Responsible tourism in Thailand

Like all popular tourist destinations, many of Thailand’s wonderful experiences come with a catch. The overdevelopment of its phenomenal islands is well-documented, as are the bargirls and booze-fuelled beach parties, but other obstacles remain more deeply hidden from view.

The key here is that even if you think you are “travelling right” – staying in more expensive hotels, visiting elephant sanctuaries, giving gifts to street children – you might not be, as there are profits to be made from scruffy kids and sorry-looking elephants. However, there are also a number of wonderful wildlife initiatives, and some very easy ways you can ensure your money reaches those who need it most. Read on for tips, advice and stories to ensure that you have a positive Thailand holiday, in more way than one.

Wildlife & environment

The trouble with elephants

For centuries, mahouts have trained elephants across Asia to transport people and carry heavy loads. The tradition of working elephants is a complex one – it is an ancient way of life for entire communities in some regions of Southeast Asia, and elephants are able to penetrate dense forests and cross rivers in a way that vehicles are not – meaning they can be used for small scale logging without the need to bulldoze forests to create roads and bridges. Today, there are only around 5,000 elephants living in Thailand – and over half of these are described as “domesticated”. As these are captive elephants have been trained to work with humans, they cannot ever be released into the wild. However, when the Thai government halted logging, many elephants found themselves “unemployed” and were put to work in the growing tourist industry.

This encompasses a wide range of activities, from performing in circus-like shows and being ridden around city centres, to carrying tourists through the jungle to being bathed by volunteers. One thing to bear in mind is that elephants are not “domesticated” in the same way as dogs or horses, as they have never been bred for captivity in the same way as other species. Their wild instincts remain, therefore, and baby elephants must endure a horrific process known as phajaan – or “crushing” their wild spirit – to tame them into submission. The sad fact is that tourism has now turned elephants into a lucrative business – a “crushed” baby can be worth tens of thousands of pounds.
What you can do
Inform yourself of the issues first by reading out comprehensive guide to elephant trekking. Some animal rights organisations urge a boycott of all elephant sanctuaries – but the thing to remember is that there are thousands of ex-working elephants who now need caring for. One of the best sanctuaries for rescued and retired animals is Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, which has a medical centre, natural landscapes for the elephants to live in and an expert team of carers, who look after them round the clock. The sites exist very much for the elephants, not for the tourists. Volunteers undergo training programmes to be able to look after the elephants, and the fee is reinvested into the elephants’ care as well as in local community projects, often supporting the families of the former mahouts, as well as reforestation work.

Research is key, and with the Internet there is no excuse for making incorrect assumptions about a sanctuary, park or elephant "orphanage". Look at photos or videos of the sanctuary you are planning to visit to see how healthy the elephants appear, and what their enclosures are like. Check holiday review sites – as well as the unedited reviews on Responsible Travel – to look for stories of maltreatment. Any good sanctuary will also include plenty of information about where their elephants come from, how they are treated and what visitor interaction does or doesn’t involve – anywhere offering performances, painting or rides should be avoided.

Riding elephants damages their spines – and the animals have been beaten or prodded into submission to persuade them to allow riders on their backs. The photos of you riding an elephant may look great at first, but could turn out to be an embarrassment once you have researched what went into “training” that elephant.

As of 2023, we will no longer sell holidays that include elephant bathing experiences. This is a change in our policy prompted by feedback from travellers, as well as consultation with NGOs, sanctuaries and our partners. We accept that elephant bathing can be done responsibly, and we acknowledge that the vast majority of sanctuaries and mahouts care deeply about their elephants. But the fact remains that you cannot safely have members of the public close to these huge and powerful animals, especially in water, without there being an element of control. And control usually involves the elephant knowing that if it misbehaves it will be punished. We recommend that travellers seek out 'no touch', observation-only sanctuaries instead.

Sadly, only wild elephants fall under any legal protection in Thailand, so there is little you can do if you see signs of cruelty. However, you can report it to your operator if a tour was organised through them, to deter them from offering this excursion again, as well as to Responsible Travel. You can also name and shame on social media and review sites – photos add proof of what you have seen.

