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Animal Welfare in Overseas Tourism

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Fay Jones.)

I am grateful to have secured this debate, which allows me to raise the important issue of animal welfare in overseas tourism.

I wish to put it on record that I am proud that the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. In this House, two centuries ago, we introduced the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822; and just last year we introduced the landmark Animal Welfare (Sentience Act) 2022. Although the Government are to be commended for this, we can go still further.

I am sure that, like me, hon. and right hon. Members are often contacted by their constituents on a whole range of animal welfare matters. I am grateful to all those in Crawley who continue to write to me on such issues. I speak today as a vice-chair of the all-party group for animal welfare and as a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.

This is, of course, the time of year when millions of people around the country start planning their summer holidays, many choosing to escape abroad for a week or two. Let us think, however, about those half a million captive wild animals who will never have any escape from the cruel reality that they suffer for tourist entertainment around the world.

Supporters of hunting holidays will often cite conservation efforts as a benefit for communities and countries in which they are hunting, but as we know, the damage done to animal populations and biodiversity is enormous. Will the hon. Member share his thoughts on what Ministers can do to tackle misinformation in this space?

I am grateful for that intervention from the hon. Lady, who is a steady campaigner for animal welfare issues, and I always appreciate her support. I will come on to this later in my remarks, but she is absolutely right that animal tourism has nothing to do with conservation. It is quite the opposite; it not only presents a danger to the survival of species, but potentially creates human health hazards. As part of an effort to ensure that in this country we do not allow the advertising and sale of animal experiences abroad, we should send a clear message, as she outlines, that that is unacceptable.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of wild animals are exploited for entertainment in the global tourism industry. Activities and attractions that are considered wildlife entertainment are those allowing tourists close contact with wild animals or to see them perform. Popular examples include tiger cubs made to pose for selfie photographs, elephant rides and swimming with dolphins experiences, as well as captive dolphin shows. Those activities may appear benign on the face of it, but in fact they rely on cruel treatment that harms the captive animal’s welfare.

Responsible tourism is an increasingly important factor to many travellers and some tourists have been shocked to see the high level of suffering by wild animals involved in unethical attractions abroad, including Asian elephants, which are sometimes snatched from their forest homes and families as young elephants to supply tourist attractions, for nothing more than commercial profit, monetary gain and entertainment for the tourist trade. A UK ban on advertising of overseas attractions where Asian elephants and their babies are brutalised for tourism fun has deep and comprehensive support across Great Britain.

Such a ban would steer demand and therefore supply to ethical venues where elephants and humans are safe from abuse and fatalities. Companies selling wildlife entertainment venues lead tourists to assume such activities are acceptable, when in fact they are inhumane and cause harm to wildlife. There needs to be new legislation banning the promotion of holidays and tours that include exploitative animal encounters in their advertisements, helping to end the miserable abuse by making such unethical advertising illegal.

It is good that the hon. Gentleman has brought up such an important issue. I was in Chiang Mai in Thailand a few years ago and went to a restaurant called, I think, Tiger Time. He mentions tiger cubs, but they had full-sized adult tigers with people crawling all over them taking selfies and so on. It took a while to realise that obviously the tigers must have been drugged. Does he agree that this is not just about advertising—that restaurant was not advertised to me over here—but is also about the fact that the Government may have a role to play in having words with the Thai authorities about cracking down on that sort of activity, which does not give a good impression of the country at all?

I am delighted to be intervened on by the hon. Lady, who also has a long record of standing up for animal welfare issues in this House. She gives an horrendous first-hand account of the sort of abuse that majestic wild animals—animals that should be in the wild—experience in countries such as Thailand. That, too, is an issue I will expand on later in my remarks.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) on her Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill, intended to prohibit the sale and advertising of activities abroad that involve low standards of welfare for animals. I encourage colleagues across the House to support the Bill at its Second Reading on Friday 3 February.

The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech, and I am sure many people across the United Kingdom agree that we must address these important matters. Does he agree that this is a cross-party issue, unlike many that we may discuss, and that we can reach out across the political divide and come together with the public, who overwhelmingly support having the best animal welfare conditions in the UK and internationally? Does he also agree that advocates such as Lorraine Platt, who leads the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, and others do fantastic work in this space to ensure that we all work together cross-party to take this forward?

