything about it.”

Katherine’s experience swimming with whale sharks in Philippines

So far so good, right? At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this experience. But then Katherine continues, “

After the trip, we read more about it and found out that there are environmental advocates against this activity. Apparently, the whale sharks in Oslob are fed by humans so instead of following their natural migration pattern in the ocean, they stay in Oslob all-year round and have come to rely on humans for food. This creates all sorts of problems such as physical harm to the whale sharks, malnutrition and endangerment of their species since their breeding cycle is disrupted.

 We’ve been educating locals and international tourists about this now.”

Although this sounds surprising, sadly it is a frequent occurrence for tourist activities to disrupt the balance of wildlife. It also begs the question of, are these whale sharks truly wild? They are no longer following their usual patterns and no longer source their own food. However, it is not all doom and gloom as Katherine adds, “There are alternative locations in the Philippines where whale sharks are not fed and you can truly see them in the wild.”

You can read more about Katherine’s experience with whale sharks and her opinions on the industry.

Overall verdict: Can be done ethically but this requires research. Avoid places that are unnatural or cause distress to the animals. Reading reviews online is a great indicator of which tours are ethical and which are not. The best option of all is to swim completely naturally and not take part in a tour. Of course, sightings this way are not guaranteed but that’s just nature!

The great thing is that there are loads of useful guides and resources available online to help you plan the most ethical trip possible, such as this in-depth guide on how to choose an ethical place to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines.

Photo of whale shark in Philippines taken by Katherine

Wildlife Selfies

Another popular tourist activity that can happen anywhere in the world is taking photos alongside wild animals. With the rise of social media, this turning into a growing issue as people forcefully make the animals pose alongside humans. Not only is this unnatural, but it can cause distress to the animals.

Whilst visiting the Dominican Republic, Leah from Leah Little Travel & Fashion was shocked to find herself face to face with this issue on numerous occasions. “While traveling in the Dominican Republic, I went on a full day excursion to Saona Island, a nature reserve.  As part of the excursion, we boarded a speed boat to a natural pool with dozens of starfish at the bottom of the water. Hundreds, if not thousands of tourists are taken to this starfish pool every day. This stop was treated as a photo op. Initially, I loved putting on my goggles and finding starfish among our feet. As time went on, however, I began to feel more and more uneasy. Luckily, the tour guides instructed us not to take the starfish out of the water, but they told us that we could pick them up from the sand and take photos with them. Although keeping the starfish in the water mitigated the damage, it still felt incredibly disruptive to be picking these creatures up at all. I knew this was not a safe environment for the starfish when I saw someone drop a starfish back into the water where it fell bottom side up.

Thousands of people flock to see starfish in a natural pool, Leah tells us
People are encouraged to take photos holding the starfish which made Leah feel uneasy

“I am one of the biggest animal lovers you will ever meet, and trust me when I say that it takes effort for me to refrain from much of the animal tourism I encounter while traveling. At our resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, there were people with an iguana and a monkey that you could hold and pose with while they took your picture. The problem with the majority of these “get your picture taken while holding or posing with wild animals” is that this is not a natural behavior for these animals. If you see animals behaving in a way that doesn’t seem natural, odds are some cruel and unethical methods were employed to get the animal to perform this way. Either through fear and physical abuse, or sedative medication. So when you see this, please do not partake! If people don’t spend the money on unethical animal tourism, then there is no incentive for it to continue.”

Leah’s experiences are no doubt shocking, especially considering she wasn’t even looking for animal tourist activities.

Overall verdict: It is undoubtably unethical to force an animal to pose with you. However, there are ethical ways to take ‘selfies’ with wild animals. Ethical photos with animals could be a photo of you on a safari jeep with a wild animal in the background or a photo snorkelling amongst fish. The key difference between a cruel selfie and a kind selfie is that the animal must be undisturbed in a natural environment, behaving normally.

Leah tells us that this is not a nice environment for the starfish, being picked up all day
Leah tells us that she saw some starfish dropped bottom-side up

Trips to Animal Parks

Sometimes seeing animals in the wild can be challenging and so often people turn to animal parks where they can see wild animals up close, in a contained environment. Of course, this raises many issues such as, is it fair on the animals to not be truly wild? It’s a question that has caused a lot of controversy and there is no right or wrong answer right now if zoos should exist at all, even if they are done as ethically as possible.

