Responsible Tourism: Five Travel Experiences I Wouldn’t Do Today

Past Travel Experiences I Wouldn't Do Today

Responsible Tourism: Five Travel Experiences I Wouldn’t Do Today

They say travel changes you, and I have seen it within myself with each trip I take. Sometimes when I look back, I realize that there were ways that I experienced the world that I would never dream of doing today. Even though I don’t believe in regret because I know I have learned and grown from my experiences, if given a choice to do it all over again, my travel plans would have panned out much differently.

Often while traveling, I barely plan my trip. Instead I let the country I am in choose where I will go and what I will see. Because of this, I don’t always know the pros and cons of certain activities until afterwards. Sometimes it comes as an unsettling feeling during the experience, but other times, it comes afterwards when I think about it or research the subject further.

Everyone travels differently and views the world from a unique perspective, but the more I see and do, the more I realize that I want to make sure that my contribution to the planet is a positive one. Now, when I look into experiences, I make sure I am making a positive impact and working with companies that benefit the country I am visiting. Maybe without my past travel experiences, I wouldn’t realize just how important that is.

Looking back, there are five activities I wish I didn’t take part in while traveling, and in the future, I plan on being a more responsible traveler. My hope is that you’ll do the same.

Riding on Elephants

Past Travel Experiences I Wouldn't Do Today

Of all the experiences I have had, this is the one I feel most upset about. Elephants have always been my favorite animal, and I had no idea the torture that went into training them to carry tourists around. Maybe I should have guessed or done research before riding them in both Thailand and Zimbabwe, but I just assumed I would be gaining a close connection to my favorite animal, not harming them.

In the future, I would look into places that have rescued these animals from poor conditions and volunteer to help them. I’ve also learned that not all programs that pledge to help animals actually do, so it’s important to do amble research before participating in any activity.

Posing with Tigers

Responsible Tourism: Past Travel Experiences I Wouldn't Do Today

I’m not entirely sure what compelled my friends and me to pay a visit to Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but I think we were just looking for another unique experience. With a better reputation than the controversial Tiger Temple, we were more afraid of the tigers than the conditions they were in.

While the tigers didn’t seem drugged  and the park was well-kept, the animals were still living their lives out in cages. It just seems to me that they could be living a better life somewhere else, where they don’t have to lie around and pose with tourists all day. After years of analyzing my decision to visit Tiger Kingdom, I’m just not sure I can recommend a trip there with confidence because I don’t believe it’s what is best for the tigers.

Walking with Lions

Responsible Tourism: Past Travel Experiences I Wouldn't Do Today

When I signed up to walk with the lions, I felt better about the experience than I did about posing for pictures with tigers. The company, ALERT, seemed promising in that they said they rescued and protected the lions, eventually setting them back out into the wild.

Stepping away from the experience, I questioned whether the company was doing more harm than good, especially after doing some research of my own. I did not understand how the animals were benefiting from spending time with humans to begin with. Maybe if I was volunteering at the center my time would have been more beneficial, but I am not sure I really made any impact by walking around with them.

Tribal Visits

Responsible Tourism: Past Travel Experiences I Wouldn't Do Today

Both of my experiences visiting tribal groups left me feeling uncomfortable. In both the Karen and Himba tribes, the women and children we were visiting did not choose this lifestyle, and it felt wrong to come into their lives to photograph how different they were than ours. Any tour that allows you to look at and take pictures of people whose lifestyle is different from yours just doesn’t sit well with me.

Rather than photographing what I saw, I chose instead to immerse myself with the young children of the tribe, sitting on the ground and playing with them. This wasn’t the purpose of our visit, but I easily connect with children and although our language was not the same, we played around and laughed for the rest of my time there. Still, in the future, I’d avoid visiting a group of people unless I was going in and making a positive and lasting impact on their lives.

Cage Diving with Great Whites

Responsible Tourism: Past Travel Experiences I Wouldn’t Do Today.

While I grew a greater appreciation for sharks during my cage diving experience, there has been some controversy over cage diving. The company I went with researches and studies the sharks that come up to the boat, which is why I felt better about choosing this experience.

However, there are concerns about chumming the water and attracting sharks to the area. There is also no solid evidence that it diving with Great Whites does anything for shark conservation, and there are probably better ways to spend money to protect sharks.

As I grow older and more traveled, I become more mindful of my impact on the world, including the products I’m using, companies I’m supporting, and the food I am eating. It’s important that my impact be a positive one, especially considering the way I feel about the world. Knowing my impact causes me to change my actions to make sure the beautiful places I have been to stay that way and that the planet is better due to my time on it, not worse. From these experiences, I have also changed my viewpoints on activities here at home, and I refuse to visit aquariums, zoos, and circuses.