That is entirely right. I think that this House—with very few minority exceptions—is very much united on the need for increased animal welfare protections both here at home and abroad. It is right that Members reflect what people across the country tell us is important to them.

Great Britain is the territorial extent of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford. Although we cannot enforce our laws in other countries, we can prevent British tourists from buying—often unintentionally —cruel animal experiences abroad from companies operating in the UK, to stifle the demand that causes such grave animal suffering. The Government are right in their commitment

“to continue to raise the bar”

and to

“take the rest of the world with us”,

as set out when the action plan for animal welfare was announced.

Numbers of Asian elephants—an iconic species beloved across the world—have fallen drastically from millions in the 19th century to barely 40,000 today, and nearly half of those live in brutal captivity. They suffer extreme coercion and cruelty across south east Asia and beyond, starting with their unlawful poaching from the wild, then the brutal breaking of their spirits by isolation and starvation, and stabbings and beatings for easy use in tourism. Those actions would be profoundly unlawful if committed here in the UK.

In 2018-19, some 2 million UK tourists visited India and Thailand. Thirty two per cent. of those visiting Thailand reported having ridden an elephant or wishing to do so, often an unwitting participant in the cruelty and dangers involved. In 2016, there was projected demand of more than 12 million rides in Thailand alone, demonstrating how remorselessly the thousands of tourist elephants in Thailand are commercially exploited, often to death. Save The Asian Elephants has so far identified hundreds of companies in the UK market that currently promote such overseas attractions in which unethical activities are practised.

The number of Asian elephants engaged in tourism in Thailand increased by 70% in the decade to 2020. The Asian elephant has been designated as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature for 37 years now. With the ongoing destruction of majestic Asian elephants comes the end of their unique role as mega-gardeners of the forests that, as the lungs of the Earth, maintain biodiversity, store carbon and contribute to environmental protection.

World Animal Protection’s “The Real Responsible Traveller” report shows that some well-known and trusted companies are promoting and selling wildlife entertainment venues. The association with trusted holiday brands leads tourists to assume that activities and experiences such as swimming with dolphins, taking selfies with tiger cubs and elephant rides are acceptable or even—as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) pointed out—beneficial for wild animals. In fact, behind every elephant ride is an abused elephant, and behind every swim-with-dolphins experience, there is appalling cruelty.

The thousands of captive Asian elephants suffer daily and are forced to perform unnatural acts such as elephant rides and shows for tourists at entertainment venues abroad. I want to expose the brutality of the training methods that elephants are subjected to for the sake of a five-minute elephant ride or a holiday picture. The cruel methods used to train elephants include repeated beatings with hooks and sticks, and exposure to loud noises and stressful situations. Other methods include separation from their mothers at the young age of around 2 years, restraint with minimal movement, and isolation.

There is strong scientific evidence that keeping elephants in captivity for entertainment purposes is both physically and psychologically detrimental to these highly intelligent animals. It is little wonder that studies have sadly shown the development of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. That is before we get to the point of abused captive Asian elephants also being highly dangerous to humans. When provoked, they attack—often fatally. Figures from Save the Asian Elephants show that hundreds of tourists and others have been killed or sustained catastrophic injuries—typically, crushed chests and internal organs, broken limbs and ribs, and serious head injuries. When physically broken and held in close confinement, elephants, by their large volume of exhalation, can also transmit deadly tuberculosis to humans. Concerns also arise regarding their potential transmission of other airborne pathogens.

