Wildlife Tourism On Your Gap Year, The RIGHT Way.

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Everyone loves seeing wildlife on their travels, but by doing so you may be causing the animals you love a lot of harm, whether you meant to or not. Find out how to see wildlife on your gap year, the RIGHT way.

If you are dreaming of or planning your gap year or backpacking trip at the moment, I’ll bet a great deal of you have harboured dreams of seeing some sort of exotic animal up close, maybe even interacting or volunteering with them, right?

Well you aren’t alone.

Wildlife spotting and interaction is one of the most popular bucket list items on many travellers lists, and opportunities to see one of the ‘big 5’ up close or take a wildlife tour or safari are hugely popular. Swimming with sharks or dolphins, gorilla trekking, orang utan spotting, elephant trekking, the list is very long and the numbers of people lining up to take part is growing by the day, with many tourists expressing the wish to see some of nature’s most beautiful creatures ‘in their natural habitat’, a phrase rendered meaningless by the fact it so often has so little thought behind it. Even more traditional forms of wildlife and animal tourism, ranging from zoos and aquariums to animal sanctuaries remain high on many tourists wish lists of places to visit.

Wildlife tourism has become an integral part of the gap year and tourism industries in recent years. Many industry organisations and providers use wildlife as a unique selling point by offering a wide variety of wildlife spotting and interaction packages and tours alongside the all important RTW ticket and insurance package.

The appeal is obvious, especially to animal lovers. Who wouldn’t want to see a gorilla in the jungles of Uganda, wild hippos or elephants in Ghana or spot an orangutan in Borneo? Who wouldn’t want to see a lion roar majestically just feet away from them or see penguins dance through the water in their large enclosures? Who wouldn’t want the chance to take up the romanticised opportunity to trek with elephants through a jungle?

I’m not immune from that appeal myself, as an avid animal lover I have always wanted to see animals whenever I could since I started backpacking over a decade ago, and whenever I am travelling – even now – I always seek out opportunities to see or help animals of any kind whenever I can. I have always tried to support animal conservation and protection, but I think the big difference now as opposed to when I first started travelling is that I like to think my decisions are a little more informed now than they used to be on which animal attractions I support, and I try to make the best decisions I can to only support those organisations and attractions that help and protect animals and make efforts to secure their conservation. I’m not perfect, and I’m ashamed to admit in the past I haven’t always made the best choices. Not out of ill will or malice but largely out of a lack of knowledge at the time. Many parts of the wildlife tourism industry are very deceptive, portraying a benign facade of animal protection and conservation when their primary motive has been profit.  I have visited places that at the time I thought were treating the animals right, only to later find out they weren’t conforming to best practices. I have been on elephant treks and safari’s that I know know weren’t exactly beneficial to the animals involved. And yes, I am ashamed of that. One thing I can say however is that in all my years backpacking I like to think I have grown, learned and changed my practices so that now my decisions are far more informed than they used to be. Now I can support parts of the wildlife tourism industry that are getting it right, and do my part – however small – in helping and protecting the animals I love seeing.

Orangutan animal conservation Borneo

‘The problem is a lot of the time wildlife tourism can do far more harm than good.’

Wildlife tourism can be a huge force for good if done in the right way, and can play a large and important role in highlighting conservation issues and protecting animal rights. When done right, it can create a revenue stream for a local population giving them the personal incentive to ensure that an animal’s natural habitat is preserved and protected.

When done right, wildlife tourism gives local tourist industries a personal investment and self interest in preserving and protecting animal rights. Wildlife tourism can help to stop activities such as poaching and illegal hunting by giving the powers that be a financial incentive to get off their backsides and do something about it, and it can help to highlight bad practices on the world stage through constant social media attention and give businesses an incentive to stick to international standards on animal welfare.

There are plenty of businesses and organisations within the wildlife tourism industry that are getting it right. Some zoos – far from being the hellish prisons with cramped enclosures some people mistakenly label all zoos as – actually adhere to the international code of ethics set out by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They make great strides in conservation efforts and breeding programmes that are held to international standards. They educate the general public about conservation and animal welfare and at a base level they can give the general public an emotional and psychological connection to the animal welfare cause.

