How wildlife-friendly are travel companies—and the attractions they promote?
A new report rating 10 companies on their animal welfare policies shows some promote exploitative experiences like elephant rides and cub petting.
Published February 24, 2023
9 min read
Some international travel companies promote activities that exploit animals, according to a new report by World Animal Protection (WAP), a U.S.-based animal welfare nonprofit.
The report assesses companies’ public animal welfare policies, their efforts to include wildlife-friendly options, and whether they feature interactive animal attractions that cause “irreparable and lifelong harm,” such as elephant rides, dolphin shows, and cub petting. The University of Surrey, in the U.K., carried out the independent analysis.
The report examined 10 companies that offer activities or experiences with wildlife: Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia, GetYourGuide, Groupon, Klook, The Travel Corporation, Trip.com, TripAdvisor’s Viator, and TUI Musement.
“These companies would likely agree that they are a trusted resource for their customers,” says Cameron Harsh, programs director at World Animal Protection. “Whatever they put out—in terms of an option for people to book or information about a venue—is going to be perceived a certain way by their customers as ‘this is acceptable to do.’”
Up to 6 million people visit wildlife tourist attractions every year, according to a 2015 study, and a 2019 survey by World Animal Protection of 12,000 people in 12 countries showed that nearly 80 percent of travelers said they’d pay more for activities that assured animals didn’t suffer. The organization’s new report gives guidance on “what companies are protecting wild animals and which are failing them, with the hopes of putting that pressure point on them,” says wildlife campaign manager Nicole Barrantes. (Learn more about how to engage in ethical wildlife tourism.)
Top scorers for their animal welfare policies were the California-based Travel Corporation, with 75 percent, and Airbnb, with 67 percent. Neither Hong-Kong based Klook, which connects travelers and local tour operators, nor U.S.-based Groupon has animal welfare policies. Both received the lowest rating of 4 percent.
The Travel Corporation’s policy references the five domains of animal welfare, which include rights to good nutrition and mental stimulation. Airbnb worked with WAP in 2019 to draft a company policy that prohibits exploitative wildlife experiences such as elephant rides; interactions including feeding or petting; selfies with wild animal selfies; and the use of captive marine mammals in entertainment.
The WAP report focuses on four “flagship” species—dolphins, elephants, primates, and big cats—because of their complicated needs, their ability to experience emotion, and their prevalence in tourism attractions. (Read more about what happens when elephants live alone.)
Half the companies list experiences with flagship animals. Klook and Trip.com (rated at 6 percent) offer elephant rides and selfies with tiger cubs. GetYourGuide (7 percent) offers primate interactions and elephant bathing, and travelers can book elephant interactions on TUI Musement (51 percent).
These animals “may have very complex social behaviors, foraging needs—things that cannot be adequately met at these facilities where their lives revolve around being used for human interaction,” says Kate Dylewsky, senior policy advisor at the Animal Welfare Institute.
TUI Musement hasn’t offered interactions with wild cats or added any “unacceptable” new activities with wild animals “for several years now,” Stephen Denton, head of external communications, says, adding that the World Animal Protection report “does not truly reflect” the action TUI has taken “in support of animal welfare.” If vendors don’t pass the company’s animal welfare audits, “we drop the activity,” he says.
Meanwhile, in a report last year, WAP called out Groupon for routinely partnering “with some of the cruelest captive wildlife venues in the U.S.,” including roadside zoos and animal sanctuaries with recent welfare violations. For example, it lists discounted tickets for Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, which has violated the Animal Welfare Act several times, most recently in December, and it offers discounts to visit SeaQuest, which offers interactions with stingrays and sloths. Zoos, aquariums, and animal attractions “are among the most popular on our marketplace,” says Groupon spokesperson Nicholas Halliwell. But if those merchants are “not in good standing” with the proper oversight bodies, “we take action—including removing them from our platform.”
The new WAP report notes that in November 2021, Expedia, which scored 64 percent, banned sales of tickets to dolphin and whale performances and interactions—but it still offers sea lion interactions. Expedia is “committed” to “educating travelers about wildlife tourism, so they’re able to make better decisions on how they travel and interact with animals,” a spokesperson says, adding that the company works with animal nonprofits and routinely examines its product catalog to make sure prohibited experiences aren’t offered, according to its wildlife guidelines.
Brian Hoyt, TripAdvisor’s head of global communications and industry affairs, says his company “has one of the tourism industry’s first and most comprehensive animal welfare policies, and we continue to be proud of efforts we make.” TripAdvisor’s policy prohibits selling tickets to physical interactions with captive animals, non-sanctuary captive cetacean facilities, and wild animal performances.
Klook, Booking.com, the Travel Corporation, and Trip.com didn’t respond to requests for comment. Airbnb responded with their animal welfare guidelines. GetYourGuide didn’t respond, but a spokesperson has been quoted as saying that the company would “sharpen its guidelines and offerings” in response to its rating.
‘Mistreatment behind the scenes’
Interactive tourist experiences often involve unseen animal suffering. For example, lion and tiger cub petting promotes speed breeding, in which young cubs are prematurely removed from their mothers’ care to allow for faster reproduction. As cubs grow too big for petting, they’re often killed or kept in cramped, barren enclosures, Cameron Harsh says. Dolphins that swim with humans often are confined in small tanks, where they’re seen chewing at the walls and bars from stress and boredom. At roadside zoos that sell elephant rides, the animals likely were “broken” as babies through such training methods as painful goading with bullhooks to make them docile around humans. As adults in captivity, they spend hours standing on hard, concrete surfaces, causing foot injuries, and when not giving rides, they’re usually kept in chains. (Learn more about the unseen suffering behind wildlife tourism.)
“No matter what a facility may claim about how they treat the animals, if there is direct contact between people and animals, then there is always going to be mistreatment behind the scenes,” Dylewsky says. Interacting with wildlife is risky for humans too, she adds. “Most people would not walk up to an elephant in the wild and think that they could pet it or seek out a wild tiger and think that they could do a photo op.”
Any time travelers engage in wildlife tourism, they should approach it “with a healthy dose of skepticism,” Dylewsky says. She advises people to seek out places to view animals from a distance in a natural setting and to look for genuine wildlife sanctuaries, particularly ones accredited by institutions like the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
Consumers share responsibility to make sure their travel is wildlife-friendly, but ultimately, “travel companies are the middlemen between the traveler and the venue,” says World Animal Protection’s Nicole Barrantes. It’s “their responsibility to make sure that where they’re sending tourists is not causing harm or suffering.”
The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to [email protected]. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.