One of the nation's most popular travel booking sites is taking a stand on animal welfare by halting the sale of tickets to attractions that let tourists ride or touch wild or endangered animals.
TripAdvisor announced plans to adopt the changes by early 2017, partly in response to pressure from animal rights groups to stop selling tickets to attractions that they feel exploit animals without offering any educational value.
Representatives of the booking site declined to name which attractions would no longer be listed but described them as places where tourists come in contact with captive wild animals or endangered species, including attractions where people ride elephants, pet tigers and swim with dolphins.
"It's a tough decision to make for us," said Brian Hoyt, TripAdvisor's senior director of corporate communications. "We did a lot of research on it. Not a lot of people will agree with this."
The move comes several months after
TripAdvisor was recently ranked as the most popular travel site by the Comscore, an audience measuring company that said the website had 82 million unique visitors in August.
The new policy is sure to spark debate among conservation groups, zoo operators and animal rights activists who disagree about what animal attractions offer educational value and which ones simply use animals to make money.
Among the organizations that TripAdvisor will consult with for its new policy are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums — two organizations that have knocked heads before. PETA has called for an end to all businesses that keep animals in captivity; the trade group for zoos and aquariums promotes such businesses.
PETA spokeswoman Stephanie Shaw said the group said the travel site is responding to a growing movement in the U.S. to protect animals.
"PETA is very delighted by this decision and consider it an industry-leading move," she said.
Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the zoo and aquarium trade group, said he expects TripAdvisor will continue to sell tickets to zoos and aquariums with "aquarium touch pools, feeding programs and volun-tourism programs for endangered species preservation."
"We are continually working with TripAdvisor to make sure high-quality animal experiences are provided for its customers," he said.
SeaWorld parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando offer tickets to attractions that let guests touch and interact with penguins, dolphins, walruses and beluga whales.
The Florida-based company has also rescued more than 28,000 animals, such as injured dolphins and sea turtles. In a statement, SeaWorld said it is disappointed with TripAdvisor's new policy, noting that the parks operate several educational programs that allow animals to interact with visitors and students.
"We are proud that our facilities have earned recognition for excellence through multiple accreditation programs," SeaWorld said.
Hoyt declined to say whether TripAdvisor will continue to sell tickets to theme parks such as SeaWorld but said the new policy is primarily meant to discourage tourists from visiting international destinations where people ride elephants and dolphins.
"In the long term, we believe what we are doing is raising the standard of care in the tourism industry," Hoyt said.
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Oct. 13, 9:15 a.m.: This story was updated to include a comment from SeaWorld Entertainment.