We are largely all now living in uncharted times as COVID-19 takes a stronghold in our countries. Like millions of other people across the World, the British public is in lockdown. Whilst this is time to focus on survival, it is also an important time to take stock and to reset. Then, once this is all over and we resume our usual lives, we do our utmost to do better, and be better businesses. This is certainly the current sentiment of friends and colleagues within the travel and tourism sector.
COVID-19 has been devastating for tourism on so many levels, but within our roles and responsibilities, what actions can the sector do to ensure this kind of disaster does not happen again?
Reports have confirmed that COVID-19 is a disease of animal origin, and like SARS before it, it has likely originated from live animal markets 1. These are marketplaces, predominantly in Asia, where a large variety of live and dead wildlife species are sold alongside dogs and other domesticated animals for human consumption 2. Conditions within these markets are often crammed and unhygienic, presenting an unintentional incubator for many new diseases, carried by wildlife, that go on to infect humans. Anyone who read my last Blog will know about zoonoses (the diseases that normally exist in animals that can transfer to humans) and that the risk of transmission increases when in close contact with animals. COVID-19 is the latest in many such examples of dangerous zoonoses that include rabies, Ebola and the Plague. However, despite the acknowledgement by the World Health Organisation that zoonoses are a significant threat to global health security 3, few actions have been taken to raise greater awareness or impose relevant controls and restrictions.
For the travel and tourism sector, animals are a popular part of many travel experiences and, when managed appropriately, animals can enhance the holiday, improve education around biodiversity and aid conservation. However, studies have indicated that some activities can result in the poor welfare of animals and place people at risk. As acknowledged by ABTA’s Animal Welfare Guidelines, this includes both physical injury risk and disease transmission, which becomes particularly pertinent when interacting with, or in proximity to animals.
Crucially, this is NOT a call, or an excuse, to abandon our pets, end our relationship with animals, or worse, end lives, but this is a wake-up call to recognise the risk of zoonoses and the need to enact measures to prevent risk. China and many other Asian countries have already suspended their live animal markets and trade in wildlife, after the identified connection with COVID-19, but there is no indication that trade will stop, indefinitely. In fact, these markets soon resumed following the SARS outbreak (2003), when similar connections were made.
My impression, and recommendation is that we need to rethink our relationship with other animal species, and specifically review how we exploit and interact with them.
It is not sufficient to just suspend activity for a short while, only to resume when the spotlight is removed – particularly if not doing so places people and or animals at risk.
Identifying, measuring and managing such risk was the topic of my webinar last week (25 March), as part of the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s “Meet the Experts” series. This included my recommendation to tour operators and travel agents to review all their animal-based excursions and in-destination activities to identify high risk and establish safeguards that protect both animals and people. This is specialist work, where I would recommend the expertise and assistance of ANIMONDIAL.
Importantly, it is not only the animal activities offered by tour operators that must be considered as part of your risk assessment. In addition, there are also in-destination, cultural activities with animals that may present a risk to your customers. Consider the live animal markets – a pool of zoonoses – tourists do frequent such places and could be encouraged to touch, eat “exotic meats”, or purchase live or parts of animals (as pets or curios, respectively). Additionally, the NGO FOUR PAWS, currently spearheading a campaign to end the dog and cat meat trade in Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, estimates that 30 million dogs and cats are killed for meat across Asia each year 4. When I accompanied FOUR PAWS to investigate this trade, I saw numerous motorbikes carrying cages crammed with dogs (being taken to slaughterhouses) on the road to Angkor Wat, and the sale of dog and cat meat in Hanoi city’s tourist zone. Leaving the ethics aside, dog and cat meat trade has been linked to the spread of zoonoses including rabies and trichinellosis, and noting that only a small percentage of the population eats the meat, mainly for perceived health aids, perhaps the costs to life outweigh the benefits?
Overall, I feel that the travel industry should consider all risks and mitigate wherever possible, travellers must be made aware of any risks before they travel, and the tourism sector should use its influence to minimise risk in destinations, or to remove it altogether.
In the hope that we will soon have the COVID-19 outbreak under control and the vaccine is realised, could we, as the travel and tourism sector, do all we can to identify, measure and manage zoonotic risk within our operations? This includes adopting preventative measures, such as:
- Washing of hands before and after any animal contact.
- Screening animals kept in a captive environment for infectious disease.
- Ensuring captive animals are kept in hygienic conditions that offer free-movement.