In the wild, female elephant calves are cared for by their mothers for four to five years and supervised for several more years. Female calves remain in the mother herd all their lives and form close relationships with other family members. Male calves tend to leave the herd between 10 and 15 years of age. By contrast, the enclosures that elephants are kept in are inadequate for their needs. The home range of an Asian elephant varies between 30 and 600 sq km—an area that obviously can never be replicated in captivity. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to consider whether the sought-after picture of riding an elephant that many tourists want is worth the lifetime of exploitation and suffering that they do not even know they are supporting. Behind every elephant ride is an abused elephant.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on the incredibly powerful speech he is making. I am sure that everybody listening tonight cannot help but be moved by the plight of the animals he is talking about. Will he join me in congratulating the CEO of Save the Asian Elephants, Duncan McNair, for presenting a petition on this important issue to Downing Street today, along with other campaigners? Does he agree that the fact that the petition secured more than 1.2 million signatures shows the strength of feeling of people from across this country on how important it is to legislate on this issue?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing a Bill that would ban these cruel animal experiences abroad, and I wish her every success in its passage. I know she was one of those who presented the petition to Downing Street earlier today, and the number of people supporting it clearly demonstrates that the British people feel strongly that this sort of practice is outdated and needs to come to an end.

The captive dolphin entertainment industry similarly thrives on unimaginable cruelty. Thousands of dolphins are in captivity worldwide, subjected to adverse living conditions and forced to perform unnatural tricks in exchange for food. In the wild, dolphins can swim 100 km a day. The average tank size of the largest primary tank used at dolphin facilities is more than 200,000 times smaller than their natural home range. Tanks are often barren to allow visitors a better view, which results in little mental stimulation for the animals and nowhere for them to hide. No captive facility can ever meet the complex needs of these highly intelligent animals.

We should all be proud that this year marks 30 years since the last dolphinarium closed in the UK. It is wrong, therefore, that we are effectively exporting animal cruelty that is not acceptable at home to countries abroad. YouGov polling in Britain last May found that the acceptability of watching a show or performance involving dolphins was just 23%. That is an unsurprising yet clear call from a nation of animal lovers to stop fuelling the exploitation of wildlife abroad.

I was pleased to receive a copy of World Animal Protection’s report “The Real Responsible Traveller” earlier this month, which presents an assessment of the commitment to wildlife-friendly tourism of nine of the most influential travel businesses in the UK or the global tourism industry. This research, commissioned by World Animal Protection and undertaken by the University of Surrey, highlights which companies are still failing wildlife by selling exploitative experiences and attractions or by operating their business without concern for animal welfare.

I pay tribute to the UK tour association ABTA for publishing a decade ago a set of ethical standards for operators on animal experiences abroad. Travel companies play a crucial role in influencing the demand and supply of captive wildlife experiences. However, those companies that choose to sell captive wild animal entertainment and experiences continue to profit from animal suffering. Some 84% of people interviewed in a 2022 global poll believe that tour operators should not sell activities that cause wild animal suffering. Those companies have an ethical duty to their customers, yet too many choose to put profit before what is right.

In May last year almost three quarters—72%—of respondents to a YouGov poll stated that they wanted the Government to pass more laws designed to improve animal welfare and protect animals from cruelty. Banning the domestic advertising and sale of cruel animal activities abroad has clear support in the UK. British people do not want animal cruelty in this country, and nor do they want to support it abroad. I praise the ambition of the Government’s action plan for animal welfare, which enjoyed huge public support and committed to legislate on the issue. It intended to set a global standard for how animals should be treated—with respect, compassion and free from suffering. I ask the Minister to do everything possible to follow through on that promise.

The landmark Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 prohibited the exhibition or use of wild animals performing as part of a travelling circus in England. This House has made its feelings clear on this issue and must do again. Wild animals deserve the right to a wild life free from suffering. They are not commodities to be exploited and they are not ours to exploit.

I remind the House of the sentiment set out by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), in May 2021 in the action plan for animal welfare:

“The way we treat animals reflects our values and the kind of people we are.”

I could not agree more. Let this House of Commons support the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill and take this opportunity to help tackle the cruel mistreatment of wild animals abroad.

This is the first time I have had the pleasure of speaking while you have been in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that you, too, are very interested in the subject of animal welfare. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) for securing this debate, and for sharing a copy of his speech. We have something in common as I, too, was a member of the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare—I think I co-chaired it. Many Members in this Chamber either have been in that all-party group or are in it now. There is strong cross-party engagement on how we feel about animals and looking after them.