There are a wide range of conservation camps, animal sanctuaries, tour groups and safaris that all work within international standards for animal welfare and conservation, and utilise tourist support only in so far as it actually benefits the true conservation efforts of the animals involved.

When these industries are supported by tourists, they can provide an essential link in the wildlife tourism triangle of animal welfare, tourist and industry and become a mutually beneficial link in the chain that can help promote and achieve wildlife protection.

Bemused Backpacker Bengal Tiger

Unfortunately this isn’t always the case and the problem is a lot of the time wildlife tourism can do far more harm than good.

For every good organisation, business or tour group out there, there are many more who don’t have the animals interests at heart. A combination of greed, opportunism, apathy and a huge lack of education and understanding from the general public can lead to animals actually being harmed and exploited by the wildlife tourism industry and the very tourists who have come to see them.

Some animal abuse is blatantly obvious, bullfighting in Spain or the Pamplona bull run are both visibly cruel and abusive to the animals involved, but there are a huge range of activities and organisations that exploit animals which are not so immediately apparent and tourists – often unwittingly – support these practices by turning up in droves and paying a lot of money to see or use them. Put quite simply, many tourist activities that abuse, harm or exploit animals only continue because tourists choose to support them.

The now infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand is a prime example of this. Despite years of documented proof of abuse and campaigns for it to be shut down by various animal rights charities and NGOs, it still hides behind a benign facade of conservation and protection. Thanks in part to a complete lack of education or understanding of the issues involved on the part of the tourists and travellers who visit, the temple is one of the most popular tourist draws in Thailand and brings in substantial tourist revenue not only to the temple itself but to the myriad of tour operators, guesthouses and other businesses that support it. No matter that the tigers are clearly abused and exploited, at least the visitors get a nice little Facebook profile picture of them cuddling a cub or sitting next to a full grown tiger.

This unfortunately isn’t the only example. All over the world tourists sit at so called conservation camps cheering and clapping as various wild animals perform for their pleasure. They frequent zoos that are run for profit and commercial gain with poor conditions and little or no efforts made toward international conservation. They pose for photos with cute little animals made to perform for their pleasure or utilise animal transport that doesn’t always care for the animals in the way that they should be. They swim with dolphins who are often either forced to perform numerous times daily or in the wild chased down by hordes of motor boats full of fee paying tourists completely unaware of the long term damage they could be doing to the very animals they have come to see. The examples to choose from are unfortunately pretty extensive.

RIGHT Tourism Campaign

Care for the Wild International have set up a campaign to educate the general public and ensure that wildlife tourism industry complies with international standards for the protection and treatment of the animals. The RIGHT tourism campaign highlights those parts of the industry that are getting it right by getting them to sign up to their RIGHT tourism pledge on animal welfare, as well as naming and shaming those parts of the wildlife tourism industry that are blatantly exploiting and abusing animals. The campaign aims to ensure that wildlife tourism actually benefits conservation efforts and helps to ensure the animals involved are treated correctly.

It isn’t just about the wildlife tourism industry though. Tourists, backpackers and travellers themselves play a huge part in ensuring that activities that exploit or abuse animals are stamped out, and the RIGHT tourism campaign has set out a list of dos and don’ts for being an animal friendly tourist.

The RIGHT tourism campaign aims to make tourists ask themselves if what they are doing is good for the animals involved, or are they actually doing more harm than good. It aims to make the general public think twice about their actions and make them realise that perhaps sitting on top of a brow beaten tiger for a photo opportunity or chasing down an animal in its ‘natural environment’ for a glimpse of them isn’t exactly the best thing for the animals involved. If the general public are aware of the facts about the treatment of animals for the wildlife tourism industry, then they can make fully informed and ethical choices about which businesses and organisations to support.

You have a choice to shun cruel practices and support positive ones.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

Mahatma Gandhi. 

By applying just a little thought and knowledge to our actions on our travels and by making informed decisions about which parts of the wildlife industry we support, then every single one of us can ensure than tourism can actually benefit animal welfare and conservation around the world instead of harming it.

