Elephant walks through water at a high welfare tourist attraction in Koh Lanta, Thailand - Wildlife. Not entertainers - World Animal Protection

Elephant riding and bathing now ‘unacceptable’ in latest travel association guidelines


ABTA, the UK's largest travel association, has updated its animal welfare guidelines to make it ‘unacceptable’ for tour operators and travel agents (who adopt the guidelines) to offer tourists any direct contact and feeding with elephants without a barrier

This fantastic news comes after we highlighted that the largest UK travel trade association’s previous guidelines were not strong enough. 

We since worked with the association during a consultation period, providing expert advice and strong evidence to enable ABTA to become a better industry leader for animal welfare.  

Through its new guidelines, ABTA is saying no to this awful animal cruelty and setting a great precedent for other travel associations, standard setting bodies, travel companies and governments around the world. 

The crush

Whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity, all elephants used for shows or unprotected close tourist contact will have undergone a traumatic training method known as ‘the crush’.


Tourists riding elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This involves separating young elephant calves from their mother, keeping them in isolation, depriving them of food and water, and in many cases beating them repeatedly until they are broken and can be controlled by fear.

Not just elephants

Below are just some of the practices which, as a result of our efforts and evidence, will now be classified as ‘unacceptable’ for tourists through tour operators and travel agents who adopt ABTA’s new animal welfare guidelines:

  • Contact or feeding of elephants without a barrier
  • Contact or feeding of crocodiles or alligators
  • Contact or feeding of great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, bonobos)
  • Contact or feeding of bears
  • Contact or feeding of sloths
  • Contact or feeding of orca
  • Contact, feeding of and “walking with” wild cats
  • Elephant shows or performances for tourists

Orangutan used for tourist entertainment

Our global campaign lead, Julie Middelkoop, said: "We are delighted that ABTA has heard the consortium of animal protection NGOs working together on this issue.  

"The clear advice that it is unacceptable to use elephants for shows, rides, bathing or any other form of tourist contact without a barrier is a real breakthrough.

"We are equally thrilled to see that other harmful tourist experiences such as selfies with sloths in the Amazon, feeding orangutans popular in many Asian zoos and walking with lions in southern Africa have the same listing."

ABTA’s senior destinations and sustainability manager, Clare Jenkinson, said: "ABTA Members have led the way on animal welfare by implementing ABTA’s guidelines for a number of years, and others in the industry from around the world use ABTA’s guidelines as the basis for their animal welfare policies.

"Naturally, with the emergence of new evidence, thinking evolves on what constitutes a basic requirement or an unacceptable practice.  

"Thanks to the valued input from many expert stakeholders, the revised guidelines will mean that travel companies can implement animal welfare approaches that reflect the latest evidence, working in partnership with suppliers to raise standards."


An elephant eating leaves from a tree at a high welfare venue in Thailand

The go-to industry guide 

ABTA’s original Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism was published in 2013 and was seen as the ‘de facto’ animal welfare standards in the travel industry, both for ABTA Members and non-members.

However, a research report we published in 2018 stated that some of the language used was vague and inconsistent.

It found that the guidelines were not strong enough to provide the protection that elephants and other species need to prevent them from suffering in the name of tourist entertainment.

Following our recommendations, the updated guidelines no longer uses the ‘discourage’ category, which was one of the reasons why the previous guidelines were considered vague.

A practice is now either acceptable – if it takes ‘basic welfare requirements’ into account – or unacceptable.

Our work doesn’t end here

Next year, we – and other international NGOs including Humane Society International, Born Free Foundation, World Cetacean Alliance and Whale and Dolphin Conservation – will continue to provide ABTA with expertise to ensure that ABTA’s manual on dolphins in captive environments is updated.


A tourist holding a dolphin in water at a tourist attraction in Mexico

We will ensure that the guidelines for captive dolphins will be updated to reflect the latest science, ethics and public attitudes.

And we’ll help ensure that this is the last generation of dolphins that lives miserable lives in the name of tourism entertainment.

The clear advice that it is unacceptable to use elephants for shows, rides, bathing or any other form of tourist contact without a barrier is a real breakthrough.

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