From Greta Thunberg’s impassioned pleas to save the planet to Prince Harry talking climate change, there’s never been a greater focus on the natural world, and it's distilling into holidays too

Captured forever

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a whale breach. Setting off along Baie-Sainte-Catherine, in the Canadian province of Québec, on a small inflatable speed boat, the captain had already refused to stop for a pod of dolphins, a curious seal and even a suspected beluga.

That’s because – he explained while we protested – there was something bigger further out. Minutes later, the huge, 12-metre body of a humpback whale (twice the length of a standard Transit van) rose up from the deep like a tornado, water trickling down his body like a fountain, before it plunged back beneath the waves, splashing us with salty water.

The entire boat erupted into child-like joy, as we applauded, hugged each other and – I'm not ashamed to admit – shed a tear or two.

It was that close encounter that lead me, over the last eight years, to seek out other wildlife wonders around the world – from tracking puma in Patagonia to swimming with manta rays in the Maldives; watching rare white wallabies in Australia to boating alongside bears in Canada.

Where the wild things are

And I’m not alone. Wildlife holidays are fast becoming a runaway success. “TV shows like Blue Planet and climate activists like Greta are making everyone aware how vulnerable the wildlife on our planet actually is and people want to go and see it,” says Claire Farley, Managing Director of 2by2 Holidays.

Andrew Turner, Head of Trade Sales at Intrepid Travel agrees, but thinks it’s for a slightly different reason. “As we spend most of our time indoors, it's not surprising that reconnecting with nature is a priority for many travellers.”

When it comes to destinations, Turner says there are a few places that should be on everyone’s radar, including Zimbabwe, one of Intrepid's fastest-growing.

“For many the highlight is Hwange National Park in the west, which boasts a tremendous selection of wildlife with over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 types of bird," he says.

"The elephants of Hwange are world famous – here you'll find one of the largest elephant populations in Africa.”

Another African destination that’s seen significant growth for Intrepid is Madagascar, but the tour operator is also taking people to places they might not expect to be wildlife hot spots.

Cambodia’s northeast is a new destination for Intrepid in 2020. Far from the country's usual tourist trail, it has a lot to offer in terms of wildlife. Travellers will have the chance to observe elephants in their natural habitat with a hike at the Elephant Valley Project – an initiative that puts elephants’ welfare and treatment first.

Farley agrees that Africa is big business, citing Uganda for its gorillas, Tanzania for the Great Migration and South Africa for rhino. There’s also plenty of interest in Costa Rica, for its turtles, birds and rainforest wildlife.

“Colombia is pretty new for most people too, with Tayrona National Park and the Amazon the places to go,” she adds.

A new species of traveller?

But who are the people wanting a wilder side to their trips? According to Farley it’s a real mix. “Some only want wildlife, others want wildlife and beach. When visiting a country with lots on offer, first timers invariably want to see the sights as well as the wildlife, Machu Picchu first, then the Amazon, for example," she says.

Rob Slater, Director at Safari Consultants Limited concurs, citing the importance of built-in relaxation time.

“Our trips that combine a wildlife experience with some relaxation time on a beach are popular, such as Gorillas, Game Parks and Beaches,” he explains.

Ethically does it…

With people caring more about nature and the environment, how do you ensure you send your clients somewhere that treats the animals ethically?

“We actively discourage travellers participating in any activities that exploit wild or domestic/working animals,” says Slater. “In 2014, we banned elephant rides on all our trips, and we don’t permit any activities that allow passengers to pet or walk with wild animals, such as lion walks in South Africa.

"We believe that wild animals should be viewed – with no contact or interaction – doing what they do best: living in the wild.

“Agents can help customers by sharing information on how to be a wildlife-friendly traveller (available from Intrepid or World Animal Protection) and suggesting they book with an operator that has a strong stance on animal welfare.”

Selling the wild

Finding responsible trips to sell to customers is key, but there are a few other things to bear in mind, says Slater.

“Wildlife holidays are far more complex than sight-seeing/relaxation holidays and therefore it is essential that agents understand the requirements of the client,” he says.

“Budget is obviously important, but also what type of experiences the clients are looking for, how exclusive they wish to be, how active, how adventurous, etc.”

Slater says travellers should make sure to only book through specialists who have actually been to the destinations themselves, or been properly trained in them, to avoid mistakes being made that can lead to disappointing viewings.

“That’s why establishing the best time of year to visit is the most important,” adds Farley. “Many people have fixed dates they can travel, so find this out first before recommending where to go as the main safari destinations all have different seasons. It’s very difficult to view wildlife in the wet season, for instance."

Farley also recommends finding out if the customer has a ‘wish list’ of species and if there are any health issues or young children on the trip – in which case malaria-free areas should be advised.

As travellers' desires to connect to the natural world increase, so too does the wealth of options for doing this on holiday.