However, today we are exploring if these parks do try to act as ethically as possible and try to give their animals as stress-free a life as they can. We asked James from Travel Collecting on his experience at an Iguana park in Ecuador.

“I have always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands, but have never made it.” James begins, explaining why the idea of an animal park was so enticing to him. “So, when I was in Guayaquil, Ecuador for a business trip and a colleague recommended Iguana Park as a great place to see iguanas, I was excited. That was a mistake. The park is nice enough, and there are dozens of iguanas there; but there was something a little depressing seeing them on a lawn or stone path surrounded by pigeons.”

James regrets his visit to Iguana Park and labels the experience ‘depressing’
Seeing iguanas surrounded by pigeons and concrete made James feel uncomfortable

People happily sat on park benches next to them to pose for photos and I got a little more uncomfortable still. When a child started feeding some iguanas lettuce, I decided that this really wasn’t my thing. Then when a dad pulled an iguana’s tail and then taught his child to do the same thing, it was definitely time for me to leave. All the more reason to make it to the Galapagos to see them in their natural environment rather than a city park surrounded by people posing, poking and pulling them.”

Viewing James’ image of the tourists pulling on that poor iguana’s tail is truly shocking. It’s a real shame that the park doesn’t currently have regulations in place to protect the animals. Furthermore, their living environment looks far from natural.

Overall verdict: I don’t personally see the value in animal parks. They are completely unnatural and can cause distress for the animals. With such large flocks of people visiting the animals every day, making lots of noise and even touching the animals, it is hard to justify it and class it as ethical.

However, there are kinder alternatives. Sanctuaries which take care of rescued animals that can never be returned to a wild are an option (although it’s important these are researched too). There are also some animal parks that do care more about their animals and limit visitors and interaction with their animals. The key is to do lots of research on the organisation to make sure they have the best interests of their animals at heart.

The most shocking aspect of James’ visit was when tourists started pulling on the iguanas’ tails

Visiting Monkey Beach at Maya Bay in Thailand

There are many instances of tourist attractions which are completely natural but the tourism industry has had a profound effect on the areas. An example of this is Monkey Beach in Thailand, a beach where monkeys naturally liked to hang out. The increasing number of unregulated tourists visiting this area has forced the monkeys to start to behave unnaturally, as well as having a negative impact on the environment itself.

We asked Ben from Horizon Unknown how he felt about Monkey Beach after visiting earlier this year. “Thailand is a stunning travel destination, not only for the natural beauty but also diverse wildlife. Unfortunately, our impact as humans can very easily negatively impact those that rely on nature to survive.”

“During my travels through Thailand, I visited Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island. While it was every bit as touristy as I expected, what shocked and disgusted me was visiting ‘monkey beach’. Monkeys had grown so accustomed to human interactionWater bottles and empty packets of chips were visible on the shoreline of the beach. Not only were these once wild creatures dependant on humans, their home resembled a garbage dump.”

Ben was appalled by the quantity of litter in Maya Bay

“To top it all off,” Ben continues. “I was even told of a story where one tourist tried to kidnap a baby monkey. Disgusting.”

“As guests not only in another country but a completely different habitat, any visitors should learn to respect every aspect of nature.”

You can read more about Ben’s experience visiting Maya Bay here.

Overall verdict: Seeing animals in the natural habitat is a wonderful experience however we must have respect for the animals and their habitat. Littering is outrageous. In fact, bringing food to an area where there are wild animals is not recommended at all as the animals can smell the food and may get aggressive.

The best kind of animal tourism is viewing animals where they’re supposed to be – in the wild. But this will only work if we have respect for the wildlife and their homes.

Ben was told that a tourist once tried to kidnap a baby monkey from Maya Bay

Visiting or Volunteering at Turtle Sanctuaries

Being endangered, sea turtles are largely protected with many rescue sanctuaries dotted all over the globe. These sanctuaries even play a large role in the hatching of baby turtles which is understandable as the journey for a little turtle to the ocean is a very dangerous one. Not to mention, they often get disorientated due to light pollution which steers them from their course.

The name ‘sanctuary’ implies it is a safe place for wildlife but sadly, this isn’t always the case. Eloise from My Favourite Escapes has several experiences with visiting different turtle sanctuaries which she feels passionate about.

