A major travel website announced this week that it will no longer sell tickets to attractions where travelers interact with wild animals or endangered species held in captivity.
The website, TripAdvisor, which reaches 350 million unique visitors per month, canned hundreds of activities such as elephant rides, swimming-with-dolphin experiences, and more. The decision was the first of its kind by a travel booking site and, according to an article in the New York Times, followed months of fact-finding with advocacy groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and Global Wildlife Conservation.
Viator, which serves as the booking site for TripAdvisor, also will stop selling tickets to these attractions.
The move comes at a time when travelers are pressuring tourism operators to act more ethically—especially when it comes to animals. Just last week, for instance, Sea World announced plans for new killer whale shows that focus more on education instead of entertainment—a direct response to backlash from issues raised in the documentary Blackfish.
Last summer, public opinion against trophy hunting reached a fever pitch when an American dentist paid an outfitter $55,000 for the chance to hunt and kill Cecil the lion, Zimbabwe’s most famous cat.
In conjunction with TripAdvisor/Viator announcement, TripAdvisor also announced the creation of a wildlife tourism education portal. The portal will exist alongside the site’s main booking engine and inform users about animal welfare issues with numerous points of view from a variety of animal protection organizations, including Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WCRU).
In many ways, this research group prompted the changes from the beginning. Last year, in a comprehensive academic study on wildlife tourism, the WCRU found that between 2 million and 4 million tourists per year pay to visit attractions that are considered harmful to animal welfare and that a large majority of reviews for such attractions on TripAdvisor and other sites failed to mention animal welfare concerns.
Moving forward, all animal attractions—even those that will no longer be bookable—will remain on TripAdvisor in the review section, so long as they follow standard listing protocols and procedures. Under the new approach, all animal attractions will be marked with a paw icon that will link to the education portal.
TripAdvisor’s new policy also includes many exemptions, including feeding programs where visitors are under the supervision of zoo or wildlife officials, children’s petting zoos with domestic animals, and voluntourism programs that revolve around volunteer/animal interactions.
Only some of these changes will happen overnight. According to the New York Times article, TripAdvisor will stop selling tickets to some attractions immediately, but won’t implement all policy changes (or the education portal) completely until early 2017. TripAdvisor noted there also will be an appeals process for affected attractions that want the chance to prove they are operating within the new policy. Details of that process are still being solidified.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.