Sometimes I look back on past pictures and posts and get upset over my decision to take part in activities that weren’t for the greater good of the place I was visiting, but I’m choosing to use my voice to recommend that my readers do not take part in these activities. While I can’t go back and change the past, I know that in the present and future, I am choosing responsible tourism and programs that help the animals, people, and places of the countries I hold so dearly.

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Comments (37)

  1. Cassie G.

    New follower here! I love this post.

    I wish I could travel as much as you. I love your viewpoint on this topic. Glad you are one of the few people that want to leave the Earth better than you found it. 🙂

    1. The World Wanderer

      Hi Cassie! So glad you’re following along!

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’m hoping I can make a difference by sharing my experiences on here. Maybe you’ll be able to travel more in the near future. 🙂

  2. Sarah Lynn

    Great post!
    Although you can’t change your past decisions, I think it’s admirable that you took the time to share them and reflect on the experience.
    Maybe it will make other travellers think twice before they sign up for one of the aforementioned experiences.

    1. The World Wanderer

      I sure hope so, Sarah! Thanks for the comment, it wasn’t an easy topic for me to write about. 🙂

  3. Tim

    I think we all go through this travel conscious evolution as experience more and our eyes are open to more. I have done all five of these to and like you would definitely not do two of them again under any circumstances; elephant rides and the tiger zoo. The tribal visit has always been one that bothered me however on long treks I see it as a great way to see a bit of local culture in exchange for some income (hopefully) to the village. For short stops where everyone piles out with cameras and snaps away I am not a fan anymore. Another one I would add to the list is whale watching. This has become such a huge industry and is not helpful, for the most part, to the health and well being of these great mammals. Great post and awesome reflection on lessons learned. This is the reason we travel 🙂

    1. The World Wanderer

      I agree with you that tribal visits to learn about culture and gain a better understanding from meeting people are so much different. But, the two I’ve experienced were not ones that felt that way.

      Whale watching is a good one to add too. Thanks for you comment and support. Travel truly is the best form of education 🙂

  4. Jenne

    Thanks so much for sharing this. So often travel blogs/travel bloggers only post the “good” and don’t speak honestly about their experiences on the road. It takes a lot of courage to come forth and speak openly about having a change of heart about these things. Some of them have a bad reputation (like the tigers) but others people may not have even considered (like going to visit a tribe). Too often, especially in our social media saturated world, it’s easy to see travel as just a giant photo shoot and that these kinds of experiences are just a backdrop to show off to the world how “travelled” we are. Hopefully your post will encourage people to seek out cultural experiences in a more meaningful and long lasting way! (E.g., volunteering)

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, Jenne! I sure hope so. This post wasn’t easy to write, but writing it was a huge relief. If I can encourage other travelers to have better experiences, it will be worth putting it all out there. I agree that we do see the world and travel as a huge photo shoot, but it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Thanks so much for your comment! 🙂

  5. Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)

    It’s hard, especially when traveling in an unfamiliar country, to identify the line between a unique experience and exploitation. But we do have an abundance of information available now, more so than in years past. We can be better informed and make more responsible decisions.

    1. The World Wanderer

      I think that the traveler, and person, I am is very different than who I was when I had these experiences. I agree that there’s so much out there, next time I know I will make the right decision.

  6. Tamara @ We3Travel

    In the past year I’ve grown and learned a lot more about some of the experiences that I’ve participated in (swimming with dolphins, visiting SeaWorld, posing with tigers) and I have regrets as well. Even now with more awareness it is hard to always know what to believe, especially when it comes to animal preservation, treatment, etc.

    1. The World Wanderer

      I completely agree with you. After seeing animals in the wild, I know that’s where they belong, but that also has it’s own risks and dangers: poachers. It’s hard to know what’s wrong and right, but I know I am going to look into any experiences I may be interested in more closely in the future.

  7. Katrina the Two Week Traveler

    I’ve done great white shark diving. I definitely do not think it’s irresponsible tourism, at least not if the tour operator is behaving ethically. I do feel like it helps raise awareness about conservation. I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve told about it and about how the sharks are not as scary as they seem. It gave me a whole new understanding and respect for sharks, which I think I have passed on to at least a few people!

    I just reserved a spot on the Lion Encounter for my trip to Africa in a couple weeks. I have mixed feelings about it after reading reviews. Not really sure what to do now!

    1. The World Wanderer

      I agree that it has helped my understanding of sharks, but I just felt uneasy about the experience afterwards, especially after reading more about it. To each his own, but I don’t think I’d recommend it to people.

      My advice for the lion encounter is to go with your gut. It was an amazing experience, but again, I felt uneasy about it after. It depends on what you think. See what information you can find regarding the company and decide from there. 🙂

  8. Traveling Ted

    Very honest assessment of past travel experiences. I am definitely right there with you on the elephant. On top of the remorse, I just did not care for the experience, although it was kind of cool sauntering up to a lady who was selling beer and bananas.