A Turtle Sanctuary on Efate Island, Vanuatu

“We were visiting Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, looking for a plan B as our plans got ruined because of the rain. “You could snorkel with turtles at Naiwe Beach,” said the guy at the tourist office. It’s only when the cab dropped us there that we found out it was a “Sanctuary”, and we had to pay a “conservation fee” to enter. I never give money to a place with animals without researching information before. But we didn’t have mobile network to access the Internet there. Because the tip came from the tourist office, I let them convince me. Unfortunately, it was nothing like swimming with turtles on the beach, nor a sanctuary.”

The sanctuary’s turtles were kept in small tanks, Eloise tells us, where they are handled by tourists

“A group of tourists from the P&O Cruise were having fun touching and feeding adult turtles that had been captured and held captive for months in a small enclosure on the side of the inlet. The lack of rules to protect the poor animals was shocking. A few metres away, dozens of visitors were admiring and sometimes handling the hatchlings kept in a cement tank. We asked a few questions to the staff and quickly realised their knowledge was limited. Their objective was to make tourists happy, not to educate them and not to take care of the unlucky creatures chosen to entertain the visitors. I really could not understand what kind of conservation was being done there as all these activities were interfering so much with the natural process and putting the animals at risks. It made me feel sad. “

“When they realised we weren’t excited at all by the turtles, they told us to walk up the river to see the sharks. They weren’t luckier than the turtles. I wanted to scream. We’re used to seeing these animals free while scuba diving and they clearly didn’t have one-tenth of the space they needed to be comfortable. From my point of view, we were looking at a prison, if not torture.”

What shocked me the most during this experience were all these tourists who were happily enjoying the visit without any shame or remorse. This place wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for them. That’s why opening people’s eyes on responsible travel and animal cruelty is critical. And I wish tourism offices and cruise operators were on board to help.”

Eloise’s experience at the Turtle Sanctuary is upsetting. However, the practise of one ‘sanctuary’ is not the practise of every sanctuary, as Eloise discovers.

Sharks at the ‘Turtle Sanctuary’ in what Eloise describes as a small prison

The Mon Repos Turtle Encounter on Australia’s East Coast
“The Mon Repos Turtle Centre near Bundaberg on the East Coast of Australia offered a very different experience to encounter turtles and hatchlings. Mon Repos is the most important nesting destination in the South Pacific region for the endangered loggerhead turtles. Visitors have to wait until it gets dark, hoping for the wild animals to show up. The excitation builds up. Volunteers and rangers oversee the encounter experience at all time. First, they announce the many rules to respect the turtles: no light, no loud noise, no flash photography, no interfering. Although it may sound frustrating, everybody gladly cooperated. I was surprised to see such a big group of people, including young kids, behaving so well.”

“Visitors kill time by learning a lot about sea turtles with videos, exhibitions, talks, and activities with the knowledgeable volunteers. With this new education, it totally makes sense to follow the instructions when the ranger finally takes you to the beach. Depending on the season, you can observe adult turtles coming out of the water to nest, or the first minutes the hatchlings spend on land before reaching the ocean. It feels unreal to see one of the rare moments the sea turtles spend outside the water. Although there was more handling than what I like with wild animals, I trusted the knowledgeable staff to put the wellbeing of the turtles first. We regretted being in such a big group, but that’s a concession to make the experience available for the general public and raise greater awareness.”

A turtle hatchling at Mon Repos
Eloise was pleased that the guides were knowledgable and respectful of the turtles

“These wild animals inspire great respect. I’m convinced that after visiting the Mon Repos Turtle Centre, many families take a few learnings back home to change some of their bad habits. After you witness first hand all the dangers the young turtles have to face during the early hours of their lives, and after you learn about how few will ever become adults, you don’t want them to die choking on your plastic rubbish.”

Overall verdict: Like with most activities highlighted in this post, researching a place before visiting is crucial. During your research you are looking for a sanctuary that interferes with the turtles as little as possible and certainly does not keep them in small, uncomfortable conditions. You are also looking for a sanctuary that offers minimal contact with the animals and highlights turtle safety as its priority.

Overall, turtle sanctuaries can offer many benefits to the animals through education and conservation. But you have to find the right ones who put the turtles first!

Can you spot the turtle?

Viewing The World’s Smallest Penguins in Australia & New Zealand

Little Penguins (also known as Fairy Penguins or Blue penguins) are the smallest species of penguin in the world and are found on the south coast of Australia, including Tasmania and New Zealand. To get some perspective on how small these guys are, an adult penguin tends to weigh only 2.6 lb. Now that’s adorable! It’s understandable how viewing these penguins has turned into a popular tourist attraction.

