Building Awareness Among Travellers

How one blogger campaigns for better animal tourism

Jeremy Scott Foster

In late 2013, Jeremy Scott Foster of the popular blog travelFREAK, decided he’d had enough. He’d seen elephant tourism in Thailand at its ugliest. He’d also visited an inspiring elephant sanctuary, and wanted to spread the word.

In his post Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand, he wrote:

“Look at me!” she shouted. “Take a picture! Look!”
Her voice screeched with annoying enthusiasm as she flailed her arms in the air. She was a toothy English girl with a smile the size of a quartered honeydew. Straddling the elephant’s spine, she widened her eyes, beamed a smile, threw her arms above her head and cast two peace signs into the air. I think, at this moment, she had reached the very pinnacle of her life.
I tried to contain myself.
On one hand, this girl was traveling to new places, learning exciting things about the world, experiencing the globe and, hopefully, a new culture. On the other hand, she was contributing to a very cruel facet of tourism in Thailand.
In her defense, she probably didn’t know any better. Not that ignorance is an excuse, but it’s allowable.
I ask myself, where are the ethics in tourism anymore? Where are the real travelers? Is the world nothing more than everybody’s personal amusement park?

Jeremy channeled his frustration into something positive, something powerful. As a travel blogger with a number of high-profile blogger friends, he was in a great position to address the ignorance about exploitative elephant tourism in Asia.

Under his leadership, more than 20 travel bloggers banded together in December 2014 in a grassroots charity project to support the Save Elephant Foundation, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They used their blogs to leverage awareness about responsible tourism and to raise donations for Elephant Nature Park.

Today, over a year later, Jeremy has had a chance to reflect on the campaign and answer a few questions about it.

What made you take action on elephants in tourism?

I’ll be honest — it wasn’t just the elephants. I had seen the ugly side of tourism, the side that most people acknowledge but few talk about. It’s rife in Southeast Asia, yet for some reason, a lot of people turn a blind eye.

In many parts of the world, tourism is exploitative. Sex trafficking, child beggars, rhino poaching, and elephant riding are all real-life examples.

Many travellers don’t take into account the impact that their presence and their dollars have on local communities and, in many cases, local wildlife. When we’re traveling, we spend a little bit more frivolously. It’s exciting, and a vacation is what so many people save up for. I was the same way for many years.

But then I realized that, every single day, as consumers, we vote in support of exploitation by spending money in certain places. Every dollar spent is a vote in support of those business practices. And in Thailand, so many tourists vote in favor of elephant abuse, likely not even realizing it.

How did your campaign go?

As bloggers, we are in the unique position of having a platform to reach hundreds of thousands of people every month. And with that, it’s our duty as people to utilise it for good. I started Travellers Building Change as a grassroots charity project, and over the course of a couple years, we raised over $20,000 for a couple of different causes.

Our donation to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, helped to buy a new portion of land for rescued elephants to live on. The sanctuary there is just that — a safe haven for abused elephants who have been rescued. At the ENP, they can live out the rest of their lives in peace.

But elephants are big, and they need land. When the ENP ran out of space, our final donation helped them to buy more, literally giving these elephants a home, where they’ll be safe for many generations to come.

In your opinion, is awareness on the rise? Is it pushing the industry in a more positive direction?

I do think awareness is on the rise, but I think ignorance is on the rise too. It’s easier to ignore elephant abuse than it is to care about it. Vacation is an escape, and when people are on vacation, the last thing they want to think about is what it means to be “responsible”.

When I was trekking in northern Thailand, I actually ended up at an elephant camp with about 12 other travellers. Before arriving, I spoke with the group to make sure each person understood what they were doing, and how they were contributing to the abuse of these animals.

With the exception of one girl, every single person decided to ride the elephants anyway.

The one girl who didn’t ride is now my girlfriend.