    1. The World Wanderer

      It was a bit strange, right? Beer and bananas though!? We didn’t have that on ours!

  9. Pola (Jetting Around)

    I admire your self-reflection and honesty, Erin. We can’t change our actions in the past, but we can make different choices in the future. That being said, I know that you did these activities with pure intentions. An important post, especially on Earth Day.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, Pola! Travel has definitely changed me, as well as my view of the world. I am even trying to add more vegetarian and vegan meals to my diet. Any little bit helps, right? I sure hope so!

  10. craig zabransky

    traveling teaches…. it certainly does. I thought of so many comments on this, a great post and admission……. I thought it was interesting it involved people or animals, and wonder if the environment will be another level or next? I thought about mentioning one of mine not listed or adding others like, I can’t believe there are tours of favelas and people take photos…. I am not sure what is best to leave or if I left them all, but I will say this… brave of you to write this and great to learn from your thoughts. Stay wandering, Craig

    1. The World Wanderer

      Yes, Craig! I was thinking of this too, but I’ve never done them so I didn’t add that – favelas, township tours in SA, orphanage tours in SEA, slum tours in Mumbai…I cannot believe these things exist. Imagine what it must be like growing up there.

      Thanks so much for your comment, it wasn’t an easy post to write. 🙂

  11. Ellie Quinn

    Fantastic post and something I have been thinking about recently too!
    I also did an elephant ride when I first visited Thailand and came away not happy with myself at all, when I went back last year I instead went to the elephant nature park outside Chiang Mai which rescues elephants and it was such a better experience, one of my top travel experiences actually and I also felt unsure about my shark cage dive after speaking to the locals in the town after I had done it.

    I agree too though that I don’t regret it but I’ve learnt from it and I now think these activities through first and do some research and try and tell people about my thoughts on things like elephant rides so they help stop the demand too!

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, Ellie! We can only do what we can, since we can’t go back and change it. Maybe since we’ve done it, it gives us more credibility as to why we think it’s wrong for others to do it. One can only hope.

      I felt okay about the shark diving at the time, but after hearing what people had to say about it, I am on the fence about it. It’s a tough one.

  12. lola

    I think it’s lovely that you shared your thoughts about these practices. While I think I’d like to see animals, it would be in their own natural environment. The tribal experiences are tough because I love spending time with people of different cultures and sometimes photos help to document that.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, love! The animals in their natural environment are the best, it’s so beautiful to watch. The tribal experiences aren’t for me, especially after the ones I have been to. I’d love to spend a few days with people and really get to know them, but in an hour, I think it’s often more harm than good, especially when people just take pictures. From my experiences, the people from the tribes were not happy about it, and I completely understand why.

  13. Natalie @ In Natalie's Shoes

    I can relate to this reflection! Growing up, there was a theme park near Napa with a focus on animals (Marine World Africa USA). We used to stand in line for what seemed like hours to ride the elephants, take in orca shows, or knock on the glass homes of penguins to get their attention. Looking back, I feel awful! Clearly, I was too young to understand or even consider what these animals might be going through.

    Even now, I’m becoming educated on (feel quite terrible about) buying products tested on animals. I’m in the process of switching out some of my (former) favorite brands: Benefit and Clinique. I learned that because they’re international brands sold in China, and China mandates animal testing for beauty products sold there, these brands cannot claim to be cruelty free. Even though their US products are not tested on animals. *Sigh*

    1. The World Wanderer

      I completely agree with you on the animal testing…actually, this is something my friend and I were talking about the other day. She was also so upset about Benefit. Lately, I’ve been switching to all-natural, organic, vegetarian beauty products. Over the summer, I watched this talk about how many chemicals seep into our skin through the products we use. They tested umbilical cords of babies and found all these chemicals. They are banned in Europe, but not in America – it’s actually frightening. So, I figured I would switch now. Smashbox is not tested on animals (I am not sure how healthy their products are but yay for no testing!) Anastasia is also not tested on animals! Also, I have been using Juice Beauty make up, it’s organic and not tested on animals, and I absolutely love it. The concealer isn’t the best, but the tinted moisturizer actually moisturizers. I’m a huge fan of theirs at the moment. 🙂

      We can only do so much, and we can’t change the past, but at least we are trying!

  14. Leah

    I tend to agree with these. Of the five you’ve mentioned, I’ve only ridden an elephant, but I’ll never do it again. I’m not quite sure I’d sign up for the other four either. The more I learn, the more I just don’t think it’s something I feel comfortable with. Kudos for this article.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Thanks, Leah! The more we travel, the more educated we become.

