Animal tourism has come a long way since the heyday of zoos, sea parks and circuses.
Now a growing number of hotels in Asia Pacific, from luxury resorts to eco-lodges, offer immersive and ethical animal encounters as a way for guests to experience a place through its natural inhabitants.
It’s a global trend that has caught on in Asia as travellers become increasingly affluent and aware, with more and more willing to pay a premium on their holidays to reduce their carbon footprint, or mould eco-conscious young minds.
Lucy Jackson of Lightfoot Travel says that animal-focused requests often come from families, which make up a third of the agency’s business. She adds: ‘Our guests want to show their children the natural world. To see the circle of life unfold in front of their young eyes is to illuminate our own sense of wonder.’
Here are the best ethical animal experiences in Asia Pacific.
Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
Western Australia approved swimming with humpback whales at Ningaloo in 2016. Sal Salis, a dreamy beachside safari camp, runs tours from August to October, when some 30,000 whales migrate through the area. Only a handful of people from each boat are allowed in the water at one time so as not to disturb the animals. All swimmers must be confident and able to snorkel.
Amantaka, Luang Prabang
This ultra-luxe hotel in Luang Prabang works with MandaLao Elephant Conservation and Tours, which is focused on the care and comfort of Lao elephants. Guests help to feed and bathe a baby named Kit and two older elephants, all rescued from a logging camp. Afterwards, relax at Amantaka, a garden villa-style property in the old town.
Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Sabah
Danum Valley Conservation Area is part of the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve, Sabah’s largest protected lowland rainforest. There are over 120 species of mammal in the area, including the orangutan. Activities at the lodge include guided trekking and canopy walks in search of these critically endangered primates. The eco-sensitive chalets are designed with a minimal footprint in mind – each has an outdoor bathtub and a spacious viewing deck overlooking the river and forest. Guests who would prefer a higher-end stay can book one of three premium villas.
The Temple House, Chengdu, Mainland China
The Temple House can arrange half-day trips to the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, where guests will meet Sichuan’s famous bears in a peaceful environment. The nursery is a favourite attraction, where visitors can observe female pandas with their cubs. The research centre and panda park is only 30 minutes’ drive from the heritage-chic The Temple House hotel, fashioned from a Qing dynasty temple in the trendy Taikoo Li neighbourhood.