Elephants in Kenya

Rethink your travel bucket list

Top 10 travel faux pas to avoid

One thing we've learned over the years at Responsible Travel is that some of the biggest 'bucket list' travel experiences are, in fact, big travel faux pas. So we've emptied our bucket list - and refilled it with experiences that are not just sensational - but sustainable.

1. Ride an elephant

Plodding through the jungle on top of a powerful pachyderm is the dream of many an animal lover. However, after speaking to a number of sanctuaries and wildlife groups, we recently learned that riding an elephant on your holiday is actually not only harmful to the elephant itself - but it endangers wild populations. Elephant charities have actually compared it with poaching and the ivory trade in terms of the devastating impacts.

Happily, that doesn't mean you have to cut elephants out of your holiday. There are a number of excellent sanctuaries looking after rescued and orphaned elephants - many as a result of the trade in elephants for trekking. And of course, seeing them in the wild not only supports the elephants - it also contributes to the conservation of their habitat.

Check out our guide to elephant holidays for more jumbo holiday ideas.

2. Volunteer in an orphanage

Baby orangutan
Baby orangutan (Photo by ilkerender)
What could possibly be wrong with volunteering in a Cambodian orphanage? Well for a start, the majority of kids there may not be orphans...

Our orphanage campaign revealed to us the horrifying secrets of the "orphan trade", such as the Cambodian city with 100,000 people - and 35 orphanages. Families are scammed into handing over their children to a place they think they will have a better life - and well-meaning travellers are scammed into paying the owners to volunteer there. And for genuinely vulnerable children, a high volunteer turnover means they form bonds with carers before being separated again, and again.

But don't cross "giving something back" off your to do list just yet - our volunteer holidays cover everything from teaching and tree planting to working on water projects. And if you're still keen to work with orphans - why not look into helping out at an orangutan orphanage?

3. Seeing captive dolphins and orcas

Recent documentaries including Blackfish and The Cove have exposed the ghastly backstage action that goes into capturing orcas and dolphins and getting them to perform - from wailing mothers separated from their babies to keepers being injured and even killed. But as the tide turns against this form of entertainment, don't go thinking you have to cross cetaceans off your travel bucket list.

Say NO to the circus and go and see these incredible creatures in the wild - watch them from a boat, learn from local experts and maybe even join them for a swim. Some tours even get you monitoring behaviour as you go - meaning you are contributing directly to research and conservation. See our Dolphin watching and swimming guide for more.

4. Climb Uluru

Uluru (Photo by Ed McCulloch)
Uluru - also known as Ayers Rock - is a deeply sacred place to the indigenous Anangu. Climbing it involves crossing spiritual "dreamlines" - and is akin to trampling over a holy shrine. Watching their equivalent of a temple be trampled on day after day is no pleasant experience for the Anangu - but they have no choice. They were given the title to their ancestral land on the condition that they would still permit tourists to climb the rock.

The good news is that, as a visitor to Uluru, you do have a choice. Don't bypass the signs politely asking you not to climb - take a fascinating walk around the base instead, and chat to the local people to learn more about their culture and the significance of this mighty rock.

And if you still fancy adding a challenging summit to your bucket list? Take a look at our climbing holidays - which will take you from Kili to the Himalaya via Andean Volcanoes and Mont Blanc. And not a dreamline in sight.

5. Visit the Tiger Temple

Tiger, tiger, burning bright, chained in a quarry, day and night...

Hm. We suspect William Blake's poem would have lost some of its impact had he been around to see these creatures at Kanchanaburi's Tiger Temple. It may be the easiest place to see these exquisite big cats up close - but its description as a sanctuary is sadly misleading. We removed it from our site some years ago after learning that, rather than conserving these highly endangered big cats, the Tiger Temple has participated in their illegal trade, and keeps the tigers chained, without shade, in 40 degree heat.

There have also been reports of tourists being mauled - so it's not just the safety of the tigers which is under threat - especially as young children are allowed into the enclosures to pet and sit on the backs of tigers. Read our Tiger safaris guide for some bucket-list worthy tiger experiences - which promote the protection of wild tigers and their habitats - and keep you safe into the bargain.

