Airbnb unveiled its animal experiences in October, joining TripAdvisor and other major travel companies that have adopted policies meant to reassure customers that attractions they promote do not exploit or harm animals. In many cases, the companies are shunning certain kinds of animal tourism altogether — such as elephant rides and marine mammal shows — and sparking anxiety and resistance at some of the world’s best-known attractions.
Animals have always been big tourist draws — zoos remain top attractions in cities worldwide, and safaris are on many bucket lists. But shifting public sentiment, fueled in part by the scathing 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” about the death of a SeaWorld orca trainer, is increasing scrutiny of animal attractions. Several cities and nations have banned or restricted wild animal circuses; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey folded in 2017; and SeaWorld has stopped breeding orcas.
“Overall, people are more aware now of animals as living beings, not just there for entertainment, and there is more respect for animals,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research Group. “The travel industry responds to its customers.”
Last month, TripAdvisor, one of the world’s largest travel platforms, announced that by 2020 it would no longer offer tickets to attractions that breed, import or capture cetaceans for public display, saying “the current generation of whales and dolphins in captivity should be the last.” The policy, which applies to TripAdvisor’s subsidiary, Viator, will end sales to SeaWorld and other marine parks. It also adds to the company’s previous bans on experiences that involve travelers touching wild animals, such as tiger cub-petting, and on “demeaning” animal performances.
SeaWorld and other sites that feature dolphins and other marine mammals have strongly pushed back against the policies, and some tourism companies have resisted the trend. The chief executive of Attraction Tickets Direct, which calls itself “the UK’s No. 1 Broker for Florida Attraction Tickets,” recently said the company would continue selling SeaWorld tickets, citing its “remarkable” rescue work.
Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents about 240 major North American sites, including the National Zoo and SeaWorld, said in a statement last month that TripAdvisor was letting “a radical minority dictate corporate policy.” The company says it consulted “experts on all sides of the debate” to come to its decision.
In an interview, Ashe said visitation at AZA facilities is growing, and he faulted TripAdvisor for putting attractions held to his group’s accreditation standards in the same basket as the worst facilities.
“We are constantly mourning the fact that people are losing their connection with nature. But then through actions like those of TripAdvisor, we’re trying to increasingly put limits on their opportunities to connect with nature in environments that work for them, as well as the animals,” he said. “I would have hoped for a more discerning, differentiating approach.”
But animal protection organizations, which have pressured or helped travel companies to design such policies, say they’re a reflection of growing consumer concern about keeping intelligent and social animals in confinement.
“This is happening either because an industry has suddenly had an attack of conscience, or an industry realizes that there’s a financial interest in changing their ways,” said Chris Draper, head of animal welfare and captivity at the Born Free Foundation, a charity that opposes animal captivity and partnered with British Airways on its policy.
The policies vary in the details. Expedia Group, for example, removed big cat and elephant interactions from its sites in 2017 but has not cut marine mammal attractions. A spokesman said Expedia relies on the AZA and animal welfare groups to help its decision-making but added that it is taking “a much closer look at our animal welfare policies,” after a recent report, from the welfare organization World Animal Protection, calling it a “significant driver of the dolphin industry.”
Whether the policies actually slow visitation at certain attractions or force broader changes in the industry is an open question, said Carol Kline, an associate professor of tourism management at Appalachian State University. “I’m excited to see the increase in consciousness about impacts of tourism,” Kline said. “In terms of how meaningful these policies are, I think it’s too soon to tell.”
Airbnb, a home-sharing platform that began offering activities three years ago, says it adopted an animal policy as it sought to expand its reach. It decided to launch a stand-alone animal category after seeing that some “early runaway successes” involved animals, said Mikel Freemon, who heads the initiative. One was kayaking and penguin-viewing with conservationists off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What is it that people are really reacting to?’ One, we realized that people just really love animals,” she said, and many wanted to somehow “give back” to the creatures. “We also noticed that they enjoyed learning from true expert hosts who live and work alongside these animals."
Airbnb approached World Animal Protection for help drawing up its policy, which allows interactions with domesticated animals — provided the hosts “ensure the highest quality of life for the animals involved” — but bans experiences including elephant rides, rodeos, wild animal performances and captive marine mammal displays.
“In the United States, you see dolphins on the West Coast and the East Coast,” said Alesia Soltanpanah, executive director of World Animal Protection. “When you see them in the wild, it’s so much more thrilling.”
Airbnb offers some “social impact” experiences that direct all proceeds to the host. Among them is the two-hour walk with rescue dogs on the Mall. This month, tour guide Julie Brooks told her four-person group that their $35 payments had covered vaccinations for one dog, Jackie, and transport from a shelter in South Carolina for the others, Betty and BeeBop.
Brooks, an energetic volunteer for Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, which organized the walk and offers the dogs for adoption, equipped the walkers with bandannas for the dogs’ necks and treats for their bellies. She said the walks are always booked — by both locals and visitors from around the world — so she now offers them into November. “It’s great dog weather,” she said.
None of those who participated this month said they were motivated by Airbnb’s new policy. But all said they came for the animals.
“And, you know, maybe I’ll fall in love with one of them,” said Lana Sytnik, 32, a Washington resident who’d come across the walk on Airbnb after Googling for a shelter that would let her walk dogs.
The group walked briskly, stopping for a pee break — dogs only — on the grassy lawn in front of the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square, posing for photos with the pooches in front of the U.S. Capitol, and weaving through crowds gathering to watch the Nationals’ World Series parade later that day.
Grace Beuchert, a 26-year-old nurse who lives in the District, and her girlfriend, Kaitlyn Kessler, are thinking of getting a dog, and the walk started just blocks from the apartment they share — making it easy for Beuchert to buy the experience as a surprise for Kessler.
“This was great,” said Kessler, 24, looking delighted as she walked Jackie a few blocks north of the Washington Monument.
Tom Harriman, a Chicago lawyer in town for a trial, said he signed up for the walk after the animal experiences category popped up on his Airbnb app.
“I’m always looking for something like that — something that adds a little extra to an experience,” said Harriman, 32, who has fostered many homeless dogs. “I was only a little disappointed that there weren’t even more options.”