If backpackers, independent travellers and tourists alike all choose to shun any business or attraction that contributes to the poor care or abuse of animals, and instead choose to support those attractions which help, protect and conserve animals, then we can all make a real difference.

*Update: Unfortunately the amazing RIGHT tourism campaign is now defunct, as the wonderful charity that were running it, Care For The Wild International, were closed down and swallowed up by Born Free.

What about all of you? What are your thoughts on wildlife tourism, animal conservation or the RIGHT tourism campaign? Have you seen any bad practices – or any good ones – out there on your travels? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. 

 

Related Articldes

A Photo For Facebook? You’ve Just ‘Liked’ Animal Abuse.

How To Volunteer With Wildlife On Your Gap Year.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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Posted in Responsible Travel
62 comments on “Wildlife Tourism On Your Gap Year, The RIGHT Way.
  1. alicesgapyearadventures says:

    Wow this is such a great post! I totally agree that it is really important to support the groups that are helping animals not hurting them. What an amazing campaign too, I had no idea about it! I will definitely be giving it my support.

  2. Raphael Alexander Zoren says:

    I think that people should separate traveling from medium to long-term volunteering. Why? Because if they want to volunteer, they should do so at their own local communities instead of using volunteering as an excuse to traveling (and in some cases, in order for third-parties to fund their travels).

    What I do endorse is short-term volunteering at animal sanctuaries since it helps people to get educated and get involved in said causes even when they go back home.

    • I completely agree about the voluntourism sector, the majority of people who want to volunteer abroad wouldn’t dream of doing so at home, it isn’t as sexy is it?

      I don’t necessarily always endorse short term volunteering at animal sanctuaries though. Do the people volunteering have the right skills and qualifications to volunteer with animals? Are they vets? Conservation experts? Have they got experience working with animals? Probably not, most of them just want a nice facebook photo with a cuddly baby animal. Any volunteering in this sector should be done with the intention of helping and conserving the animals and their envioronments, not boosting the profits of the voluntourism companies in the gap year industry.

      I do however completely agree that education is absolutely paramount, and holding volunteer educational programmes, with little or no interaction with the animals, is perhaps the way forward.

  3. Amanda says:

    Great post! And perfect timing as I’m about to head off to South East Asia and have been looking forward to seeing the animals but was worried about going to a dodgy place that mistreated the animals and only cared about profits. I’m going to use those links to help me make better choices.

  4. Ashley says:

    Great post! Love the photo of the orangutan – can’t wait to see them in Borneo soon 🙂

  5. Milene says:

    Love this! You´re spreading a great vibe here! Ever since I was a little girl I want to see the Orang Utan, not only see but also volunteer in some kind of way. I´m a huge monkey fan and the Orang Utan are my favourite of the apes. Ha my first presentation ever was about the Orang Utan and my first report as well =) I also adopted two =) I just wish other people also understood that travelling shouldn´t harm animals. Neither should our needs and wants (think of Palm Oil), hopefully that will change one day! Thanks for motivating me to keep on fighting for the Orang Utan!

  6. Samantha says:

    Excellent post and you make some very good points. To be honest, I was quite naive about wildlife tourism before as well. All I thought was Oh I get to ride a camel! Or something and thought it was the coolest thing without giving much thought to the conditions and care of the animals. Now, you can easily look up the background of an organization and research online to make your choices wisely. We can all do our part to help out and there are some that do very good things and some not. It’s up to make that decision where to put our money into.

    • You’re not the only one, I have certainly made bad choices myself early in my travel career, not through bad intent, just naivety. That is why campaigns like this are so important, education and information is key. Thanks so much for the comment. 🙂

  7. Jules and Christine says:

    Thank you for this post. I think this a really important issue. Animal rights is a big thing for me and I think backpackers can tend to get lost in the excitement of seeing wild animals and don’t think about the reality of the situation. I see a lot of photos of the Tiger Temple and think that travelers need to do more research before visiting those places. I agree, I was definitely less informed when I first started traveling but definitely put more thought into my decisions now. Great post.

    • Thanks Jules and Christine, I agree completely that the initial rush of excitement plus the unique nature of a lot of wildlife tourism can lead to some bad decisions for many people. That’s why this campaign is so important to try and get the right information out there. Thank you for the comment.

