Wildlife Tourism Ethics And Practices Debate, A Response To TBEX.

TBEX Cancun

A few nights ago I took part in an online Google hangout with a number of other speakers to debate the ethics and practices of captive marine animals and wildlife tourism. If you missed it, the full archived version can be found here.

Apart from myself, Rick Calvert from TBEX, Chris Pitt from Care Of The Wild International, Alison Hood from the Born Free Foundation and Diana Edelman from D Travels ‘Round took part and was hosted by Ethan Gelber from Outbounding.org. Unfortunately Delphinus – the organisers of some of the Cancun dolphin activities – and others refused to take part.

For those who have not been following the whole debate, this Google hangout had been set up in response to the furore that has kicked off since I published my first article Why I Won’t Be Attending TBEX Cancun in response to TBEX’s support of unethical dolphin excursions, the debate that started up on Outbounding.org, and Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt launched the petition to get TBEX to stop supporting and promoting unethical tours.

It was a great debate and all speakers had time to get their point across in a cordial and professional manner. I’d like to take this moment to state to Rick Calvert in particular that although I absolutely disagree with him on many issues around this topic and will passionately debate them with him, that in no way means I don’t respect him as a person or agree with him on other issues. I think some people may have felt otherwise and I just wanted to address that. I know this is an issue that gets people on both sides very passionate – the amount of abusive emails I have received in response to my first article will attest to that – but I don’t want anyone to mistake my passion for disrespect.

As great as the hangout was however, unfortunately there was never going to be enough time to address all of the issues in this huge debate or respond to every point made by everyone. We literally could have debated all night. Given that I would like to take the time now to respond specifically to just a few of Rick Calvert’s points on TBEX’s stance, because quite frankly I still think his defence of TBEX’s position still does not hold up.

First of all I absolutely take Ricks point that TBEX is not the one offering these tours, and that dolphin tours and excursions are a significant part of the tourism industry in Cancun. That has never been questioned and it is a shame that Delphinus refused to take part. The problem is that whilst TBEX may not be offering these tours, they are promoting them in their literature and their preBEX excursions and in my opinion that makes TBEX equally as culpable. Rick states that TBEX are not taking sides, that they have to include both arguments in their stance, but the fact is they are taking sides. They are choosing to actively disagree with those of us who are arguing for the removal of unethical wildlife tourism practices.

‘You don’t have to be a political organisation to take an ethical stand.’

The problem is that by advertising and promoting these activities, TBEX is actively supporting them and this is something Rick has not really addressed to any satisfactory measure in my opinion. Simply stating that ‘it isn’t me it’s them’ doesn’t absolve you of any responsibility in the matter. You don’t have to be running the tours to be a part of the problem, supporting and advertising them is enough. That is why many industry leaders such as STA travel, G adventures and Intrepid for example are all now removing any unethical tour and excursion options from their  itineraries.

Ricks defence of TBEXs stance is partly based around the idea that to go to Cancun and ignore these activities would have been unethical. As Chris Pitt from Care For The Wild International stated this really doesn’t hold up at all. You don’t have to completely ignore the activities when taking an ethical stance on the issue, a series of talks and workshops could have been set up to explain the issues and raise awareness. That is not ignoring the issue, that would not be unethical in any way, but the fact that TBEX has taken the other option and is actively promoting these tours is unethical, and I think this is one of the major flaws in Rick’s logic that he is still failing to address.

Now I do agree with Rick that TBEX are not a political advocacy organisation, but to that effect neither are STA travel, G Adventures or any other industry leader and professional that are taking a stand on this issue. You don’t have to be a political organisation to take an ethical stand. I also take his point that TBEX is not an organisation that serves consumers, again that isn’t in debate, but neither does that mean that the moral responsibility for thought leadership has dissipated because the audience is different.

As I said in the debate itself – not quite as eloquently as others I’m afraid, probably due to a few nerves – every industry professional has an absolute responsibility to take an ethical stance on issues such as this.

Rick continues to state that many people are divided on this issue as if that is an excuse for them to sit on the fence, or that TBEX would not be doing it’s job by ‘siding’ with those few travel bloggers who are taking this view. But it is far, far more than just a few travel bloggers. The truth is that the weight of evidence from wildlife professionals, animal experts and academics is weighing on the side of taking a stand.It is not as if  TBEX never takes a stand on any issue, they have stated categorically that they would remove these tours if they felt enough people supported that stance. The truth is they think not enough ‘important’ people, and by important I mean industry insiders and influencers – the ones with the money – think that it is an important enough issue. The reality is a great many people do believe in an ethical stance on wildlife tourism and dolphin tours in particular. The evidence is there, the weight of opinion is there, that is why many other organisations and industry leaders are distancing themselves from any unethical practice.

‘Saying that not everyone agrees that dolphin activities are wrong does not absolve TBEX of it’s responsibility to take a stand.’

