A customer review sparked an investigation into hatcheries. Vicki Brown of Responsible Travel reports on the findings

“Did you feel your holiday benefited local people, reduced environmental impacts or supported conservation?” is one of four questions Responsible Travel asks customers when they leave a holiday review on our website.

The question is not included as a gimmick. As much as we love to receive glowing reports of support for community projects, reforestation or wildlife programmes, we hope our travellers will use this as a place to report anything of concern they have come across.

This is what happened in autumn 2017, when a customer returned from a sea turtle conservation holiday in Sri Lanka.

The holiday sounded the epitome of responsible tourism, but the review told a different story. The holidaymaker, Jo, wrote:

“We were left feeling this was a tourist trap and the turtles would have been better off in their natural habitat.

“Certainly, keeping the eggs safe and releasing the hatchlings is a good idea, but keeping albino or slightly deformed turtles in a tiny tank for the rest of their days seems no life for them.”

The review set off a chain of events which resulted in three holidays being removed from sale on our site and 18 itineraries being amended as tour operators responded directly to our concerns.

It also led to us becoming the first travel company with a policy on sea turtle hatcheries, and with guidelines for tourists or volunteers wishing to visit one.

First, we put out a request for contacts and information to our network of conservation and animal welfare NGOs.

We received several replies, but it became clear that few marine-conservation NGOs had looked into the ethics of sea turtle hatcheries.

We came across a few in-depth manuals on how to set up a sea turtle hatchery and these went to form the basis of our guidelines.

Sea turtles are pretty mysterious creatures. After hatching and making their way to the ocean, they float around in fields of floating seaweed for a decade or so before returning anywhere close to shore.

This makes monitoring and evaluation difficult, and means any problems which occur on land when they are tiny may not be detected for years.

However, the manuals highlighted some clear red flags. The biggest was the use of tanks – the issue highlighted in our holiday review.

We found no evidence of tanks being of benefit to hatchlings, and plenty of warnings about how they encouraged the spread of bacteria and diseases.

A second red flag was handling eggs and hatchlings without gloves – a sure-fire way to transmit disease.

And as turtles need to ‘imprint’ the location of the beach where they hatch so that they can return to nest there, any interference in their first journey to the sea is hugely damaging.

Dozens of other issues came up – from the temperature of the nests to the dryness of the sand – making clear this was no work for amateurs, no matter how enthusiastic or caring.

Based on the manuals, we came up with the following guidelines:

• Hatchery management must be overseen by at least one qualified and experienced biologist or sea turtle expert.
• If the hatchery accepts volunteers, they must receive full training.
• Eggs and hatchlings should not be handled. If they are, single-use gloves must be worn.
• Hatchlings should not be kept in tanks.
• There must be detailed monitoring and record keeping to ensure a hatchery is genuinely benefitting turtle populations.
• Hatcheries should only be used as part of a bigger conservation initiative – educating local communities, deterring poachers, avoiding waste and light pollution in coastal areas, managing coastal development and so on.

Our new guidelines resulted in us losing trips and adjusting itineraries, but we are much more confident that the sea turtle conservation initiatives we do support really are conserving and that good intentions have not overshadowed solid, scientific evidence.

The customer may not always be right, but it is always worth listening to them.