  8. Tom says:

    100% agree with this! There are so many people who just ‘dream of seeing or volunteering’ with animals on their gap year (even among these comments) but put so little thought into the harm they could do, and the volunteer industry take advantage of this with all the elephant trekking and wildlife spotting treks out there. Much more needs to be done to regulate the industry and educate travellers on how to see wildlife properly so it doesn’t harm or exploit them.t

  9. The Caffeinated Day Tripper says:

    What a great cause and a great post! Good for you, raising awareness and opening minds!

  10. Where's Pablo says:

    Huge animal lover myself, always sad to see and hear of the places that abuse and use them for profit. The spider monkey sanctuary I volunteered at was all about helping them out and rehabilitating them. Visitors could feed the monkeys and the only ones they could pet or hold were the ones that wouldn’t be accepted into the wild again due to one thing or the other. The end goal was always about the monkey’s health and well being.

    • Completely agree Pablo. There are genuine, decent organisations and sanctuaries out there. The key is to find and support the good ones and not fall for the ones that hide behind a facade of conservation to exploit the animals. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  11. Gabor Kovacs says:

    This is a great innitiative Mike to make people understand that tourism interferes with the equilibrium of the natural habitat of wild animals. The amount of disturbance caused depend on us, so we have to minimize this impact as much as impossible and always try to contract responsible guides and agencies which don’t let you feed, touch the animals, etc.. Thanks for this mind-awakening post!

  12. Aaron says:

    Great post, I think the worse case I have seen personally is Chiang Mai zoo where you could pay to feed the wildcats a chunk of meat on a stick!, they just looked so sad – overweight and never moved away from the bars near the food.
    One of the best places I have seen is the Chengdu Panda research centre, the staff were so passionate about the Pandas, as far as I could see they were very well looked after.

    • I gave Chiang Mai zoo a miss when I was there and from the sounds of it I’m really glad I did! It is such a shame that there are still places like that, there are good ones out there and these are the ones all travellers need to start supporting. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Elena says:

    I don´t like zoos and don´t go to them. On the other hand I have to admit that there are some zoos where the animals run free and volunteers look after them and they transmit different vibe. But I also don´t agree how in most wild animal sanctuaries (especially in South America) you have to pay to volunteer…So you work 8 to 9 hours a day and you end up paying more than you would pay staying hostels and eating in restaurants. Food is apart too…I went myself to volunteer in such a place in Bolivia but talking to other volunteers, seeing the work and living conditions there and on top of that paying more that my budget per day was…I decided against it. And a friend of mine, who is Bolivian, and was willing to pay and volunteer there, couldn´t do it because he was not a foreigner. Strange, don´t you think? That´s one down side to it, working with animals you usually have to pay.

    • Not at all Elena, it sounds as if you just got caught up in the animal voluntourism industry, most – if not all – I wouldn’t consider to be true sanctuaries anyway. Some genuine organisations do charge volunteers room and board where the money gets channeled back into the cause (not to a middleman profit making company) and ultimately helps the animals (or whatever community or cause the org serves). In these cases then I absolutely agree they should charge, I mean why should they take valuable resources away from the cause or community to house and feed hordes of voluntourists? Are you a professional with highly educated and qualified in demand skills such as a vet, a nurse, a doctor or a teacher? Or do you have a masters degree in conservation management that they could really use? If so then there are volunteer opportunities with orgs like Medicins San Frontieres or the Peace Corps that will give free board in return for a long term time commitment. If not, then I’m afraid you will have to pay your way. You just have to be very clear on a) what exactly you are paying for and b) where that money is going. Your ‘work’ is not a job, it is there to benefit the org and ultimately the animals (or whatever the volunteer opportunity is).

      Also, in these places they generally operate a hands off approach to the animals and the volunteers and anyone without the necessary professional quals and skills should have no expectation of getting ‘up close’, they are there to genuinely help the animals and the conservation effort, not for their own benefit. And as for zoos, I don’t know any where animals run free, but I do know some that have large open enclosures and do a lot for the animals welfare and conservation. Not all zoos are the same.