I’ve spoken to two travel bloggers who have had completely different experiences visiting Little Penguins which highlights the importance of researching a particular tour before taking part.

First, we asked Sarah from ASocialNomad about her experience visiting the Little Penguins Oamaru Harbour, New Zealand (where one of the largest colonies in the world live).

“The world’s smallest penguin, the Blue Penguin, has been nesting in a rock quarry at the edge of Oamaru Harbour, New Zealand since the 1990’s.” Sarah begins. “Today it’s a huge tourist attraction. You can visit the colony during the day or you can also go to special evening sessions to see the penguins as they return from their days fishing. The guided tours take place at a respectful distance and your dollars support the long-term conservation aspects of the Penguin Colony. You can book the conservation tours here.”

The Blue Penguins at Oamaru Harbour, New Zealand

“Many tourists, though, ourselves included choosing to head down to the harbour and watch as the penguin’s return. You can see them in many places in town, but on the jetty is a popular place. Here you’ll find that not everyone cares as much about the penguin welfare, more about the photos and selfies that they try to get with the penguins. It was a truly dreadful experience. It began well, with a few penguins trotting across and heading home. We took a few photos by the street lights. Then a few groups arrived, complete with bright white torches, flash cameras and selfie sticks. They appeared to be completely oblivious to the distress of the penguins, so determined were they do get the best shot and the right lighting.”

We did try explaining that it wasn’t good for the penguins and they were finding it distressing, but our pleas fell on deaf ears. It was a truly awful experience and left a very bitter taste in my mouth.”

In contrast, Brooke from Roamscapes went to see the Little Penguins in Melborne, Australia and had more positive experience.

“In Melbourne, Australia, I visited St Kilda pier for a completely free encounter with the native colony of little penguins that live on the breakwater.” Brooke starts. “Each evening after sunset, you can catch the penguins heading home to their burrows from the sea.”

Visitors waiting for the Little Penguins to come home

So far, Brooke’s experience sounds similar to Sarah’s. However, this is where the crucial change comes in.

The area is managed and cared for by Earthcare St Kilda,” Brooke continues. “A nonprofit organization whose volunteer guides monitor the crowds and answer visitors’ questions. Given that anyone can freely access the penguins’ natural habitat, I was expecting at least a few tourists to disobey the rules for observing the penguins when I visited. Most importantly, flash photography is prohibited, which means most people will not be able to capture photos of this nighttime experience.”

“To my surprise and delight, however, everyone was respectful and responsible: no one used their camera flash in their attempts to photograph the few penguins we spotted, and noise was kept to a minimum. Honestly, this sort of animal tourism is as ethical as we make it, but the locals have done an excellent job to ensure this is a positive experience for both people and penguins.”

It’s refreshing to hear a story that shows that there are some organisations that put the health and happiness of the animals first. The key difference between Sarah and Brooke’s experiences visiting the Little Penguins was that the visitors were managed by knowledgable guides from Earthcare St Kilda. These guides ensured that visitors knew how to behave around the penguins, something which Sarah’s group never had. It’s funny how something so small such as offering visitors guidance can really make the difference between a cruel or ethical animal encounter.

Overall verdict: When researching where to view the Little Penguins, make sure to look for a place where the penguins are managed by guides. Reviews and photos from other people’s experiences should be able to tell you if flash photography is prohibited at each view-point or not.

A Little Penguin, content as the visitors stay respectful at St Kilda pier

Wildlife Sanctuaries

Last but not least on our animal tourism journey, we look at wildlife sanctuaries. The idea behind sanctuaries is undoubtably positive. These places take in animals who have had a distressing past. However, nothing is black and white. Some companies have actually started exploiting the use of the word ‘sanctuary’ to draw unsuspecting tourists in but they don’t treat their animals well. A case of this can be seen with Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary in Sri Lanka. Elephants are treated cruelly, forced to live their lives in chains and to please tourists all day, including allowing tourists to ride on their backs. This was the very way of life they were meant to be safe from!

However, there are countless sanctuaries out there that have genuine intentions. I have had the pleasure of visiting one myself. Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia and I was impressed by the sanctuary’s efforts to take care of the country’s animals.

Natalie from A Pair of Travel Pants visited Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa. She shared her experience with us.

“We went to the Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa, 3 hours outside Johannesburg. Lionsrock is an organization that partners with FourPaws to help big cats find a home. These cats have been abused in the past and some of them come from zoos in war-town areas: Syria, Iraq, etc.”