- Undertaking a ‘health check’ audit of all your animal attractions and experiences*.
- Influencing suppliers to phase-out all entertainment-based animal handling.
- Working with destination partners and governments to permanently close the live animal markets, curb wildlife trafficking, and bringing an end to the dog and cat meat trade.
It will require a concerted, global effort to reset our relationship with animals that is based on respect, commitment and the highest of animal welfare standards.
Join ANIMONDIAL in striving for a world where tourism is kind to animals (and people).
- Find out more about ANIMONDIAL’s work with the travel and tourism sector and organisations seeking to protect animals. Why not join our LinkedIn Group?
- Find out more about the combined animal welfare and health & safety ‘health check’ auditing.
- Read about FOUR PAWS’ dog and cat meat trade investigation findings.
- New York Times (2020) China’s Omnivorous Markets Are in the Eye of a Lethal Outbreak Once Again. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/25/world/asia/china-markets-coronavirus-sars.html (Accessed 26/02/2020)
- Dog Meat Free Indonesia (2020) Calls for Indonesia to close down its Live Animal Markets. Available at: https://www.dogmeatfreeindonesia.org/our-work/news/item/celebrities-ricky-gervais-and-peter-egan-join-campaigners-in-calls-for-indonesia-to-close-down-its-live-animal-markets (Accessed 26/02/2020)
- World Health Organisation (2020), Zoonotic Diseases. Available at: http://www.emro.who.int/fr/about-who/rc61/zoonotic-diseases.html (Accessed 26/02/2020)
- FOUR PAWS International (2020) Dog and Cat Meat in Southeast Asia. Available at: https://dogcatmeat.four-paws.org/the-truth/a-four-paws-report-on-the-dog-and-cat-meat-trade-in-the-southeast-asian (Accessed 26/02/2020)
On attending the Elephant Wellbeing and Thai Community event, hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) at WTM London (November), it occurred to me how important it is to consider an issue from its cultural perspective. Noting that perceived cultural divides between traditional practices, ‘foreign’ opposing views and industry standards can been a significant obstacle when seeking meaningful change.
Take elephants in tourism as an example. This is a hotly debated issue with a range of impassioned views on how elephants should be involved in tourism. Many are based on emotive sentiment, animal welfare science or sustainability ideals, none of which I condemn, but I do feel that more could be achieved, and opportunities realised if thought was given to the local culture, livelihoods and economic relevance. Listening to the owners of the Asian elephant attractions attending the TAT event, it was evident that they feel threatened and confused by the various standards imposed on them by foreign entities. I can understand that point of view, particularly when those ideals rarely consider the status quo or consult such attractions.
As I have come to realise as a Director for ANIMONDIAL, it is of vital importance to engage all stakeholders, understand the many points of view and if you can, see the activity and resulting implications for yourself. Only then can a complete picture be formed, and if required, viable solutions be identified. At ANIMONDIAL, this approach gives us the ability to provide our clients with complete and accurate information that aids their informed decision-making.
By example, during my recent investigations into the trade in dog and cat meat in SE Asia, it has been important to engage with the local communities to understand their motivations for the trade. This has helped to formulate an awareness-raising campaign as a viable option, both regionally and internationally, by focusing on the associated animal cruelty and public health concerns. Incorporating constructive engagement with the authorities, animal rescue and alternative livelihood options. This will likely be the approach taken by our clients, Four Paws International, during their awareness-raising campaign in 2020.
Perceived cultural divides between nations and geographical regions should never been considered an obstacle or a challenge but instead a need to engage, understand and find common ground. From experience, taking this time is likely to deliver opportunity. Particularly, when the realisation is that there are often common goals between stakeholders that then help to deliver tangible solutions to those recurring challenges.
The TAT’s Elephant Wellbeing & Thai Community discussion concluded that there is a need for a collaborative approach, whereby stakeholders need to work together, and be willing to compromise their position, in order to deliver meaningful change. In my humble opinion, this approach should be tried and tested in all eventualities where cultural divides are perceived. Otherwise the recurring challenges for the travel industry in relation to animal involvement in tourism (as well as with other issues) are unlikely to be resolved.
If you would like to find out more about ANIMONDIAL’s collaborative work to improve the welfare of captive Asian elephants or address the associated risks of the dog and cat meat trade, please contact us or, if you haven’t already, sign up to our monthly newsletter.