TripAdvisor Stops Selling Tickets to Swim-With-Dolphins Attractions

The ‘World’s Largest Travel Site’ will also ban bookings at venues that offer elephant rides, tiger selfies, and other interactions deemed cruel to animals.
(Photo: Nancy Brown/Getty Images)
Oct 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Planning to book an elephant ride in Thailand? How about a swim-with-the-dolphins tour on a Caribbean getaway?

Not anymore, if you’re using TripAdvisor. On Tuesday the world’s largest travel site announced that its booking service, Viator, will stop selling tickets to hundreds of destinations where tourists come in physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species.

The move takes aim at businesses offering experiences such as tiger selfies, the petting of lion cubs, elephant rides, and dolphin swims—activities that animal rights activists and wildlife conservationists say enable animal abuse and fuel illegal trade in wildlife.

“It’s a first step toward ending cruelty to animals in the wildlife tourism industry,” said Julie Middelkoop, head of the “Wildlife—Not Entertainers” campaign at World Animal Protection. “We’re hopeful the move impacts the entire industry and raises awareness for tourists visiting these sites, who think they are just going to experience beautiful animals but don’t realize the stresses and damage behind the scenes.”

The company also announced it will create a “wildlife tourism education portal.” Venues listed on the site offering such interactions with wildlife will be indicated with a “paw” icon. The icon will link to information on animal welfare practices and sustainable tourism options.

“The new booking policy and education effort is designed as a means to do our part in helping improve the health and safety standards of animals, especially in markets with limited regulatory protections,” TripAdvisor chief executive Stephen Kaufer said in a statement.

TripAdvisor—known as the Yelp of travel—purchased Viator in 2014, becoming a one-stop shop for vacationers to buy flights, hotel accommodations, and tickets to tourist destinations such as amusement parks, zoos, and animal attractions.

In 2015, Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit—in conjunction with World Animal Protection—looked at 188 wildlife tourist attractions and found that 75 percent of those sites were inflicting some form of abuse on wild animals. It also found that TripAdvisor was selling tickets to most of those sites, and 80 percent of the reviews from visitors were overwhelmingly positive, rarely mentioning concerns for animal welfare.

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The report led Middelkoop and World Animal Protection to look for ways to get TripAdvisor to stop promoting such attractions. After talks stalled, World Animal Protection started a petition in April, calling for TripAdvisor to halt sales to venues offering direct interactions with wildlife. By August, the petition had garnered more than 500,000 signatures.

“That got their attention,” Middelkoop said, “and we targeted them because we believe they are in the best position to both educate the public about the dangers of these types of activities and...influence actual sales to these sites now too.”

TripAdvisor representatives did not respond to a request for an interview.

The company will stop selling tickets to some attractions immediately but won’t bar bookings to all wildlife interactive opportunities.

Over the next year, the company is expected to work out more details on which attractions it will ban from its booking service. It is allowing exceptions for domestic animal activities (including horseback riding and petting zoos), along with activities deemed educational (including aquarium touch pools) and feeding programs at zoos where tourists are under staff supervision.

Wildlife-related theme parks including SeaWorld could also be exempted, as entry fees to the park do not include direct animal contact. But Middelkoop said ticket packages offering behind-the-scenes feeding tours and swim-with-the-dolphins excursions could be banned.

“A majority of people go on these types of excursions because they love animals, and they want to get close to these creatures,” Middelkoop said. “If these people have a better understanding of what these animals are going through to make these interactive attractions possible, it could have a huge impact on the captive wildlife industry as a whole.”

TripAdvisor and competitors such as Expedia have long barred users from booking or leaving reviews of venues that offer hunting of captive-bred animals, such as “canned” lion hunts. But that policy won’t be applied to attractions that offer wildlife experiences found to be cruel.

“The company continues to firmly believe that our community of contributors can serve as a check-and-balance on matters of quality, customer service, and social issues—such as how animals are treated in the tourism industry,” TripAdvisor said in a press release. “For this reason, all animal attractions that meet our standard listing guidelines will continue to be displayed on TripAdvisor in order that travelers can review those establishments, regardless of whether they meet the company’s criteria as a booking partner.”