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7 Harmful Tourist Attractions You Should Avoid

By March 29, 2017 33 Comments

I will be the first to admit that being a responsible traveler is HARD and there are a lot of tempting harmful tourist attractions out there! It takes a lot of research, planning, preparing and discipline to be ethical while traveling. Whether it is slow travel, ethical tours, volunteering responsibly or even just reducing your plastic use and waste, it is definitely worth it and there is always room for improvement even in the most savvy of eco-travelers. While these are not hard and fast rules, mostly they are just my opinion, they will give you something to think about the next time you book that animal encounter or volunteer trip!

Giving Pens and Candy to Local Children

Sure, they are cute and you are big-hearted but giving candy, pens and money to kids on the streets has turned into a frequent destructive habit of travelers from all over. There are way too many scenarios to consider but here are two examples to get your thought process on the right track when it comes to giving treats to kids.

Giving Candy to Kids along the Inca Trail in Peru – These children will love you for it but take into consideration that access to dental care in the Peruvian highlands can be limited if there is any at all. So when your sugary treats decay their teeth, who will be there to treat them? If you have ever had a toothache I can bet you wouldn’t want to be caught without a dentist you can get to quickly! Not to mention, untreated tooth decay in baby teeth can quickly turn into an abscess (infection of the bone) which in children can be harmful to their health and, in extreme cases, lead to death.

Giving Pens to Kids in India – These children have been conditioned to run up to any foreigners and quickly demand pens or money. This common act of giving them pens or other treats may seem harmless but it encourages begging which can lead to dropping out of school and taking to the streets and becoming scam-artists. And apparently “begging mafias” are a thing. Read more about it in this eye opening article from Alex at Lost With Purpose where she details not only the harm but also gives suggestions of alternative ways to give back!

Swimming With Dolphins

Swimming With Dolphins

This has come under fire a lot in the last 10 years and for good reason. Animals are not meant to be kept in cages away from their natural environments. The only exception to this rule are dogs, and that is because over hundreds of years they have been breed to be domesticated and truly love us (even cats are questionable, am I right? haha). I have seen and swam with dolphins in their natural habitat and they cover A LOT of ground, so how can we feel good about keeping them in the tiny pools of water they get at tourism establishments. I have seen spinner dolphins jumping and frolicking in the sea and the ones who are locked up and sentenced to life as a “trick pony” don’t have that same spark. Don’t let the natural shape of their mouth fool you, they aren’t smiling.

Posing With Large Jungle Cats

Have you ever seen a wild lion or tiger come up and pose with anyone for a selfie? No, you haven’t. Any time you can sit for a picture with an animal who you would be afraid of if you came across them in the wild is a bad idea. Those animals are drugged, chained up, and a whole myriad of abuses behind the scene I can’t even begin to imagine. Imaging having a whole line of tourists line up to take pictures with you after waking up from anesthesia, sounds horrific to me. According to the video by National Geographic below, the famous Tiger Temple in Thailand may be involved in the black market trade of illegal exotic animals as well.

 Bull Fighting in Spain

Ok, I realize that this is deeply ingrained in the historical culture of Spain so this might be controversial but I cannot get behind an event that causes pain and misery. This entertainment is nothing but animal cruelty with a little flare. The bull is repeatedly stabbed by 3+ humans, not in order to kill it quickly and humanely, but to anger it so that the show is more interesting for spectators. It cannot even be considered a fight since the bull is greatly outnumbered and out-weaponed (it’s a word now) and then it is killed in a very slow, painful, and aggravating fashion. It’s sick.

Volunteering in 3rd World Countries for a Few Days and Then Leaving

This might be where I lose some people. Yes, it is very honorable to want to go to another country that does not have the same infrastructure as your home country to help out but we have to be very careful about how we approach these things. Volunteering abroad is a noble venture and you should absolutely do it but find the right organization and take these things into consideration.