Some particularly sick-looking elephants are dragged around the streets in chains as “beggars” to get money from tourists – this practice is illegal, so photograph and report it to the local police.

Watch Elephant Whisperer, a documentary about Lek, who has dedicated her life to saving elephants at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park.

Boycotting Thailand’s Tiger Temple

The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi is an extremely popular tourist attraction, as visitors can pet captive tigers and have their photos taken. Responsible Travel does not support this site due to serious concerns over animal welfare and illegal breeding programmes which are not being done for conservation purposes. Rather, they are being bred to fuel the illegal yet lucrative trade in endangered species.

Read more about the Tiger Temple – and why we choose to boycott it – here.

Choose your beach – wisely

The sad stories of Phuket, Haad Rin, Koh Samui, Pattaya and their smaller imitators have entered traveller folklore, and many consider them too far “gone” to be saved from the concrete blocks and mounting piles of waste that scar their beaches. However, Thailand has over 1,400 islands and an epic coastline – so there are many places which remain free of overdevelopment – in some cases of any development. The general consensus is that preventing similar catastrophes in these regions is both easier and more economically viable than attempting to reverse the damage already done in the most overdeveloped regions - so supporting them now will contribute to their protection.
What you can do
It’s surprising how close to the tourist trail many still-lovely beaches actually are. Even islands such as Koh Phi Phi and Koh Samet still have their wilder sides – it just means travelling further from the boat docks to find them.

Avoid the huge resorts and all-inclusive breaks, and stay in locally owned accommodation. This makes sense for both the environment and for the local economy – and your beach experience will be so much more authentically Thai.

By their very nature, islands always have resource issues; everything is more limited here. Be cautious in your water use, and on the smaller and less developed islands be aware of the lack of waste disposal options – avoid using plastic bottles or bags where possible, and always dispose of litter in bins. As well as issues of hygiene and the ugliness of discarded waste, rare sea turtles live off Thailand’s coast, and swallowing plastic bags can slowly kill them.

People & culture

Supporting the staff in the “Land of Smiles”

Poverty levels are still high in Thailand despite the glossy tourist exterior, and the minimum wage is painfully low – exacerbated by the high cost of living in the tourist towns where many hotel and restaurant workers are forced to live. An expensive hotel is no guarantee of workers’ rights, so contributing to the local economy is not as simple as turning your back on the shoestring backpacker hostels – even staff at five star resorts may live in basic shared rooms, far from their families, and without the paid holidays to go home and visit their kids.

What you can do
This is an easy one – TIP. Thailand’s minimum wage is less than £6 per day, so by leaving a small amount for serving staff, chambermaids, porters and drivers you can contribute a huge amount to how much they take home to their families each day.

Unfortunately the problem is exacerbated in all-inclusive resorts, which entice travellers with the promise that they will not need to spend any money at all. This is likely to result in even lower salaries for staff – and no tips at the end of an extremely long shift. The best thing to do is avoid these resorts all together, but if you do stay in one, then be sure compensate the staff. If you can afford to holiday halfway round the world, you can afford to leave a much-needed tip.

The trouble with orphanages

There are many organisations offering volunteer placements in Thai orphanages – but be aware that your presence could be doing far more harm than good. When children become a tourist attraction – and a way to make money from philanthropically-minded tourists - there will always be people taking advantage of this.

Orphanages can become businesses rather than places of care, with many of the children actually having parents who have been encouraged to give them up. Untrained volunteers, however well-meaning, should not be allowed to work with potentially very damaged children, just as they would not in their home countries. And a high turnover of volunteers means that children become separated from people they have become attached to, again and again.

For this reason, we removed a large number of orphanage volunteer trips from our site in 2013, and launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issues. We do support longer-term placements for qualified individuals, as well as placements that do not involve contact with the children. Read more about Responsible Travel’s orphanage campaign to find out how to help – and how not to.

