© WWF-Greater Mekong/Lee Poston
Responsible Travel
Tourism and Illegal Wildlife Trade: What's the Link?
Elephant Ivory products for sale, Thailand A customer regards the products on sale at a shop selling elephant Ivory amulets and trinkest in Bangkok, Thailand.
© WWF / James Morgan

Southeast Asian cities draw many tourists from around the world, with Bangkok surpassing London and New York as the most visited city in 2016, and with Asian cities accounting for 41 out of the top 100 most visited cities in 2018, according to Euromonitor International. An increasing number of these tourists are coming from Mainland China, where a jump in disposable income has created a tourism boom to global destinations. During national holidays, like Lunar New Year and National Day, travelers from Mainland China traverse the globe, vacationing with their friends, families, and joining organized tours. About 10 million Chinese tourists have visited Thailand annually in recent years.


Domestically, China has been working on tackling illegal wildlife trade, with the ban on ivory trade taking effect in 2018, and with celebrities like Yao Ming, Jackie Chan and Angelababy speaking out against trading wildlife products, including ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales. These campaigns and bans seem to be working; a new WWF survey of 2000 Chinese nationals found that demand for ivory among Chinese consumers remains low since the ban took effect, with 80 percent of respondents saying that the legal implications will prevent them from buying in the future.


However, some Chinese tourists are taking advantage of the availability of wildlife products in Southeast Asia to purchase these items during their travels. While it is illegal to buy many of these products in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia, (Thailand is the only one of these countries with a regulated legal ivory market) and certainly illegal to transport them across national borders, there are still ivory and other illegal wildlife products being purchased and transported back to China. Many Chinese nationals said they bought ivory during their travels, with a majority of the buyers purchasing in Thailand, Hong Kong SAR and Cambodia.

Breaking the link between tourism and illegal wildlife trade
A small population of tigers still lives in Myanmar dense forests
© WWF-Myanmar

The Tourism Industry can play a huge role in fighting illegal wildlife trade in the Greater Mekong. Airlines, hotels and tour companies can inform travelers of the legal and environmental implications of purchasing and transporting illegal wildlife products, while suggesting more ethical and responsible alternatives. Tour companies and guides, who often have the closest and longest lasting engagement with travelers, can stop taking groups to markets, shops or restaurants that are known to sell wildlife products or participate in wildlife crime. Tour guides can inform travelers of the many amazing things they can buy that don’t involve the killing of endangered species or damage the biodiversity of the country they are traveling in. And travel and tourism companies can join global campaigns and sign international pledges to commit to stopping illegal wildlife trade.


Individual travelers can also do their part, by committing to travel responsibly and by refusing to support any travel and tourism companies known for encouraging illegal wildlife trade. Informing fellow tourists of the illegality of transporting illegal wildlife products across borders, and doing some research to identify what tourist destinations are following best practices to protect wildlife.

Useful resources

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) sets the sustainability standards for tourism and provides accreditation for destination managers, hotels and tour operators. Learn how to become and accredited business, or learn what businesses to support as a traveler.


The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) launched a declaration on illegal wildlife trade in 2018 in order to solicit pledges to fight illegal wildlife trade from its members. In the first six months, over 100 CEOs of global travel & tourism companies signed the pledge, and more are joining all the time. Sign on to the WTTC declaration to commit to actively fighting illegal wildlife trade.


The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) has developed a comprehensive online resource that provides research, data and tools associated with sustainable tourism practices. They focus specifically on three major themes – Destinations & Communities, Business Operations, and Parks & Culture.


The International Air Transport Association (IATA) endorsed a resolution denouncing illegal wildlife trade in 2016 has signed the UfW Transport Taskforce Buckingham Palace Declaration along with 61 airlines in order to reduce the illegal trade of wildlife. They also have a number of useful resources, including a video that demonstrates how airport employees to take an active role in catching wildlife traffickers.


WWF has also released an online guide to responsible travel which offers tips to travelers wanting to ensure their travel is environmentally friendly.

Contact us

To learn more about the link between responsible travel and illegal wildlife trade in the Greater Mekong, please contact Jedsada Taweekan or Mia Signs.