  1. Are volunteers trained to have the necessary skills to do what is expected? Often times building end up having to be rebuilt by local craftsmen who have a much better skill level essentially wasting time and materials.
  2. Volunteers and free labor may be taking away paying jobs from people in the community. Why pay someone a fair wage when you can have altruistic travelers come in and do it for free?
  3. Are “teachers” really qualified to do so? Is it a revolving door of educators? Having a new teacher every week can be completely distracting to children so much so that very little educating is actually being done. In addition to that, are these teachers actually educators or just someone on their spring break trying to gain a sense of fulfillment? Would it make more sense to train and educate the adults in the community to act as leaders and teachers instead?
  4. Be mindful of the attachment that kids can form to you. If you spend 2 weeks in Haiti and become close to one particular child, how are they going to feel when you are ripped from their lives so that you can go back to your comfy job and your comfy bed in your comfy house? It is not fair to them to constantly have people disappear on them.
  5. Is this a lasting effort? So many volunteerism projects get “finished” and then are left without any sustainable plan for the project to continue working after the volunteers go home. So make sure there is some follow up for the work you are doing and that it wasn’t a wasted effort leaving an eyesore for the community.
  6. Creating new problems rather than solving what the community needs. Be sure that the community members were consulted before the organization decided which problems needed to be fixed. We may not be able to see what the real needs are because they are not our own.
  7. This isn’t a social media post opportunity. If that is your main reason for volunteering then just don’t. These are peoples lives and they don’t deserve to have their misfortune exploited for likes and shares. It is GREAT to bring awareness to causes but make sure your intentions are honorable.

There are SO many more things to consider and I certainly don’t have all the answers but I encourage everyone to do some research and form your own opinions based off of real world experiences, not just the feel good stuff you see on Facebook. I whole-heartedly believe that we should always look for ways to leave places we visit better than when we came, so you should absolutely volunteer, I highly encourage it. Just make sure you are choosing the right way to go about it. Now, if I have scared you away from humanitarian efforts, every corner of the earth can use some help keeping the damage to a minimum. So pick up trash, volunteer with animals, do something to get out and make the world a better place!

Cage Diving With Sharks

There are differing opinions on this so to be clear, these are my opinions alone and everyone should research to form their own.

  1. Its unnatural and inauthentic. I would rather see these beautiful creatures in their natural state of calm rather than in a frenzy because they have been lured to the cages by chum. Sharks are curious but cautious creatures and do not typically have any interest in humans and I personally would rather it stay that way. The better alternative solutions would be a pelagic dive outside of a cage to observe them naturally.
  2. Throwing chum into the water seems like it would associate humans with feeding time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be involved in ANY animals feeding habits. Also, its seems like such a tease to the sharks to have the chum in the water and a decoy seal but then there is no food. It feels cruel.
  3. The chumming could perpetuate stereotypes for some tourists who don’t know much about the animals. They see them coming at them baring their teeth because they are trying to eat but that is not typical of a shark encounter outside of cage diving.

I am sure there is more that goes into this than what meets the eye but my opinion is that humans should do as little as possible to disrupt the natural behavior of sharks in order to keep the fragile eco-system working as it should. Whether that means not throwing chum, abstaining from destroying seal habitats, and most especially NOT partaking in the shark fin soup market, there are many things we can do to ensure that sharks lives are protected and in turn we can protect our own.

 Riding Elephants


I have mentioned many things in this post that could definitely be argued against but this is one sentiment that all the bleeding-heart, ethical travelers are able to come together on. Do NOT under any circumstance place your body weight on an elephant. Even at their massive size, elephants leg joints and spines are quite fragile and not made to support much weight. This is extremely harmful to their health and well-being. In addition, elephants are docile and sensitive creatures who have been beaten into submission until their spirit is broken. Even just as little babies, they are tied up and beaten so that all they know from humans is abuse and fear. I know for certain that if I ever come into contact with an animal, I don’t want them to fear me but rather regard me as an ally. Otherwise I would be happy to observe them from afar.

The main takeaway is that we should all be responsible for doing our own extensive research and educating ourselves so that we can do a little harm to the places we visit as possible. There are endless articles and blog posts on the internet that go much deeper into the issues I have highlighted and I encourage you to seek them out. With that being said, go out and explore and make the world a better, brighter place!

