Thailand is the major tourist destination in South East Asia and has an unregulated approach to tourism involving animals. Elephants tourism is one of the country's main attractions but many operators source the elephants illegally by poaching wild elephants and smuggling them over the border from Myanmar.
This is a huge issue for the conservation of remaining wild elephant populations and unfortunately, issues relating to the industry don't just end there. After capture, wild elephants are 'trained' by being tied up and beaten to become submissive towards humans. Once 'trained' elephants often end up being overworked and kept in poor conditions affecting their physical and mental well-being.
Ethical Tours was a startup project I proposed having learnt about these issues through a local conservation organisation, Wildlife1.org. The project was to be a collaborative effort developed alongside the Captive Asian Elephant Working Group who are working on developing a set of standards and principles regarding the usage and treatment of elephants in tourism.
My vision was to create a self-funded, performance-based booking platform which we could help promote the most 'ethical elephant friendly' experiences in Thailand. Our goal would be to educate visitors and re-direct potential customers to some of the more ethical experiences available. By redirecting enough customers and their cash we could have a direct impact on the industry as the platform would inclusive allowing others to join once they met the minimum standards proposed by the CAEWG.
The website that you can see here is an MVP which was created to:
- Test the responsiveness of visitors to the 'ethical' advertising message.
- Understand the willingness of operators and advertisers to join and support the platform
- Become my first experience of implementing an affiliate tracking.
- Explore and educate myself in respect to using e-commerce systems within a platform (I'd never used e-commerce systems before)
The project would be promoted and sustained through the revenues generated from referral fees. These are the same fees that would normally be paid to travel agents who are referring customers to operators.
In our case, it would be used in covering the cost of marketing and administration.
After testing the website with paid advertising and generating bookings, it became apparent that people would indeed prefer to book a tour from a more ethically operated centre given the choice.
The MVP site (Ethical-tours.org) had served its purpose as I had researched, implemented and learned how to use Woo-commerce shopping platform to facilitate the bookings. I also implemented and tested an affiliate tracking system which would enable us to advertise and bring on advocates without the upfront cost of traditional paid advertising.
Unfortunately, it was also brought to my attention that many of the more un-ethical camps were operated by local mafia syndicates. They operate hugely profitable businesses and may go to exceptional lengths to protect their interests. As I was quickly becoming the face of this platform and was based in the same city as these operators I decided that the risk to myself and my family wasn't worth it, however small.
The website is still live, but it is isn't actively promoted which is a great shame as I still believe wholeheartedly in the need and demand for such a platform.