In a sweeping policy update, TripAdvisor this week announced that it will stop selling tickets to animal attractions that allow physical contact between visitors and captive wild animals or endangered species.
The new ban, which will take effect on both the TripAdvisor website and its Viator booking service, is expected to cut off a large portion of ticket sales to hundreds of attractions around the world that are accused of exploiting animals.
The kinds of activities that will no longer be allowed under the new policy include elephant rides, petting tigers, and attractions where visitors are able to 'swim with' dolphins.
"By refusing to sell tickets to businesses that treat animals as entertainment or playthings, TripAdvisor is making a precedent-setting statement about the use and abuse of animals for entertainment," said PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman in a statement.
The move comes after years of campaigning from animal welfare groups who say that the tourism industry enables and encourages the cruel treatment of animals.
Last year, a study by researchers from the University of Oxford in the UK found that the majority of wildlife tourist attractions had negative welfare or conservation impacts on the animals kept within them, affecting as many as 550,000 individuals.
But despite their popularity – with wildlife attractions estimated to receive up to 6 million visitors annually – only a small minority of tourist feedback (7.8 percent) on these attractions was negative due to concerns about animal welfare or conservation.
"I think the average person would think that there's animals there, there's gotta be laws and regulations behind what's happening, but that's not the case, even in places like the US," Wes Sechrest, the chief executive of conservation group GWC told Justin Sablich at The New York Times.
While some wildlife attractions may try to police tourist behaviour to discourage inappropriate contact with animals, inevitably attractions that enable physical contact in the first place can't control what all their visitors do.
"In some places, it's a free-for-all," Richard Rees, director of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program, told Kevin Rushby at The Guardian. "We see touching, riding, flash photography, obstruction – all sorts of bad practices."
TripAdvisor's new policy builds upon its current ban on reviews for attractions like bullfights and captive hunts, and Viator already didn't sell tickets to these kinds of blood sports.
Other travel companies, including STA Travel and Intrepid, had already introduced bans on elephant rides and marine parks like SeaWorld – one of the most publicised and controversial attractions when it comes to the issue of animal welfare abuses.
But while animal welfare groups are applauding the company's new stance, there are a number of exemptions to the policy that still allow physical contact in certain cases.
Attractions with domestic animals won't be banned, meaning horseback riding and children's petting zoos will still be accommodated – as will aquarium touch pools and feeding grounds where visitors are under the supervision of zoo, aquarium, or wildlife officials.
In addition to the new ticket regulations, TripAdvisor is also launching a new education portal, which it says will help raise awareness of animal welfare and wildlife conservation.
But for some, the new measures don't go far enough. Many animal welfare organisations like PETA are against animal captivity for profit in all forms, so a prohibition on physical contact – while welcomed – still doesn't do anything to address the plight of animals that are caged, trained, and displayed for human amusement.
"We hope it will only be a matter of time before TripAdvisor will also come to realise that it has to end sales to all cruel wildlife attractions, such as SeaWorld where the animals endure a lifetime of abuse and highly stressful training to perform," the CEO of welfare organisation World Animal Protection, Steve McIvor, told The Guardian.
"Until then we will provide the best education we can on TripAdvisor's website to steer people away from cruel venues like these."