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7 Harmful Tourist Attractions

About Sam

Manini girl Sam is our travel curator and sustainable travel expert. When she isn't busy with Manini stuff, she's enjoying the mermaid life in Hawaii, taking long walks on the beach with her pup and boyfriend, scrubbing teeth, or improving her skills in graphic design.

Join the discussion 33 Comments

  • Gabby says:

    I really appreciate this post. I really noticed how many harmful animal attractions there are when I visited Indonesia. One morning we went out to see dolphins, only to realize that our dolphin watching was a flock of 60+ fishing boats chasing dolphins and dumping gasoline into the sea… it was so depressing. I think more tourists should be aware of these harmful activities and not treat animals like they are tourist attractions.

  • Candiss says:

    Yes Yes Yes to all of this, ESPECIALLY the volunteer stuff! There are so many ways to help that are not damaging to the local communities and uplift them rather than “save them” if you will. These are such important topics that you for writing so well about them!

  • I agree with all of your suggestions. Some of them I hadn’t considered before, but I agree it’s our job to protect and serve the environment, not just to entertain ourselves in any way possible.

  • Jessica says:

    I agree with your posts, instead of swimming with dolphins I chose to visit a sting ray rescue center and touch them haha.. When I was younger I sat on an elephant in Thailand and immediately felt bad.. NEVER again! Just feeding them and walking with them will do from now! Final but not least I Wanted to have a picture with a tiger so bad! It’s my favorite animal.. But I know it’s so sad 🙁 so I won’t

    • maniniexp says:

      Maybe you can get a picture when tigers in the background? haha! I totally feel you though, it makes me sad that tigers don’t want to cuddle me but I’m not willing to chain and drug them for it 🙁

  • Mandy says:

    Thank you for shining light on some of these horrible things. It’s hard to do the right thing when you want to experience everything. I just recently turned down a camel ride at an expo because I thought it was wrong he was there. But its hard know ing it doesn’t do much as everyone else still rides

    • maniniexp says:

      AH I totally agree and for someone like me who thinks she is a modern day Snow White, it is SO hard for me to pass up on close encounters with animals. But when I put myself in their shoes it breaks my heart to know what they are going through 🙁

  • Susanna says:

    Thanks for this! As an educated humanitarian traveler I would never and thankfully have never done these, but there are honestly so many people who seem oblivious to the harm they do and posts like this spread the word. You approached it very well and covered all the big ones. It’s always good to look at the bigger picture. Giving candy now may not seem like a big deal, but we have to thing about the long term.

    • maniniexp says:

      I can’t fault people for not knowing because at one time or another I was that person. I always strive to be well-informed but I am sure there are still things out there that I still need to learn!

  • Ha Truong says:

    I really love this post! It is so useful. Luckily I haven’t done any of these :/ We really need to raise awareness to people about those tourist attraction activities I think.

  • Ro says:

    thank you for writing this post! am actually in the middle of one where I list all the ones I’m embarrassed to have visited over the years. i think its so important to make people aware, many don’t even know how their actions are affecting the local environment, especially the one about giving money to little children. The Tiger Temple in Thailand is horrific, did you see the coverage about the dead baby tigers in the freezer and them selling tiger parts illegally on the black market? Horrible, think they are officially shut down now.

    • maniniexp says:

      Yeah I did see that but I didn’t know they were officially shut down. That is good to hear! But the people previously involved are probably still operating within the black market which is sd and infuriating but at least uninformed tourists won’t be fueling their market anymore. I would love to read your post when you finish it!

  • Wow. I never thought of volunteering that way. Are there any companies, types or groups you would suggest?

  • Reb Chun says:

    I love this post so much! I think it’s important for travelers to be educated in the ways they are influencing the places they are traveling to. I especially loved your mention of giving to kids and volunteering. I think understanding the problems attached could often be misunderstood because it might come from good intentions. Thanks for sharing this. I really love it so much and I hope many travelers get the chance to read this.