  14. abritandasoutherner says:

    This is a really well written post. I am sure we all have different opinions on this topic and can justify our own thoughts but I would like to comment on the idea of animal sanctuaries purely from my experiences of ‘viewing’ how they take care of the animals. I was reading an earlier comment discussing the concept of ‘short term’ assistance and I have to agree with Mike that this can frequently be detrimental to the animals unless you are fully qualified to meet their needs. Sure, you can help out in certain aspects which I am convinced animal sanctuaries appreciate but there are certain things that need to be left to fully qualified experts.

    • Thank you, I totally agree. Don’t get me wrong there are skills outside of animal care or conservation that people can still use to help animal charities, such as in education, admin, finance or even promotion in the office side of things. These can still help out a lot but people don’t think of them because it isn’t as ‘sexy’, they won’t get near the animals, which is half the point. Too many people rush in thinking I want to cuddle/stroke/see a wild animal without asking what skills they have that could actually help.

  15. Manouk says:

    Great that you’re giving attention to a very important topic that hasn’t been much discussed in the travel scene! Hope people will read this before choosing there volunteer project.

    • Thanks, it is important to remember that it isn’t just volunteering though, it is all animal tourism that we need to be scrutinizing, from zoos and safari parks to sanctuaries and rehab centres, to ensure that the animals are not exploited. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  16. Serena says:

    Great post.
    And I absolutely agree in supporting the causes for animals & wildlife defence.
    The pics are gorgeous!! It must have been awesome to see all those animals live.

  17. Stefania says:

    It’s really a good thing to be informed and not just “do activities” involving animals, and I think it’s also true that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what is harming them and what is helping them. Good article!

    • Thanks Stefania, and thank you for commenting, I totally agree. The whole ‘doing activities’ thing makes me cringe. It is difficult sometimes though you are right, some of the worst offending companies are very good at hiding behind ecotourism or conservation facades, and are part of the gap year industry machine which make travellers think they are actually helping the animals.Well, the ones that think about it at all anyway.

  18. Bob R says:

    I like to think that these days people are increasingly researching the places they visit and organizations they want to help. I’d also like to think they’re adequately qualified to provide the proper help or assistance. All too often that’s not the case.

    • I’d like to think that myself Bob, but as you say it is quite often the exact opposite unfortunately. That is why I think educational campaigns such as RIGHT tourism are so important. Thanks for the comment.

  19. inpursuitofadventureblog says:

    Great post highlighting an issue that people sometimes don’t even think about. I know that before we went to Thailand we thought about riding elephants but the more we looked into the less appealing it became. There are great companies out there though that truly support wildlife and conservation efforts and thank you for highlighting the campaigns that are working towards shedding more light on this issue!

    • Thank you, you are so right many people don’t even think about the effect on the animals, or if they do they often don’t know enough to understand that it may be causing harm. I don’t think the majority of people’s intentions are bad, many will want to help or protect the animals if given the choice, they are just naive, and I include my past self in that number too. That is why education is vital. Thank you for commenting.

  20. karendwarren says:

    I agree with you. There is no pleasure in seeing exploited animals, or ones that are not living in authentic conditions. I recently had the choice between seeing penguins in a sanctuary or spotting them from a long way off in a hide at the top of a cliff. I would have got better pictures in the sanctuary but it was much more satisfying watching them going about their ordinary business on the beach.

    • I agree, it is all about making an informed choice. There are some great animal sanctuaries too don’t get me wrong, and there is nothing wrong visiting the ones that are getting it right, but we need to be informed on the choices we make. Thank you for the comment Karen.

  21. Britany Robinson says:

    This is such an important message to get out there. I participated in an elephant volunteer program when I went to Thailand, and I wish I had done a little more research because it turned out to be much more “tourism” than “volunteer.” It is SO important to do your research with this kind of thing.

    • Thank you Britany I so agree. You aren’t the only one, so many people go to places like this with the best of intentions, and I have done myself in the past too. The thing is at least you know that now, and you can use that experience to help inform future choices, that’s what I do. I appreciate the comment. 🙂

  22. Jon says:

    This reminds me of a place we used to have in New Zealand (I don’t think they do this anymore) where you could drive your car into a huge lion enclosure. They’d climb all over the cars – it was actually pretty scary as a kid, but they were in such a huge area and I think it was really good for them, it was a great way to get close to them without them being kept in tiny spaces.