6. Cruise on a giant ship

Kerala backwaters
The Death Star of tourism, giant cruise ships glide across the world's oceans leaving destruction in their wake at sea, on landů and even on board - eight viruses struck in the space of three months in 2014.

Per passenger, giant cruise ships actually emit more CO2 per mile than aircraft, and generate over four times as much rubbish as land travellers. They damage reefs and cause air pollution. Other weapons in the cruise ship arsenal include the hideously long, low-paid hours worked by staff (there's no labour law out at sea!) and the lack of local benefits in the countries they visit (often only docking at exclusive ports - where money spent goes straight back to the cruise line). Needless to say - we are not fans.

However, before you cross cruising off your bucket list, take a look at our responsible small ship cruising holidays. Polar expeditions, sailing ships and wildlife cruises are just some of our planet - and passenger - friendly options.

7. Walk with lions

Starring in your own remake of "Born Free" may be high on your travel bucket list - but sadly the story of most captive lion cubs does not end as happily as Elsa's.

There are numerous places offering the opportunity to hug a cub or walk with a juvenile lion - but a little investigation reveals what happens when these cute youngsters grow inconvenient teeth and claws. Habituated creatures can't be released into the wild, so one option is to sell them on to "canned hunting" reserves where hunters pay big bucks to shoot adult lions in enclosures. It's a dirty secret that the industry is keen to keep from tourists - but at Responsible Travel, we're more than happy to roar about it.

If you want to walk with animals in the wild and contribute to their conservation, a walking safari is the way to go - the thrill of encountering wild rhinos, elephants and lions on foot more than makes up for not being able to hug them.

8. Visit a tribe

The 200,000 tribespeople of Ethiopia's Omo Valley are some of the world's most traditional and fascinating, maintaining cultural rituals dating back centuries, including scarification, bull-jumping and the notorious lip plates.

We're all for cultural interaction, but as tourism has grown in southern Ethiopia, so its nature has worsened, and we've watched these encounters turn into little more than human safaris. Ancient rituals, once carried out to mark special occasions, are performed on demand to please tourists, and photographs are exchanged for money.

Stand up for the Omo tribes and take a tour which benefits communities as much as the tourists. You can meet the Himba of Namibia, the Aymara of Bolivia or the hilltribes of northern Thailand - see our cultural tours for inspiration.

9. Eat whale meat

Wild whale watching
Wild whale watching (Photo by Meryl Huxham)
You'll see whale meat on the menu in Norway and Iceland - and locals cling to this as a "tradition" - seeing any ban as a dismissal of their culture. However, whale hunting has been condemned by the international community, on both conservation and humane grounds. Interestingly, it's worth noting that despite the claims of tradition, most whale meat actually ends up on the plates of tourists. If we all shunned it - and any restaurants featuring it on their menus - we wonder how long this "tradition" would continue.

Even better, book a whale watching tour and prove that these incredible creatures are worth far more alive than dead. For a real bucket list challenge - you can even swim with humpbacks in Tonga!

10. Do the Three Peaks charity climb

Here's something that you might think wins you a few travel Brownie points - climbing, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon in 24 hours for charity. So we were surprised to learn from some of our suppliers that this high-speed climb actually creates serious problems of its own: erosion, litter, noise and disruption.

Even worse, it adds strain to charities that manage these sites or have to assist climbers - and it's unlikely these organisations will be the recipients of the thousands of pounds raised. Nor will the local communities, as the 24-hour nature of the challenge means that bed and board are not required, nor are pub lunches or market browses.

Fancy a real challenge? Take a look at our very challenging trekking holidays - from the Himalaya to the Andes. You can stay in local accommodation along the way and support communities by purchasing food and souvenirs from local businesses - a fun way to "fundraise"!

11. Create a Bucket List

Staying in a yurt
Staying in a yurt (Photo by David Wilson)
One more thing we'd scratch off our bucket list is... Bucket Lists. Rather than just ticking off the "big experiences" desired by thousands of other travellers, why not create your own adventure wishlist - with activities like training to be a warrior in Mongolia, staying in an Andalucian yurt or learning traditional craft skills in Scotland. Unusual holidays top our list every time.
Written by Vicki Brown
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