  15. ‘I wish I hadn’t done it’: Confessions of a tourist - Australia News

    […] 30, has discovered just how true this is. The American-based explorer, who runs the travel blog The World Wanderer, has visited more than 20 countries in the past six […]

  16. Didier Van Dessel

    Great Post Erin,
    I was lucky enough to have lived abroad (China) before I set off on my World Tour of 65 countries, my experiences in China were a massive culture shock and wake up call to the way animals and people are treated outside of my cosy life in Australia and ever since I’ve been a strong advocate of animal welfare. I’ve spoken to many people who did the elephant rides in Thailand and regretted it and have vowed never to return. I guess once the excitement of travel sets in people change and leave their moral compass at home, I think if you support programs that give both animals and communities hope and a chance to coexist as Dr Jane Goodall has done in Africa we can have a better world.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Wow, 65 countries! It’s amazing how different life can be in all the places we visit. But, learning is one of the best parts of travel.

      I agree that support to the right programs is what’s important. Sometimes we do things blindly, but there are ways to see the world in a way that’s best for everyone.

  17. Melissa

    I’m not as enthusiastic about this post as others. Of the five experiences, you’ve gone back twice for the tribal visits and elephant rides. Obviously, you didn’t think that long and hard about it the first time around. You ‘felt uneasy’ after your experiences on numerous occasions, yet you engage in similar experiences on your next adventure. Feeling uncomfortable after your experience is just an excuse – you have the photo and the blog post too, but also the hindsight. Undertaking thorough research on these places is not difficult. It would appear your approach to responsible tourism operates only in hindsight.

    1. The World Wanderer

      Hi Melissa! Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry it upsets you. I had these experiences in 2011 and 2012, and I am not the traveler I was back then. I was young and naive, maybe more so than other people.

      In my first elephant experience in Thailand, we visited an elephant hospital. I thought that what was being done was to help the elephants, I didn’t realize what went on behind the scenes. The following summer, I visited Zimbabwe, and signed up for an elephant ride because I wanted to see how the experience compared. What I noticed was that the facility took better care of the elephants, and it seemed to be a reputable place. What I didn’t realize until I returned home was that the experience, regardless of where it was, was bad for the elephant. Maybe I didn’t want to realize that at the time, but I regret it looking back. I want to use my voice to prevent others from making the mistakes I did.

      As far as the tribal visits, the first was also in Thailand, and it was less of a visit than what appeared to be a shopping trip. The women and children were refugees from Laos and this was the only way they could make a living. At the time, with so little travel experience, I didn’t see how it could be bad. The next summer, while in Africa, I visited the Himba tribe because it was part of the tour I was on. It was a completely different experience than the one I had in Thailand. We weren’t buying goods to support the tribe, we were simply going to look at their lifestyle. I could tell how unhappy they were, and that’s when I began to look back on my visit to the Karen tribe and realize that these were not experiences I wanted to be a part of.

      Yes, my view towards responsible tourism is looking back and seeing what I did wrong, so that in the future, I will make different decisions. All of these experiences happened three and four years ago, and I have not had an experience like either since.

      It took a lot for me to write this and openly admit my mistakes. Maybe it doesn’t seem genuine to you, but to me, it’s using my voice and platform to try make a difference in other people’s decisions.

      Yes, I could make excuses about what I’ve done, but I’m admitting here, to the world, that I’ve made mistakes. I’m human, we make mistakes, and they are mistakes I regret, but I can’t go back and fix them. All I can do is make sure others know there are better ways to experience the world.

      1. Kim | The Wanderlist

        Hi Melissa, hi Erin.

        I’ve had precisely the same hindsight over elephant rides and sadly, the lowest of the low, the tiger temple in Chiang Mai, both of which I visited in 2011, when I was young and naive on holiday with friends. As soon as I arrived there, I felt uneasy and seeing the big tigers pretty much unconscious on a table ready to be posed with broke my heart.

        Erin, I can empathise, and I commend you for writing this post and admitting to your irresponsible practices whilst travelling! It’ll certainly make others think twice before doing it.
        You raised some points about cage diving with sharks I didn’t know about either, which is good since I was thinking about buying my boyfriend one as a birthday present!

  18. Deborah McLaren

    Hi Erin,
    You’ve traveled the world. What do you think about responsible travel in the USA? Do you think we world travelers should take a look at what’s going on in our own backyard? Do you know about good projects/activities here? Do you blog about them? Just thinking its good to know where we’re from and why we’re so interested in traveling to other places. Is there good that comes out of traveling?


  19. ‘I wish I’d never done it’: Confessions of a tourist |

    […] 30, has discovered just how true this is. The American-based explorer, who runs the travel blog The World Wanderer, has visited more than 20 countries in the past six […]

  20. Jean |

    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. We often “live and learn,” but aren’t always willing to admit we might have made a mistake. Happy travels, Jean

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