    • Yeah they have safari parks in the UK too Jon, and just like any other animal attraction some are fantastic, others not so much. It’s good to think about the animal welfare before we head to any of them though and hopefully we can get it right and avoid the places that aren’t mistreating the wildlife in their care. Thanks so much for the comment. 🙂

  23. Angela Anderson says:

    Awesome post. I agree to make a conscience effort when promoting tourism. Make sure they are truly giving back from what they are doing to the local habitats.

  24. Bianca Malata says:

    Great post. I am in the latter category. I am scared and fearful of anything with more than two legs so getting up and close with gorillas, caged tigers, lions and any other wild animal is not something that’s on my list, Saying that I am going on a safari trip back home in Zambia at the end of the year. I have a lot of respect for wild animals and wish people didn’t parade them about for the benefit of tourists.

    • Thank you Bianca, I know many safaris that do a great job of respecting the animals and the habitat, but unfortunately there are still some that don’t too. It’s important to choose the right companies to use. Thanks for the comment.

  25. Jempi says:

    Very interesting post! Wildlife tourism is not my piece of cake but your article made me change my mind. Great to see how you care about nature and animals. Great pictures too! Cheers, Jempi.

    • Thanks Jempi, I appreciate the comment. There are ways in which you can see and interact with wildlife in a way that helps and cares for the animals, their environment and the conservation efforts. That is the type of wildlife tourism we should all be supporting.

  26. Fie says:

    I loved reading this. I’m a big animal lover myself. I’ve been to Africa to study farming, and went on the most amazing safari, and yes it’s is really important to check if it’s Companies that are handling on the behalf of the animals or the Money 🙂

    • Thank you Fie, I completely agree! Unfortunately it isn’t always easy to do that as many companies hide very well behind a mask of eco tourism or animal welfare and rely on tourists naivety. That is why I love campains such as RIGHT tourism, the more education and information that gets out there the better.

  27. aluxurytravelblog says:

    Some really good food for thought here, thank you. Anything that makes travellers consider the impact of their trips is a good thing. And that quote from Gandhi is spot on! 🙂

    • Haha thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I think more and more independent travellers are now starting to ask questions about the impact of their trips – across all fields not just wildlife tourism – but there is still a long way to go. Thanks for the comment.

  28. Selina says:

    Awesome post, thank you! I have huge respect for all creatures but your post still made me think about past mistakes… You definitely made me think!

    The Snake Temple in Penang I remember as fairly disappointing and boring – but could it possibly be that the snakes there are drugged to remain docile and therefore safe for visitors? Is it a tourist trap that doesn’t care about its moneymakers? Or just a bland attraction that needs some new, exciting snakes and a bit of umph?

    Basically because of your post I’ve altered one way of thinking! So thumbs up!

    I’m following you on Twitter and will continue to enjoy your future blogs 🙂

    • Thank you Selina, I appreciate the support and I’m really happy you enjoyed the article.

      You can’t dwell on things done in the past though, we have all at some point fallen victim to the exploitative side of wildlife tourism, a lot of them are really good at hiding behind a benign mask. What we can do is use that experience to make sure we do our research in the future.

      Thanks for the comment Selina, and I look forward to interacting with you on twiter. I’m on Facebook and G+ too so feel fee to stop by!

  29. Travel Do It says:

    Responsible tourism isn’t just about the cultures we encounter, but also the wildlife that populate the countries we travel too.

    We’re big advocates of responsible travel and think that there’s a message here that more people need to know about. We’re really happy to share this post.

  30. Emma says:

    Great to remember to be responsible with our world because we only have one!

  31. Sarah says:

    Such an amazing post, it is so easy to be complacent with wildlife tourism. I’ll definitely check out Care For The Wild for more info, thank you.

    • Unfortunately Care For The Wild no longer exist as a charity, they have been swallowed up by Born Free who have a message I cannot partner with fully. It is a real shame. But at least the message of the RIGHT tourism campaign can live on.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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