The exploitation of children for sex tourism

Prostitution has, surprisingly, been illegal in Thailand since 1960. However, as long as large sections of the tourist industry – not just the tourists – continue to actively embrace and protect it, there is little chance that the bargirls or boys will find more meaningful employment any time soon. As this activity contributes to up to three percent of the Thai economy, there is little incentive to enforce the law, even at higher levels of government. In many areas of society, the practice has become normalised, with no social stigma attached to the bargirls and boys. However, while the laws surrounding prostitution remain intentionally fuzzy, those concerning the sexual abuse of children are not: sexual intercourse with anyone under the age of 18 is illegal.

Many families – largely from rural areas – are tricked into selling their children and told they will have a better life. Other children are former street children who have been picked up by traffickers. Research and protection agencies, such as ECPAT International, estimate there are tens of thousands of children 'working in sex tourism' in Thailand, with children trafficked from poverty-stricken neighbouring countries to fuel the trade. We say 'working', but in fact, these young people should never be described as child sex workers. They are, quite simply, victims of abuse and rape.

What you can do
Fortunately, there are a number of ways that tourists can help children they suspect of being trafficked or abused in Thailand. ChildSafe International has a number of certified guesthouses in Bangkok which do not allow guests in with children other than their own, and staff have been trained to recognise potential dangers to children and to inform the police.
The Code also works to protect children from sex tourism. Tourism companies can sign up to The Code, and in doing so pledges to undertake six steps to stopping child prostitution – including staff training, providing information to travellers and establishing a policy. Read this list of tour operators and hotels in Thailand that have signed up to The Code.

If you do see anything suspicious in a restaurant, bar or hotel, report it to the manager. Don’t assume that just because you are in a four-star resort that this could not happen. If the manager refuses to investigate, take your business elsewhere – and if possible, notify the police. If there turns out to be no cause for concern, then this will quickly become apparent. The children are actually more likely to be male than female* - so don’t let this deter you. You can also use ChildSafe-certified taxis and tuk tuks. The drivers refuse to take clients with local children, and will not give any information that will support child prostitution. The drivers trawl the streets all day – so they are well places to report any injured, abused or potentially trafficked kids.

Obviously, prevention is better than cure, so one lovely way to prevent children being lured into and then abused within the sex tourism industry is to support impoverished and vulnerable families buy buying meaningful souvenirs. Look out for Paper Wear products in various outlets Bangkok. Mothers and vulnerable youngsters have been trained to create crafts so that they can support themselves and put their children through school. The crafts are made at home – so mothers can continue to care for their children. Stores include the Eco Shop, Banyan Tree Bangkok, the Thailand Creative and Design Centre and the Thai Craft Fair.

