“I rode an elephant” – Intrepid chief executive James Thornton shares his responsible travel confession for the operator’s latest campaign.

There are plenty of things I’ve done over the course of my life that I’m not proud of. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t made mistakes in their lifetime.

If we never made mistakes, we’d never grow into functioning, morally-minded, opinion-having adults.

And so, as CEO of one of the world’s largest sustainable travel companies, a travel company that five years ago removed elephant rides on all of its trips, I have a confession to make: In 2004, I rode an elephant in Thailand.


More: Intrepid launches ‘travel confessions’ campaign


I know. I don’t feel great about it. In fact, I didn’t feel great about it at the time, and that was before we knew how much these animals have to suffer for our enjoyment. But – and this is going to sound like a complete cop out – it’s just what people did back then.

We’ve all been in those situations, and they can be particularly prevalent when we’re travelling, when something might just seem a little bit off-kilter (lukewarm food, I’m looking at you). But everyone else goes along with it, so you do too.

‘Mistakes are part of life’

I’m no veterinarian but those elephants in Thailand didn’t look particularly happy. But there was part of my brain that said, “surely, if this was dodgy in any way, we wouldn’t be allowed to do it.” And so on I went, just another one of the tens of thousands of tourists sucked in by this heavily-touted ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.

As I mentioned above, mistakes are an essential part of life. As a company, Intrepid made the mistake of offering elephant rides for nearly 20 years. And as a company, as soon as Intrepid realised that mistake, we invested the necessary time, money and energy to fix it.

In 2010, we partnered with World Animal Protection, a global not-for-profit animal welfare group, to commission one of the first studies into elephant conditions on the ground. We looked at 118 wildlife projects and businesses all over Thailand. The results revealed an industry that was trading on animal cruelty.

In 2014, we removed elephant rides from all our trips. We were the first global travel company to take this stance, but happily, we weren’t the last. Since then, over 200 travel companies around the world, including heavyweights like TripAdvisor, have followed suit. Now every action has a reaction, so from 2020, Intrepid will be offering new trips and initiatives in Thailand and Laos that help support the animals and mahouts (elephant handlers) impacted by our 2014 decision.

‘Be open and honest’

I wanted to talk about this on World Elephant Day because I think it’s important for us all to face up to the mistakes we’ve made – whether in travel or everyday life. Positive change doesn’t happen when we’re living in regret, fear or shame. Positive change happens when we’re able to be honest and open with our community and say, “Yep, I messed up. But here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

It doesn’t end with being honest about our mistakes, either. We also have a responsibility to listen to what other people have to say without judging of chastising them. One of the best things about mistakes, actually, is that we can also learn from the mistakes of others. So the more we share, the more likely we are to make better decisions moving forward.

So, I’ve told you mine, now you tell me: what mistakes have you made since you’ve been exploring the world?

Share your story on Facebook or Instagram using the hashtags #StopElephantRides and tag @intrepidtravel