Wild and free

With travellers turning their backs on captive animal encounters, now is the time to be selling ethical wildlife experiences, says Lauren Jarvis

Interactions with animals are considered by many to be a fundamental – and fun – addition to a holiday, especially when children are involved. But increasingly, consumers are considering things from a different viewpoint: that of the animal.

A global poll conducted by non-profit World Animal Protection discovered that 79% of interviewees said they would rather see animals in the wild than in captivity.

Meanwhile, a 60% increase in safari travel to Africa between 2019 and 2022, showed that demand for ethical, wild animal encounters is ‘high’, according to a recent Go2Africa Annual African Safari Travel Report.

“Travellers are placing more emphasis on conservation and sustainability, and global search volumes for ‘sustainable safari’ are proliferating each year,” says Maija de Rijk-Uys, Managing Director at Go2Africa.

Conservation in, captivity out

wild monkey
Clients can see red-backed squirrel monkeys in Costa Rica
wild guinie
Curious guinea fowl at Onguma, Namibia

Recent years have seen a major shift in attitude towards entertainment featuring cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and land animals such as lions, monkeys and elephants, which are still used in many countries for petting encounters, circus shows and rides.

One of the world’s most prolific providers of captive cetacean encounters, SeaWorld, has reportedly not captured an orca from the wild in more than 40 years, while its non-profit SeaWorld Conservation Fund, established in 2003, has provided more than $20 million to nearly 1,400 organisations to advance wildlife research, and helped more than 40,000 animals through its rescue programmes.

“Everything we do is of the highest standard and with unquestionable compassion and affection for the animals,” a SeaWorld spokesperson told Selling Travel.

“For more than 60 years, SeaWorld has advanced the conservation of marine life in and outside its parks through science, education, and exceptional animal care that is Humane Certified by American Humane and accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.” Still, the entertainment giant continues to offer ‘meet and greet’ encounters featuring captive dolphins, orcas and other marine life, despite mounting pressure to empty its tanks.

Giants making a change

Thomas Cook is the most recent travel company to actively stop selling tickets to any attraction with captive cetaceans, following “a decline in the demand for activities that harm the environment or animals.” The online travel company now offers only wild-watching experiences instead.

Alan French, Chief Executive of Thomas Cook, said: “Our customers care about these issues, and we are proud to be matching those sentiments. It has been an easy decision to make.”
In 2019, after a public campaign which drew 350,000 signatures, the Expedia Group, TripAdvisor and Virgin Atlantic Holidays all agreed to stop selling tickets for captive dolphin experiences.

“The decision to stop the sale and promotion of captive whale and dolphin attractions is something Virgin Atlantic Holidays strongly believes in, and we know UK consumers feel the same,” a Virgin spokesperson told Selling Travel.

Virgin Atlantic Holidays has also signed the World Animal Protection Pledge for elephant-friendly tour operators, committed not to sell elephant excursions that involve elephant riding or shows.

You have the power

Travel companies, agents and operators worldwide play a crucial role in educating and encouraging consumers to choose cruelty-free experiences, which support wildlife conservation instead.

Several respected travel and conservation organisations have comprehensive, free guidelines in place, helping travel agents and consumers to choose responsible wildlife experiences.

World Animal Protection’s report, The Real Responsible Traveller, reviews the animal welfare policies of global leaders in the travel industry, and advises which to avoid. worldanimalprotection.org.uk

Responsible Travel offers online advice on captive animal encounters, ethical wildlife holidays, zoos, sanctuaries, and more. responsibletravel.com

Born Free Foundation’s Raise The Red Flag Campaign offers an online platform for people to report animal abuse or exploitation, and advice on responsible animal interactions. bornfree.org.uk/raise-the-red-flag

Three wild animal encounters

wild lynx
Endangered Iberian Lynx in Spain
wild manta
Swimming with rays at InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort

Track Iberian lynx in Andalucia: Join conservationists on the trail of the endangered Iberian lynx in the mountains of Andalucia on a tailor-made trip with Steppes Travel, in association with The European Nature Trust (TENT). Each of TENT’s trips to Andalucia includes a donation to CBD-Habitat Foundation, which is working to expand Spain’s population of Iberian lynx. steppestravel.com

Meet the world’s last Northern White rhinos in Kenya: Ol Pejeta Conservancy is the largest black rhino sanctuary in Africa, and is also home to the last two remaining Northern White rhinos on Earth, Najin and Fatu. Working with conservation groups including Helping Rhinos, the sanctuary in Kenya offers sightings of the rhinos, zebras and big cats on game drives. olpejetacon-servancy.org

Dive into manta ray research in the Maldives: Join a guided manta ray research tour or annual Manta Retreat with the non-profit Manta Trust at the InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort in the Raa Atoll near Hanifaru Bay, the largest known manta ray feeding spot in the world. Guests see the rays up close.

Where to book it

Audley Travel
Audley has a 13-night trip to Western Australia including return flights with Emirates, internal flights, car hire, accommodation in Perth, Rottnest Island and Cape Range National Park, plus a wild Ningaloo Reef Whale Shark Swim from £8,900pp. audleytravel.com