Responsible tourism tips

Never purchase items from endangered species. These include sea turtle shells and eggs, along with wild animal skins and ivory. As well as threatening the species, this is also illegal and you could end up with hefty fines or worse. Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market is the biggest in Thailand. It's a great experience - but avoid the animal stalls. Exotic species such as iguanas, alligators and monkeys are for sale here, but even the kittens and puppies are kept in horrendous conditions, in small, hot cages without food and water to prevent them from making a mess. You may see animal parks advertising the chance to cuddle a tiger cub – never support these. Cubs will have been bred illegally, kept in poor conditions and are most likely being reared to the point when they can be slaughtered for their bones, which are valued in traditional medicine. Any responsible, captive breeding programme will never invite humans to come into contact with wildlife, as habituated big cats can never be released. If snorkelling or diving, be sure to travel with a responsible operator. Never touch or step on coral, and report any operator who drops anchor on live coral. Though numbers have fallen in recent years, endangered hawksbill and green turtles still nest on several of Thailand’s beaches – including Koh Tao, meaning “Turtle Island”. Don’t disturb any known turtle nesting sites, and if you go on a night tour to see these creatures, be sure you are in a small group and avoid flash photography, which disorientates them. If you are lucky enough to see a turtle while diving, never chase or touch it. Dress modestly when visiting religious sites. Thailand’s tourist hotspots may be a mass of local and foreign flesh – but outside of these regions, communities are still largely conservative with Buddhist and Muslim values, so please dress and act respectfully. Never touch anyone’s head – it is the highest point of the body and must be respected. And never show the soles of your feet. These are the symbolic “lowest” point of the body, and this is an extremely offensive gesture. “Thai women” may have a certain connotation amongst travellers, but outside of the sleazier resorts, most are very conservative and it’s culturally inappropriate to touch a Thai woman.
Learn when and why to wai! The traditional Thai greeting – a bow with hands pressed together – is more complex than it seems.
Lesley Schofield, from our supplier All Points East, explains:
“Thailand is quite structured, it’s a very class-conscious society. Tourists do wais but some people take it to the extreme and wai serving staff, which is embarrassing for them and they don’t know what to do. It’s much more class-conscious than in the UK, so it’s best to learn how to do the wai and who to – don’t wai children!”
Much of Thailand is still very poor, and even high-end hotels have been criticised for paying staff unfeasibly low salaries – which don’t cover the costs of living in the expensive tourist towns which they work in. Shopping at local stalls, eating in local restaurants, tipping guides, hotel and restaurant staff will have a huge impact on their income. However, giving sweets to children should be avoided, as should giving money to children in the street – even if they are selling something. If you do want to take photos of local people – ask permission. It’s polite, respectful, and a wonderful opportunity to strike up a conversation. You’ll come away with a memory of the encounter, and not just a photo. And if they are uncomfortable with it – respect that, and leave them in peace.
Dee Edwards, from our supplier Tell Tale Travel:
"In Thailand it’s important to be sensitive to local culture. For example, Thai people often say yes because they don’t want to be rude by saying no, so they might agree to you taking photos when it’s not actually ok. Likewise, just because other westerners are wearing skimpy clothes doesn’t mean that’s what the locals are comfortable with. This is particularly true away from mainstream beach resorts. It's always better to wear a long-sleeved top than a strappy vest. You'll be respected more for it too."
Try and hire a local guide if possible – you’ll put money back into the local community, and get to learn from someone who really knows the area and culture. This is especially rewarding in the hill tribe regions of the north. Be careful when you visit hill tribes. There are many wonderful community tourism organisations, and our operators work with these, using local guides and allowing you to become part of the community for the day. However, there are also very exploitative tours – including coach tours, where dozens of tourists descend on a village, and trips to see the Karen or Kayan “long-necked women” – refugees from Burma who are famed for the metal rings which elongate their necks. They are such a lucrative "attraction" that the Thai government has refused to allow them to seek asylum elsewhere, for fear that it will affect tourism.
Liddy Pleasants, from our supplier Stubborn Mule Travel, explains more:
“A lot of the hill tribe villages are commercialised because they receive a lot of tourists. Some of them sell things, which is fine as they’re making money from handicrafts, but other tours are very exploitative. The long-necked women in particular have become human zoos. If you've organised your tour back home, your operator is likely to have checked out the places for you. But if you’re arranging it locally, it’s just a case of asking. The operator will always have pictures of the places you’re going to, and if it’s a photo of a woman with rings around her neck then you’re going to be going to one of the exploitative villages."
The water in Thailand is best enjoyed without a jet ski. These notoriously noisy monsters disturb wildlife and other holidaymakers, as well as polluting the pristine waters you are supposedly here to see. If that alone is not enough to put you off, be warned that there have been scams involving tourists being charged small fortunes for alleged damage to the jet skis. Thai food is famously delicious - but steer clear of bird nest soup, popular amongst the Chinese community. It is made from the nests of swiftlets - whose numbers are suffering as a result of the increasing demand for nests, the most expensive of which can command thousands of pounds per kilogram. Working conditions for nest harvesters are precarious, as they climb dozens of metres up rickety ladders inside caves; injury and even death are not uncommon.
Dee Edwards, from our supplier Tell Tale Travel:
"When you’re shopping try and buy from direct local villages, and look out for OTOP signs. That stands for "One Tambon One Product". Each village who is involved in it has one product that they are particularly good at creating; if you buy direct, the money goes straight to them."
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: SasinTipchai] [The trouble with elephants: Audrey] [Choose your beach – wisely: Mariamichelle]