  • Christine K says:

    This is a good list and cause for critical thinking before you venture out and participate in one of these activities. Who would think giving pens to children is bad? This is a collection of situations to ponder and then avoid. Nice post.

  • Great post 🙂 one of the best I’ve read in while. Really agree with some of these. Especially the ones about the children and the volunteering. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • LC says:

    Ethics aside, I wouldn’t want to be ANYWHERE near sharks, at any time! Agree with your points on volunteering too – it’s not meant to be done for epic bragging rights…

  • While I have avoided almost all the harmful tourists attractions you mentioned above, I am guilty of swimming with the dolphins. I had no clue about its harmful effects when I did it 7 years back. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  • So glad to see this article. I cringe every time I see pins or Instagram images that are exploiting animals and I think that most people would reconsider if they knew that they were actually harming the animals. I so wanted to swim with the wild dolphins in Hawaii this year but when I read more about it I just couldn’t do it, no photo was worth it. Thanks for sharing some great information!

  • Corinne says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I see so many people posting photographs with these poor animals and it worries me how they can be so ignorant of what it really means for the animals. This is a very brave, but totally necessary post.

  • Bianca says:

    It is such a shame that we have to right about this. I have found that people know about some if not all of these but still participate all for the ‘gram. Just such a shame that animals have to suffer unnecessarily.

  • Leigh says:

    Hopefully someday, if we all help spread the word, these will lose their appeal. I’m amazed at the otherwise very nice people who do these activities, but I no longer accept ignorance as an excuse. There’s too much information out there, people just want to ignore it for that “Insta-worthy” shot.

  • Joana Rita says:

    This os such an important subject.I’m glad that you approached it.

  • Sam,
    You touched a sensitive subject, well done for talking about it. This is no laughing matter, it is quite serious to be honest. It’s so hard to know what to believe or not. As much as it hurts, we never gave anything to children, when we volunteered in Fiji we stayed for nearly 1.5 months and in Thailand we refused to go near tigers or elephants. The only animal encounter we had was a camel safari in India. The man only had 3 camels, taking tourists on private tours to the desert (only 3-4 hours) riding and we sleep in the desert. The Camels were well kept and fed.
    Anything else, I think we will pass 🙁

  • Bri says:

    So much YES to all of these. I am guilty of riding elephants when I was a kid at the circus, but now I would never step foot in a circus. And I refuse to participate in any sort of activity that involves animal abuse. This was a very educational post so thank you so much for writing it!

    • maniniexp says:

      I too rode an elephant when I was younger but people just didn’t know at that time the horrors of animal attractions. I am happy with the way the world is turning and becoming more aware of these things.

  • Lana says:

    Thank you for these valuable suggestions and observations. I haven’t tried any of these unethical things, and have never found them something cool or something I would like to try. I would also add another few things – don’t feed the urban birds (pigeons on the squares, peacocks or swans in the parks, etc.), because it can heavily affect their feeding and breeding patterns, and don’t support any kind of “parallel economy” (this is particularly related to Southern European countries – don’t buy fake branded bags from immigrants, don’t earn easy cash by “helping” certain locals distributing flyers or something similar (it may steal jobs from local students who would get paid legally for that), don’t give money to people trying to “help” you finding a bus, train, or parking lot you need (avoid using their “service”).

    • maniniexp says:

      Wow I had not considered the things you mentioned! Thank you for the addition, I will either have to update my post or write another one later on to include more things I come across or learn from others!

  • Ugh I had no idea some of these were so inhumane, especially running with the bulls. That makes me sad 🙁 thanks for bringing an important issue to light.

  • Nadeen says:

    This is a great and informative post! I was in Thailand in January and spent a day at an elephant nature park. I learned so much! A lot of things on your list drive me nuts like taking pics with tigers. Why?! I also don’t understand cage shark diving but traveled with people to South Africa recently and they did it. I’ll be sharing this post!

  • […] also filled with plenty of good advice for the wannabe green traveller – such as highlighting these seven harmless tourist attractions that should be avoided at all […]

  • I wasn’t really aware of these attractions, but it is good to know. Excellent post, Manini!

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