An experience at wildlife parks prompts MBA students to research marketing tactics used in Thailand to attract international tourists.
It’s not every day students come upon elephants and tigers in Terre Haute, so a chance to see the creatures up close seemed like the highlight of an Indiana State University spring faculty-led study abroad trip to Thailand.
But for Masters of Business Administration students Meryem Sqalli Houssaini and Salma Chakour, both from Morocco, that’s where the fun ended and a research opportunity blossomed.
The duo, who participated in the trip led by Scott College of Business professors Aruna Chandra and Bill Wilhelm, used the experience at the wildlife parks to develop research for their global business course on the marketing tactics used by animal parks in Thailand to attract tourists from around the world.
“Even in (Morocco), there is mistreatment of animals, but when I experienced it in another country, I judged it,” Houssaini said. “It made me see that I need to do research before going to any place and ask myself questions before participating in activities.”
That’s just what traveling abroad is intended to do — to make you question assumptions you normally take for granted, Chandra said.
“Traveling takes you out of your comfort zone and opens your eyes,” she said. “Thailand is a tourist destination, which derives about 7 percent of the gross domestic product from international tourism, where one of the main tourist attractions is the elephant, an iconic symbol of Thai culture. A typical tourist visits and is entertained by the elephants, so we included a visit to one along with going to universities and incubators and talking with professors, entrepreneurs and government organizations.”
On previous trips to Thailand, Chandra visited elephant parks but said she never gave much thought to their practices until a student offered her his guidebook on the trip in March.
“I read about the elephant parks, and it included a section on how the animals are mistreated in some parks purely motivated by profit,” Chandra recalled. “There were only three or four parks listed as being ‘good parks,’ meaning that they don’t offer elephant rides, they treat the animals humanely and rescue elephants from other parks where they aren’t trained or treated humanely.
“Elephants are large animals, but they aren’t designed to carry more than 100 pounds on their spines, which are relatively delicate for such a large animal. Parks normally place a 100 pounds in a wooden seat in the wrong part of the spine, while adding a couple of tourists weighing more than 250 pounds on the seat,” said Chandra, who declined to accompany the Indiana State group to the elephant park. “This practice, coupled with working the elephant more than eight hours a day for the benefit of tourist ‘entertainment’ leads to animal misery, pain and early mortality. In fact, just yesterday, there was a news article indicating that an elephant in one such park had collapsed and died from a heat stroke. There are many organizations around the world that think this type of tourism should be stopped.”
While many students returned from the excursion with rave reviews, Houssaini and Chakour had their doubts about the practices happening at some elephant parks.
“We went to Thailand as tourists and wanted to experience the park and see elephants,” Chakour said.
“When we got there, (Meryem and I) rode the youngest elephant, who just wanted to play around, but we witnessed the rider or ‘mahout’ using a steel hook to poke the elephant behind its ear to control its movements to make the elephant obey and it didn’t seem right.”
With guidance from Chandra, Houssaini and Chakour began researching marketing tactics at elephant parks by grouping parks based on their marketing approaches into elephant friendly versus not-so-elephant-friendly parks. They used social media to also group the tourists visiting these parks based on the focus of their park experience — “the fun factor” versus eco-tourism and elephant welfare — and identified two broad categories of tourists.
In addition, they noted certain similarities between the fun-factor parks and the eco-tourist parks; both visitor groups were interested in the feeding and comfort of animals.
Their research showed that 76 percent of people who said they cared about the treatment of elephants actually did research on the park and the treatment of the animals prior to their trip.
“We noticed that ethical aspects and treatment of the elephants were only mentioned on reviews of eco-tourist parks, but the people who went to the fun-oriented parks were going for the experience as indicated by their reviews which mention ‘unique experience’ or ‘take a selfie with an elephant,’” Houssani said. “The reviews talked more about them and how they enjoyed the ride. Few people — 20 percent — who went to an eco-tourist park commented on their experience riding an elephant on the neck where it is recommended, compared to 80 percent who commented about riding on their backs at the fun-oriented park. Most people who went to the eco-tourist parks went to pet them, walk with them and experience being with the elephants and people who went to both parks didn’t complain about the price at all.”
Using park websites to find the activities offered at the parks, Houssaini and Chakour determined if parks were ethical or unethical in their treatment of the animal.
“Only a few visitors at eco-tourism parks at had a bad experience, because they did the research beforehand but when they got there they were surprised that what they read wasn’t the case,” Houssani said. “Sometimes it is hard to tell from just the website if the park has ethical practices or not. You notice more once you get there.”
That was the case for Chakour.
“On the first day in Thailand, we were excited to go to the tiger park and pet a tiger, which we did, but you could tell by the way they were laying in the enclosure that there was something wrong, the animals probably were drugged,” she said. “We didn’t do the research before going to the tiger park, and we were just being happy tourists, taking pictures. The parks are fine as long as they are focused on education and observation of the animals, but not for petting tigers or riding the elephants.”
Houssani and Chakour, who plan to graduate with their MBAs in December, hosted a focus group following the trip to gauge the perspectives of the students on the trip.
If tourists considered the cost of admission to these parks, Chandra said the $80 entry fee may seem questionable in a place where the minimum wage is around $8 for an eight- to 10-hour workday.
“Talking about marketing and pricing practices at these animal parks, is one way to create awareness among tourists who mindlessly go to these places without realizing that these iconic animals in Thailand may be mistreated for profit motives. However, the other side of the coin is the elephant has been used by the people for centuries and their lives are interwoven,” she said.
Instead of riding elephants, tourists can still engage with elephants at eco-friendly parks, which provide visitors with opportunities to spend time with, bathe and walk alongside the animals.
“I was thinking a lot about the animals while we were at the elephant park,” Houssaini said, recalling the sound of chains around the animal’s legs and neck as they carried tourists on their backs around the jungle. “We spent the day with the elephants and from the time we got there to the time we left the elephants just kept walking. I can’t imagine how the elephants got any rest because they had to do a show before carrying us to the jungle and repeat the process all over again for the group that came in as we were leaving.”
Chakour said tourists have to realize that by participating in these activities they contribute to the problem.
“While in Thailand, we heard native Thais speak of the treatment of animals at elephant parks as normal,” she said. “When you hear so many people say the treatment is normal you believe it, until you see it and research it for yourself.”