To illustrate his point, Rick continues to state that these tours are completely full and bloggers and writers can write whatever they like after the fact, but this is completely missing the point and is again dodging TBEXs responsibility as an industry leader to act as a thought leader too. Individuals can of course always have free choice, and choose to partake in these activities if they so wish (dolphin tours are unfortunately a large part of the Cancun and Mexican tourism industry and can be easily found anywhere), but as an industry professional organisation that claims to represent all travel bloggers, TBEX has an absolute responsibility to lead by example and show that they are taking a stand. Individuals can of course always disagree and choose to do what they want anyway, but industry leaders do not have that luxury.

Rick argued that by including these tours and not taking a stand, that TBEX is somehow upholding their duty to educate. It is absolutely not and I honestly cannot understand how he thinks it is. The fact that it is people who are travellers and consumers (the general public) are being reached and not just travel bloggers and industry professionals is not down to TBEXs stance. The fact that so many travellers are becoming aware of the issue and that the petition started by Matt Kepnes gained almost 1900 signatures in a matter of days – again signatures mostly made up of consumers not professionals – is wholly down to the fact that people like Matt and myself are making a stand and are being so vocal about the issue. We are reaching out to our audiences and fulfilling an educational remit, TBEX is not. If we didn’t I doubt TBEX would be having this conversation at all.

Just because this specific issue on captive dolphins within the tourism industry isn’t as widely known or reported on as other responsible tourism issues, does not make it any less unethical. Just because it is a wave of people calling for these tours to be cancelled instead of a tsunami, it doesn’t make these tours any less harmful to the dolphins involved. Alison Hood of the Born Free Foundation argued that just because it is not a well known issue compared to others, it is still widely recognized that it is an extremely controversial one and it is not a fully accepted practice. I totally agree with that point and I would argue that if this is enough to make so many industry leaders take an ethical stance on it, then why is TBEX the exception to the rule?

Rick is factually correct when he states that although many people agree that these tours are unethical, not everyone does. That isn’t in doubt, there will always be people who agree and disagree on any issue, no matter the subject matter or weight of evidence on either side. People will always have different paradigms, different ideologies, different beliefs. That is a given.

Further Reading

Humane Society – Swim With Dolphin Attractions.

Humane Society – The Case against Marine Mammals In Captivity.

National Geographic –  Reasons Not To Keep Dolphins In A Tank.

However, free will and individual choice does not in any way invalidate proof and fact. The truth is the huge weight of evidence on this one specific issue is beginning to heavily weigh in favour of the fact that dolphin tours are unethical and harmful to the dolphins involved. By taking a wider stance the prevailing paradigm is becoming that it is wholly wrong to exploit wildlife purely for profit and tourists pleasure. Many other issues surrounding other forms of ethical wildlife tourism and conservation issues on the whole do not apply to this specific issue as evidence states that captive dolphin tours and activities are wrong. This is scientific and academic evidence. Simply saying that not everyone agrees with that statement does not absolve TBEX of it’s responsibility to take a stand.

The big problem is that out of those who don’t agree – the general public who would travel and take part in these types of activities – a great many of those are not always aware of the full issues or evidence surrounding it.

‘There is a huge lack of awareness on issues surrounding wildlife tourism.’

I agree completely with Rick that it is partly TBEX’s job to – in his words – educate travel writers and the travel industry so that we as bloggers and writers can educate consumers. So why is TBEX not taking the opportunity to do just that? If that were true and Rick was sticking to that point, surely TBEX would be acting as a thought leader, following the evidence and the prevailing ethical paradigm, and leading by example so that travel writers and bloggers can then disseminate that information? The inconsistency in his point here does seem to be getting missed a lot in my opinion.

If TBEX did take an ethical stand on this issue and present the facts as they are but state that they openly do not support these unethical practices, and if travel bloggers and writers attend the conference and they still want to attend these tours based on their own fully informed choices, fully informed views and individual ethics and paradigms AFTER that, that is up to them. That is their choice and I respect that as much as I will disagree with it. That is a different issue.

But TBEX is not an individual, it does not have the luxury of remaining neutral based on a choice. TBEX – as an industry leader – has a responsibility to first take that moral stance and then allow people after the fact to make up their own minds.

Again, I do take Rick’s point that this conference is for travel bloggers and travel writers, it is not for the general public. However, travel writers and bloggers are first and foremost travellers. We are not somehow magically imbued with wisdom and knowledge just because of the profession we choose to follow.

The big problem with TBEX advertising and promoting these tours is that there is a huge lack of awareness on issues surrounding wildlife tourism. So much so in fact that any participation in these unethical activities cannot be taken as support for them as in many cases these decisions that are being made are not always being made from a fully informed paradigm. Rick’s stance that TBEX can hold their hands up and say to every individual ‘it’s up to you’, or ‘we trust you to make your own judgement’ is wrong. That stance can only be taken after the person saying it has upheld their absolute responsibility to present all the facts and stated that from their own ethical standpoint.