Natalie at Lionsrock Sanctuary in South Africa

“We decided to go because by staying at the lodge at Lionsrock you are supporting the cause AND getting a chance to stay in a really lovely area of the countryside. The room rates are very reasonable and the food was good too!”

“The lodge offers tours of the grounds so you get a chance to see the lions, tigers, and cheetahs pretty close – especially if you go on a feeding day (Tuesdays and Thursdays!).”

“We learned how this company helps these animals felt happy to help support their efforts by staying in this beautiful area. We really enjoyed our stay there.”

It is clear that Natalie really enjoyed her experience at Lionsrock and felt proud to be supporting such a worthwhile cause. Some further research shows that the sanctuary also makes an effort to educate its visitors on “canned lions“. This is where some animal reserves hand-raise lion cubs and allow tourists to interact with them (also known as “cub petting”). As the lions age they are released into their reserve. However, having been raised by humans, they are not fearful of them and so are easy targets for big game hunters who will then pay to shoot them.

A rescued lion at Lionsrock Sanctuary

We also spoke to Priya from Ahoy Matey who was passionate about her visit to a wildlife sanctuary in India. “I first heard about Wildlife SOS when I watched its co-founder, Kartick Satyanaran’s TED Talk on how they launched and successfully implemented a campaign to rescue every “dancing” bear in India.” Priya begins.

“I was touched at the efforts that Wildlife SOS had made to put an end to this cruel, centuries-old practice. The organisation now rescues and rehabilitates as many elephants it can. They have also pledged to rescue every circus elephant in India.”

“Right now Wildlife SOS has over 20 elephants, 300 bears, and 30 leopards that depend on them every day. According to The Dodo, there are some 3,500 captive elephants in India and the majority of them are used for elephant rides by Western tourists.”

One of the rescued elephants at Wildlife SOS

“They are kept in deplorable conditions: Walking on hot, tar roads. Trained with spiked chains and bullhooks. No veterinary care. Dehydration, cracked feet and abscesses. Being shackled for long periods in the heat.” Priya tells us about the awful conditions that elephants are kept in when used in the tourist industry giving people ‘elephant rides’.

“In November 2016, we visited Wildlife SOS’ Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC) in Mathura, about 57 kilometers from Agra in India. At the ECCC, visitors get to meet the elephants, learn their stories and the circumstances they were rescued from, help with bathing them and, like we did, accompany them on their evening walk.”

“It was nothing less than a privilege and humbling, to have walked beside these majestic creatures and connected with them in a way that not many humans get to experience.”

“At the ECCC, their physical and emotional scars can heal at last. They are lovingly bathed, fed their favourite treats, taste the sweet scent of freedom and enjoy the company of a herd of friendly elephants. They can sleep on the soft earth, play in a pool built just for them and live a life of comfort and dignity.”

You can read more about Priya’s experience walking Maya the elephant here.

Overall verdict: Wildlife sanctuaries can be incredibly beneficial to animals. Not only do they save animals from dire circumstances but they also contribute towards the conservation of wild animals too. However, like with everything, it’s still important that you do your research prior to booking your trip as some companies use the name ‘sanctuary’ when they are really anything but.

Thailand has numerous elephant sanctuaries and one that I have continued to hear great things about is Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai. This sanctuary puts the wellbeing of its elephants first and doesn’t allow elephant rides.

Priya tells us that the elephants at Wildlife SOS have been rescued from lives of torture
The rescued elephants can now live the happy life that they deserve

The Verdict: Is Animal Tourism Cruel or Ethical?

After hearing numerous stories from travellers allover the world, it has become clear that animal tourism is a murky area. Although there are many companies that offer responsible tourism, dubious activities are taking place all the time.

Ultimately, animal tourism done right can be very beneficial to the animals. It can teach us how to preserve species and habitats as well as bringing us lots of joy too. I always believe we should embrace the natural world and educating people on animals is the key to their survival.

I hope you have learnt some tips from this article on how to be a more responsible traveller, responsible for both the animals and the natural world that they live in.

Don’t forget to join the conversation! I’m curious, do you have any stories to share about animal tourism?

A big thank you to all of those who contributed to this article! is a free online resource. If you have found this website useful for planning your adventures, you can show your support by buying me a coffee. Thanks so much!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Natalie Allen

Tuesday 4th of December 2018

Nice compilation, Ella! It's good to shine a light on this and assess the pros and cons of participating in animal cruelty or rescue!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.