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WDC's tour operator campaign – an update.

Our advice has always been simple and has always been the same: PLEASE, DON’T BUY A TICKET to any marine park that holds whales and dolphins in captivity.

An obvious target for our message in the UK is the travel industry; the hundreds of tour operators and travel agents who, through business partnerships with parks such as SeaWorld, offer their passengers discounted tickets as part of their holiday packages. 

Those of us at WDC who have worked on the captivity issue on a daily basis over many years, have noticed a significant sea change in travel industry attitudes towards this emotive subject.

Household names such as Virgin Holidays, Thomas Cook and TripAdvisor are all taking steps in the right direction by re-evaluating their relationships with facilities that hold whales and dolphins captive.

Improving welfare conditions or uncoupling from a business partnership that has been in place, sometimes for decades, can be a complex process and yes, there are frustrations that things aren’t moving fast enough, but we are cautiously optimistic with progress to date.

Virgin Holidays recently announced that it wouldn’t be signing up any new attractions that feature captive whales and dolphins for theatrical shows, ‘swim-with’ programmes or other entertainment purposes. Virgin have further pledged support for the creation of coastal sanctuaries for ex-captive whales and dolphins, similar to the one WDC is working on for belugas.

Earlier this year, travel industry giant, Thomas Cook, announced that it is dropping tours to some captive dolphin theme parks in the wake of growing public feeling against the use of whales and dolphins for entertainment. Following an audit of 25 of its partner facilities, two-thirds have been dropped as they failed to meet the minimum standards for welfare set out by ABTA, the UK travel industry trade body. Eleven of these facilities were dolphinaria while the others involved elephants. Thomas Cook has vowed to audit all 90 captive attractions over the next few years.

So, while Virgin Holidays won’t take on any new facilities, Thomas Cook is the first big name to drop existing attractions. This decision is very welcome and is likely to be costly for the company as it makes commission on tickets sold through its hotel chains.

Further good news came from the world’s largest travel website, TripAdvisor, when it announced that it will no longer sell tickets to attractions where tourists come into physical contact with captive, wild or endangered animals. WDC has been in discussions with the senior team at TripAdvisor as it looks to evolve its welfare policy. This will have important consequences for some of the 690,000 attractions it currently lists.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect in all this good news coming from forward-thinking, enlightened tour operators is the attitude of British Airways. We’ve been calling on them to stop selling tickets to SeaWorld but they have refused to engage with us. If you have been following this campaign, you’ll remember the struggle we have had with BA over the years. We’ve tried repeatedly to engage with senior management, presenting them with the latest peer-reviewed science which emphatically illustrates just how poorly highly sentient, highly mobile whales and dolphins cope with life in a sterile tank. Back in 2014, in partnership with WDC supporter, Kathleen Haase, and change.org, we met with British Airways to discuss this evidence but they chose to ignore it and instead believe SeaWorld’s line that everything is just fine with tank life!

In 2015 we took our message to Madrid and the annual shareholder meeting of BA’s parent company, IAG where we had the opportunity to present our case to its CEO, Willie Walsh, and the IAG Board in front of hundreds of BA shareholders. Again, our arguments were ignored. Earlier this year we took our petition to BA headquarters in London where management didn’t even have the courtesy to meet with us forcing us to leave your concerns, all 304,000 of them, at the security gate.

The world is moving on and public opinion is moving with it. The UK’s national airline is in danger of becoming a dinosaur as it proves to the world, on this issue at least, that when it comes to listening to and valuing its customers, it just doesn’t care.

ABTA’s clear welfare guidelines should now be the first port of call for all tour operators looking to evolve their ethical and responsible corporate policies. Indeed, many companies have signed up to the guidelines but implementation continues to be an issue. We applaud the recent announcements of Thomas Cook, TripAdvisor and Virgin in leading the way – now is the time for others to follow.