Animal lovers around the world also make up a large part of tourists. Visiting a new city, town, or country doesn’t just mean experiencing a new culture and new food but it also means how you interact with a new world and living things within it. Checking out the local flora and fauna can be a memorable part of any trip and plenty of people worldwide travel to see wildlife and nature. While animal tourism is a huge industry in the travel world, it’s not always ethical and can in many circumstances harm the animals and their habitats.
Most of the time when people are partaking in animal tourism they just want to hold a cute animal and snap a picture for their Instagram and it’s generally hard to tell which places will offer animal tourism in an ethical way and which places simply just want your tourism dollars. To see some of the world’s most beloved creatures check out these places around the world where you can catch a glimpse of the animals in a safe and ethical way.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica
Located along the Cordillera de Tilarán within the Puntarenas and Alajuela provinces, the story of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve comes from one of the largest pacifist groups in the world – The Quakers. A group of Quakers from Alabama buy land in Costa Rica in the 1950s to avoid the Korean War draft. They settle in Costa Rica because the government has just abolished its army a few years previously. They name the area “Monte Verde” or “green mountain” in English, because of its year-round green foliage.
By the 1960s, biologists started to take note of the foliage and biodiversity of the region but the lack of infrastructure in the town of Monteverde meant that the biologists had to stay a while. Finally, it was recommended to the Quaker community there that they try to preserve the forest as much as possible to conserve their water supply and use the forest as a means to break the high winds in the northern region.
By the 1990s tourism made the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve what it is today. Costa Rica is the sloth capital of the world and the perfect place to spot some sloths and take a couple of pictures of these cute little animals in an environment conducive to their well-being. Information centers, bird, frog, and butterfly sanctuaries are found here along with a variety of other activities to check out like horseback tours of the jungle and ziplining through the canopy.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Perhaps best known as the place where Charles Darwin made his first remarks about evolution after observing the island’s finches, the Galapagos Islands are a province of Ecuador consisting of 13 main islands and 6 sub islands. The islands are not for the faint of heart traveler and getting there is not necessarily the easiest task though planes to go to and from the Guayaquil or Quito airports once a day so traveling to the islands requires an overnight stay. If you plan on visiting it is important to take into account that only 1% of the island is permanently inhabited and 97% is considered a national park territory while the remaining 2-3% is private land owned by the families of original settlers that came here in the 19th and early 20th century.
With over 40 nautical miles of protected coastline, the Galapagos Islands are some of the most protected wildlife sites in the world, and the islands a renowned for their fearless and diverse wildlife including a wide variety of unique species such as the giant tortoise, swimming vegetarian iguana, and hammerhead sharks. The strict control of tourist areas is maintained to protect the habitats and visitors must be accompanied by a certified guide. Visiting the Galapagos is a memorable destination you’ll never forget but remember that it is a destination expedition.
Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, Rome
Not all animal sanctuaries involve exotic and rare species. More colloquially known as the “cat sanctuary” the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary has a bit of an interesting and weird past. In 1929 when Mussolini was in the midst of restructuring the city, Roman Republic-era victory temples were discovered 20 feet under the street. Four temples were discovered in the area and along with the famous portico of Pompey, the spot is where the dictator Julius Caesar was betrayed by Brutus and Longinus then stabbed 23 times in 44 B.C.E. After the site was excavated Rome’s feral cat population moved in and people (mostly older women known as gattare) started taking care of them.
Since the 1990s the pack of cats grew from 90 to over 250 and eventually, some actual organized care began for the cats as well as spaying and neutering programs to try and stop overpopulation. In the modern era, the spot is still a sanctuary for the city’s cats, most of them coming from abusive homes, are missing limbs, or have some other form of disability. On any given afternoon you’ll spot a crowd of people watching the cats sunbathe on the ancient pillars and stones or you can head down into the ruins and volunteer your time, make a donation, peruse the gift shop, or even adopt one. The cats are very friendly to guests, though if you do decide to head down there from the street level consider at the very least making a donation.
Serengeti, Tanzania / Maasai Mara, Kenya
The Maasai Mara/Serengeti, Tanzania is home to the best show in Africa. The area is famous for its migration. 1.3 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras move from the northern hills to the south every October and November during the short rains making safari travels and rugged camping a popular tourist activity here. Meaning “endless plain” in the Maasai language experience the vast endless landscape makes you realize that the name is in fact very, very apt. The Serengeti plains extend beyond Tanzania and into Kenya and it is without a doubt one of the most important and biggest wildlife preserves in the world. The ecosystem here is one of the oldest on the planet with the landscape and vegetation virtually unchanged for millions of years and the great migration it’s known for also reflecting that.
