The move will end the operator’s long-term partnerships with the likes of SeaWorld and Discovery Cove and makes good on its five-year pledge to halt the sale and promotion of such attractions.
“We have now decided the time is right to discontinue offering attractions featuring close encounters with captive whales and dolphins,” said Virgin Holidays managing director Joe Thompson.
“We will instead focus our efforts on encouraging customers to see these creatures in the wild. We will also continue our efforts to support the development of sanctuaries for whales and dolphins currently in captivity.”
Citing its a July 2019 survey of 1,998 UK customers, commissioned by Virgin Holidays, the operator said 92% of holidaymakers “prefer to see animals in their natural habitat”.
“We want to actively support this direction by encouraging more responsible wild-watching, meaning our customers get to experience these amazing animals with peace of mind,” Thompson added.
In 2014, Virgin Holidays announced the Virgin Pledge on Sea Mammals to only work with facilities committed to not taking animals from the wild, which was signed by SeaWorld.
Three years later, it announced further efforts to move towards “more natural encounters” with cetaceans.
This included disavowing new attractions featuring captive cetaceans for theatrical shows, contact sessions or “swim-withs”, or any other entertainment purposes; ensuring compliance with the Abta-approved Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism; supporting the creation of new coastal sanctuaries for cetaceans; and offering customers more wild whale- and dolphin-watching, and sanctuary-based experiences.
Virgin Holidays has also partnered with the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) to promote its guidelines for responsible whale- and dolphin-watching, which will involve Virgin embarking on a series of WCA workshops to share knowledge and training with local operators on best practice and to ensure all its operator partners are WCA-compliant by the end of 2021.
Dylan Walker, WCA chief executive, said: “History will show that this was absolutely the right decision by Virgin Holidays. Whales and dolphins are complex and intelligent animals whose needs can only be met in the wild.
"To understand them involves seeing them in their ocean home, which is why we are extremely pleased Virgin Holidays is committed to investing and supporting responsible wild whale and dolphin excursions moving forward.
“Virgin Holidays’ decision sends a direct message, and we are looking forward to continuing to work with the company on some fantastic wild animal experiences that customers can trust in and enjoy.”
SeaWorld said it was "disappointed" by Virgin Holidays’ decision. "Virgin’s own corporate mission is having a measurable purpose that positively impacts communities and the environment," said a spokesperson. "SeaWorld is the epitome of that mission.
"With more than 35,000 animal rescues and decades of meaningful scientific contributions, we are proud to be a recognised global leader in marine mammal science, education and, in particular, providing preeminent care to all of our marine mammals.
"With rising threats to our oceans and their inhabitants, supporting independently accredited zoological facilities is more important than ever. No company does more to protect marine mammals and advance cetacean research, rescue and conservation than SeaWorld."
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