Photo: Courtesy of Airbnb
When you first hear the crushing footsteps of an elephant as it stomps through the forest, something indescribable happens to you. Baby Sunti is the first one I spot, charging straight at me with his curious trunk poking around to sniff out the new arrival. It's tempting to reach out and touch him, but I keep my distance respecting that this is his space and I’m only visiting.
Most people (kids, in particular) are naturally drawn to animals, but it’s not uncommon for parents to feel conflicted by the idea of taking their little ones to places with captive wildlife. Airbnb’s Animal Experiences program, a new branch of their existing Experiences program, launched today and will give families the opportunity to engage with animals across the globe in a way that is responsible.
“We know people love animals and want to see and experience them when they travel, but we also know they mostly want to see animals in their natural setting in a way that considers their well-being,” said Alesia Soltanpanah, Executive Director World Animal Protection in a press release about the launch. As part of this new initiative, the company has created an animal welfare policy with World Animal Protection to ensure the trips they offer put animals first
When Sarah Blaine first travelled to Thailand with her husband Felix in 2008—two kids, then six and eight, in tow—she signed the family up for a volunteer project for working elephants where her kids would get a hands-on experience with the animals and the people. But it wasn’t long after they arrived that she began to feel like she’d made a mistake. “Not only did we witness the sadness of these beautiful creatures, but also the sadness of those caring for them,” she says.
Blaine quickly learned how the growing elephant tourism industry was forcing mahouts, the name given to the caregiver of a captive elephant throughout Asia, to leave their homes and take elephants into the cities where they could “work.” She wondered if there was a better way for tourists to experience elephants and the indigenous communities who care for them without exploiting either. “I realized we needed to help the people to be able to help the elephants,” says Blaine.
Blaine and her husband went on to found the Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF), a non-profit dedicated to returning working elephants to their natural habitat. “We started the foundation in response to this experience and following years of research on the situation and felt a model of partnering with Karen communities would work best,” says Blaine. “We can then facilitate the return of their elephants to cast forest habitats whilst also helping the whole community through sustainable and responsible tourism.”
MEF has partnered with Airbnb Animal Experiences to offer Walking with Elephants, a four-day trip, including transportation and accommodation, for families with kids aged eight and older that takes place in a rural Karen hill tribe community (located approximately a three and half hour drive from Chiang Mai) where visitors can see the famous Thai elephants in a sprawling 8,000-acre forest.
I make the journey from Toronto to try out the trip and select a homestay (a Karen-style guesthouse is also available) with Manit and his family, the former chief of the village and head mahout. My room is simple: a firm mattress on the floor with blankets and a large mosquito net that creates a canopy over the bed. The bathroom, housed in a small building next to the house, has a toilet and two large barrels of water: one for “flushing”, the other for showering. It’s rustic, but it’s also an authentic glimpse into village life.
Mornings start early with a breakfast of rice and stir fried egg and vegetables. There are tons of little ones in the village, so families travelling with small kids won't be at a loss for playmates. Guests can partake in village activities, like traditional textile or basket weaving, but the big draw is the elephants.
Currently, this project is home to four rescued elephants: Thong Kam, baby Sunti, Bai Fern and Mario. Each morning, the mahouts head into the forest to release the elephants who are secured at night for their own safety—in the elephant’s absence, corn farms were planted on the Karen land, which now limit certain areas where they can roam. Once untethered, the elephants roam at their own free will well into the evening when the mahouts once again secure them until the following morning.
The Karen hill tribe have long been guardians to these giants, but to support their families, they’ve been forced to take the elephants away from their homes to larger cities like Chiang Mai where tourists will pay for experiences like feeding, bathing and even riding the elephants. The result: poor living and working conditions for both the elephants and the Karen people.
In 2007, I spent a month backpacking around Thailand and I came to Chiang Mai to see the elephants—I even rode on the back of one. It’s been more than a decade since that experience and I still live with the guilt.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” With more people travelling than ever, concerns over overtourism, conservation and sustainability are becoming increasingly important—and for parents planning holidays with young children, being more ecoconscious is an opportunity to create a new generation of better travellers.
I head into the forest one morning with the mahouts after a week of rainfall, so the elephants have wandered quite far making for a messy and challenging 11-mile hike. But, typically the elephants stick closer to the village—Blaine has seen kids as young as three make the trek out.
For the rest of the day, I follow the mahouts and elephants at a distance as they make their way through the forest, taking down large bamboo branches and mostly eating. There’s no big show or major interaction and yet, I never get tired of watching them. Even as we eat our lunch in a clearing, the elephants seem to notice we’ve stopped and they too find a spot to nibble on some bamboo leaves until we’re ready to continue. Depending on the time of year and their mood, the elephants will sometimes lead guests to a picturesque waterfall where they like to mud bathe or play in the rivers.
Airbnb isn’t the first travel company to become more aware of the troubling state of tourism and its impact on people, animals and the environment. Toronto-based small group adventure travel operator G Adventures recently expanded their popular Jane Goodall Collection of trips to continue to support conservation and responsible wildlife tourism.
“For many years we have been committed to ensuring that no people or animals are harmed either intentionally or unintentionally by our tours,” said Jamie Sweeting, G Adventures Vice President of Social Enterprise and Responsible Travel, in a press release. “We strive to be the best we can be in this vital area of our business, and empower our travellers to do the same in their own adventures.”
Similarly, the Treadright Foundation works with tour operators like Contiki, Insight Vacations, Trafalgar and Me to We to ensure their trips have a positive impact on the local people and communities, the wildlife and marine life and the earth in general—and many of these companies are turning their focus to families.
Elaborate overseas vacations aren’t in the cards for every family, so Airbnb Animal Experiences offers options for every budget. Families can look for local experiences like Goat Yoga Dancing Therapy just outside of Barrie, Ont., which lets kids as young as seven try their hand at yoga while baby goats jump on them; Equine Facilitated Learning just outside of Calgary, Alta. where kids four and up can interact with horses and learn about herd hierarchy dynamics and basic horse body language; or Urban Rooftop Beekeeping in Hamilton, Ont., where kids seven and up can learn about making honey.
On the last day of my experience in Thailand, I’m still thinking about my day in the forest. I’ve also managed to teach myself how to quickly and efficiently shower using just a bucket of chilly water, and I’m welcomed to the communal mat where Manit and his family make me breakfast each morning. I feel part of the community and I know this is an experience I won't soon forget.
Heading back to Canada, I feel a mix of sadness and gratefulness for having had the opportunity to be here. Will I still say yes when my daughter asks to go visit the llamas at our local zoo this weekend? Probably. But hopefully I’ll also be able to take her on an experience like this one, so that she knows there’s another way to experience the magic of animals.