Heading to the Serengeti or Maasai Mara is less daunting than you might think with tons of tours and safari operators taking tourists out to see the animals and the plains. Balloon safaris are a popular method of getting a bird’s eye view of the land while still being able to see the animals and bringing a high-quality camera with a good zoom is a must. Safari lodges and camps are often very well equipped and feature everything from a rugged tent setup to permanent structures with pools and high-end hallmarks you’d find in any hotel.
Wildebeest, gazelle, and zebras, make up a large part of the animal population, while lions, leopards, and crocodiles are also a presence.
We recommend the Fisi Camp in the Maasai Mara to see the Big 5. Though it is not luxury, it has the best guides in Africa and comfortable tents. It is a jewel in the Mara.
Located up north in Manitoba on the shores of the Hudson Bay is the little town of Churchill. Although the population of the town is only roughly 1,000 people the area is big on ecotourism and arctic tourism even earning the title of “polar bear capital of the world”.
While the first European explorers in the area were a Danish expedition, Cree, Inuit, and Chipewyan people lived in the area for millennia. In 1717 the Hudson’s Bay Company built a permanent settlement here and due to its distance from, well, everything but its proximity to fur trapping centers, the town prospered.
When the fur trade died off the town needed another source of income and tourism became popular for those looking to take an arctic expedition. Despite the town’s nickname, there’s a lot more to see than just polar bears. The landscape includes the Boreal Forest, drylands, wetlands, creeks, snow, and one of the best places to see the Aurora Borealis. Aside from polar bears, beluga whales are a common sight along with over 250 different species of bird. Tours are offered by a variety of companies so professionals who know the land will be able to show you around and you can witness arctic wildlife in their habitat.
But be aware, that Churchill can be expensive. We run Xpedition Arctic yearly for the chance to see between 30 and 60 polar bears and whales.
Located on an island and part of the Ehime prefecture in the southern part of the country, Aoshima is perhaps best known around the world as “cat island”. The island was always a small place and mostly just a fishing village with sardine fisheries being the principal employment and cats were brought along on fishing boats to help with any rodent problems on the ships. A lot of cats ended up remaining on the island and reproduced eventually leading to more and more cats. The human population of the island dwindled as the fisheries moved closer to cities and those that stayed eventually aged. As the elderly died off the population of cats to residents grew to a margin of 36:1.
Now the cats basically own the island and its large feline population has made it a popular place for tourists to spend an afternoon petting and feeding the locals. The cats are very friendly and used to humans and rely on visitors to feed them. To get there the ferry from Iyo-Nagahama Station in Port Nagahama takes about 30 minutes.
Elephant Nature Reserve, Chiang Mai, Thailand
There are a ton of tours and tourists in Southeast Asia that offer people the chance to ride an elephant. Oftentimes these tours are problematic and the elephants are mistreated for the purpose of bringing those tourism dollars from westerners that don’t know any better. If you’re in Thailand and you’re really looking to spend time with these gentle giants, check out the Elephant Nature Reserve in Chiang Mai.
The elephants in Elephant Nature Reserve are rescued elephants from tourist traps or logging camps and while you can’t ride the elephants here, you can feed them, pet them, play with them, and bathe them without having to feel guilty about where your money goes.
It should be noted that anyplace in the world where you can ride a wild animal is a problem. Stay away.
Kangaroo Island, Australia
If you couldn’t gather from the name, Kangaroo Island is home to hundreds of kangaroos. Known as the “Australian Galapagos”, getting here is considerably easier than getting there with tours and infrastructure on the island to support the conservation efforts. The island is part of the state of South Australia but it offers a lot more than just friendly kangaroos. Wallabies, koalas, and even whale watching is a popular activity here. If you’re looking for non-animal activities check out the local wineries, do a little scuba diving off the coast, or enjoy a day at the beach.
Some other great places to experience wildlife
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- Denali National Park, Alaska
- Jasper National Park, Alberta Canada
- Patagonia, Chile and Argentina
- Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan India
- Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Our Last Word
We love to see animals in the wild. The above are just a few places, but we have been to Uganda for gorilla trekking, Yellowstone to see bears, bison and wolves, and Alaska to see grizzly’s and moose. Experiencing wildlife can be life changing and it is important to remember that you are in their territory. And they are not pets. Admire them. Photograph them. Watch them. It will be some of your greatest memories.
The world of tourism can either be great or detrimental for the animal populations. Plenty of places offer interactions with animals at the cost of the well-being of the animal but it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you’re looking for a far-out experience in the Galapagos, a safari in the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara, or just a simple day looking after cats, there are a lot of tourism opportunities for animal lovers of all kinds.