Diana Edelman made the valid point that – just like any other tourist or traveller – not all travel bloggers or travel writers are necessarily as experienced as others, not all will have the same level of understanding or awareness on the issues involved. In this regard there will be many travel bloggers who will still partake in what is widely regarded as unethical wildlife tourism by every professional, expert, academic and scientific measure because they aren’t aware of those issues. They will partake in these tours like many other tourists do, have a fantastic ‘once in a lifetime’ experience swimming with dolphins, giving them a hug and a kiss and the write about how life changing, life affirming and amazing the experience was, and still be completely unaware of the harm they are doing or the issues involved.

By not taking an ethical stand,by promoting these tours, excursions and activities, TBEX is leading by example. TBEX is saying that it is okay to participate in these activities because we support them.

That is why TBEX has a responsibility to take an ethical stand. That is why TBEX should be upholding its stated aim to educate travel bloggers and the wider travel industry. You don’t do that by sitting on the fence!

I was happy to hear Rick state that responsible tourism and sustainable tourism are essential and important topics that should be addressed at TBEX and I am of course glad  to hear that these issues will be addressed in the Cancun conference. My big argument with that statement is that TBEX could still do all of that without both actively and tactitly, overtly and covertly supporting the unethical practices themselves.

One point Rick Calvert made clearly that I absolutely agree with is that travel bloggers as an industry are as professional and influential as any travel writer in any traditional travel media, in fact I would argue the point further and say that some travel bloggers are in fact even more influential now. The truth is however as I stated earlier not every blogger is at the same level and as Diana very eloquently stated in the debate there are a great many newer bloggers who attend TBEX who are new to the industry and are looking for professional and ethical guidelines from those – like TBEX – who we consider to be industry professionals and leaders.

TBEX openly states that it represents every travel blogger, yet it is completely dodging it’s responsibility to act as a thought leader on the issue. It is completely ignoring the fact that it – whether it likes it or not – is an industry leader who travel bloggers look toward for professional guidance, and it absolutely should be holding itself up to a higher moral standard.

TBEX should be leading by example and saying to every travel blogger that yes, of course it is completely up to you what stance you take and what you write, but this is the ethical stance as a professional body that we are taking.

By doing that it would not be removing the opportunity for travel bloggers to explore these tours if they so wish, those tours will still be there regardless of TBEX’s support or not. What it will be doing is acting as a beacon of ethical responsibility – based on all the evidence, not just individual opinion or ideologies – for the entire profession to hopefully follow. That is TBEX’s absolute responsibility as an industry professional.

Unfortunately the organisers of TBEX are stubbornly refusing to change their stance on this, and even the petition run by Matt Kepnes unfortunately didn’t do enough to change their minds either. There just wasn’t enough support from the industry (even though there was a lot of support from consumers). But I think that overall, the organisers of TBEX have been taken aback by the strength of the response and the criticism against them on this issue. We may not have succeeded in getting them to drop their support of the unethical tours and practices this year, but at the very least we have got everyone debating the issue and we have raised awareness of the issues involved. I am extremely proud of the fact that many others have started to write about the issue too and a lot of travel bloggers refused to support TBEX. This isn’t the end of the matter, I will still be passionately campaigning for a range of issues in wildlife tourism, not just captive dolphins, I hope that the debate will still continue in the comments section here or over at Outbounding.org where it is also being discussed, and I strongly suspect – as others do- that the organisers of TBEX may look a little bit more carefully at the tours and excursions run by their hosts that they promote in the future.

Did you enjoy this article? What are your thoughts on the Google hangout? Did you agree or disagree with any of the points made by any of the speakers? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Related Articldes

Dolphin Tours Cancelled At Mexico Travel Conference (Article In The Guardian).

TBEX Dolphin Tours Cancelled In Cancun.

Why I Won’t Be Attending TBEX Cancun.

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
6 comments on “Wildlife Tourism Ethics And Practices Debate, A Response To TBEX.
  1. Totally agree and stand behind you views on this. I do not support any activity that involves animal abuse or use for financial gain. I’ve seen so many travel bloggers writing about their experiences riding elephants lately that it just makes me want to cry in sadness and shake my head about the ignorance. I hope people read about Raju the elephant and watch Blackfish and The Cove, and then wake up to what being an animal lover really means.

    • Thank you! I know what you mean, it was actually an elephant trek in Thailand that opened my eyes to wildlife conservation issues in tourism about eleven or so years ago now. At the time I just wasn’t aware of the issues, but I certainly made sure I was afterwards! And my definition of animal lover has definitely changed since. Thanks for the comment.

  2. karyn_janem says:

    Agreed, 100%, as always Michael. Thanks for sticking to your principles and sending a strong message.

  3. Katie says:

    I’ve been following along on the debate, and I loved your article here. I was shocked when I found out about TBEX, but seeing travel bloggers take a stand and speak up has been inspiring! I’ve been learning even more by following along 🙂

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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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