I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) for her work in this area. We have heard some gruelling reports of how animals are treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley demonstrated his sympathetic understanding of how we should deal with our fellow wild creatures. He is absolutely right that the way we treat animals reflects on our own values —something we should bear in mind. I express my gratitude to all the campaign groups and organisations that have continued to raise the profile of issues such as those that we are debating.

The Government recognise that a number of tourist activities take place overseas that generate animal welfare concerns and would be illegal here under our own domestic legislation. A 2015 study by Oxford University’s wildlife conservation research unit reported that up to 550,000 animals worldwide suffered due to tourist entertainment in wildlife attractions. We have heard some examples. The tourism industry is a significant contributor to the UK’s economy. Some of that economic activity relates to travel agents here, as we have heard, arranging and selling holidays abroad.

As the tourism industry regenerates following the effects of the covid pandemic, now is the perfect time to build tourism that is responsible and sustainable. As a world leader in animal welfare, the UK Government are keen to work towards improving the welfare of not only animals here in the UK, but those used in the tourism industry across the globe. The Government already carry out a significant amount of work to protect and improve the welfare of animals domestically and worldwide and are determined to do more. That can be seen in our recent support of the Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill, which I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley for bringing forward. I was fortunate enough to speak on behalf of the Government on Second Reading on 25 November last year, and I am pleased to see that the Bill will be in Committee tomorrow. I was also delighted to speak last Friday on the Shark Fins Bill, which is another private Member’s Bill that demonstrates the attitude we are taking towards worldwide conservation. I know that many other Members here have contributed towards that.

There are so many pieces of legislation that this Government have recently brought forward to improve animal welfare, including the Glue Traps (Offences) Act 2022, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021, the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019 and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019, and the ivory ban came into force in June 2022. A lot of this work has been underpinned by our action plan for animal welfare, which was published in March 2021 and set out the direction of travel and our commitment to this work on animal welfare both domestically and globally.

The Government are aware of problems involving low-welfare Asian elephant establishments abroad. Asian elephant rides, performances and experiences are often a popular choice among tourists overseas. The campaign group Save the Asian Elephants claims that, of the 2 million UK tourists who visited India and Thailand between 2018 and 2019, one third expressed an interest in having a ride on an elephant. The Association of British Travel Agents is the main industry body that represent travel agents here. Its membership makes up about 90% of our industry, and it issues guidance to its members setting out low-welfare animal practices abroad that it deems unacceptable for travel companies to advertise. Its comprehensive list of such activities includes feeding or contact with big cats, great apes, bears and sloths; bear pits; tiger farms; animal fighting; canned and trophy hunting; and many more. It is impossible to believe that there is such a comprehensive list of all these things, and we have heard some graphic descriptions of those activities tonight. Although ABTA provides clear guidance on these matters, it does not have legislative force and applies only to ABTA members.

Many studies are now concluding that tourists are becoming more reluctant to support low-welfare activities, and I am pleased to say that there is instead a growing demand for sustainable and ethical attractions. We are hopeful that as awareness grows around these issues, ethical tourism will become more prevalent throughout the industry. “Responsible tourism” is an ever-increasing term in the travel industry, and we hope that British travellers will realise this and make the choices for themselves.

Although there is some way to go, there certainly seems to be a shift in many places towards higher-welfare attractions. For example, ChangChill in northern Thailand has become one of the first elephant attractions to transition to an observation-only model. The venue has become a really popular tourist attraction, demonstrating that there is a demand to learn about elephants without having to touch them. Watching animals behave naturally in their natural environment is the right way to go, whether it is rafting up the river in The Gambia looking at birds, or watching whales or elephants from a distance with a good pair of binoculars. The Government are hopeful that the purchasing patterns of tourists from this country will send a strong global statement that we, as a nation, will oppose the unacceptable treatment of animals abroad.

I will conclude, as I think it has all been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley. I thank him and all other Members who have contributed to the debate and who will ensure that, as a nation, we carry on our great work standing up for animal welfare. I wish my hon. Friend well with his Hunting Trophies (Import Prohibition) Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.