British Airways, other travel sites stop selling SeaWorld tickets

Trainers swim with the dolphins during the Dolphin Days show at Seaworld.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

British Airways Holidays has announced it will no longer offer its customers the option of booking tickets for attractions that feature captive animals, a new strategy that in San Diego could potentially affect visitation at SeaWorld.

The move by the UK-based company follows recent announcements by other travel companies, including Virgin Holidays and United Airlines, that have discontinued promoting experiences or attractions on their websites that involve captive whales and dolphins. In disclosing its new policy, British Airways said the decision evolved as part of a new collaboration with international wildlife charity Born Free, which helped develop the travel company’s animal welfare policy.

San Diego has a connection with British Airways because of its daily nonstop flight between here and London. While British Airways’ new directive technically affects all visitor attractions with wild animals, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park would not be affected because British Airways Holidays never sold tickets to those venues.

“Our customers tell us they have concerns about wild animals being kept in captivity, and increasingly see animal performances in particular as outdated,” said Claire Bentley, managing director of British Airways Holidays. “We are delighted to have worked with Born Free to develop our new strategy, which allows our customers to make more informed choices and we are contacting all our hotel and attraction partners about our new approach.”

Likewise, at Virgin Holidays, owner Richard Branson, in a July 15 blog post, touted the company’s change in direction as “the most significant milestone yet on a five-year journey to drive positive change in the tourism industry.” While Branson acknowledged that many of the dolphins and whales now held at marine parks like SeaWorld were never taken from the wild, he supports projects that propose to relocate the cetaceans to seaside sanctuaries.

Virgin’s longer term goal, Branson wrote, is to offer its customers “a world class, wild whale and dolphin tour portfolio meeting the highest ethical standards for the animals while creating a richer animal encounter experience for customers.”

SeaWorld CEO Gus Antorcha pushed back against the stand taken by British Airways, arguing that its decision is fueled by misguided animal-rights activists.

“When radical animal-rights activists mislead and manipulate the truth to the detriment of our planet’s critically endangered animals, you have to question their motives,” Antorcha said. “Pressuring companies and trying to shame them into cutting ties with independently accredited zoos and aquariums works against the vital research and conservation work to protect these animals. We are disappointed that British Airways Holidays succumbed to pressure from animal activists and changed its policy given the facts.”

Meanwhile, United Airlines in June said it was taking steps to remove SeaWorld from its United and United Vacations websites, and AAA Northeast has stopped selling SeaWorld tickets.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals took credit this month for the Auto Club decision, noting that its members and supporters demonstrated outside AAA Northeast’s Manhattan office more than 18 times in the past year.

“No decent business should want to be associated with an amusement park that’s still breeding dolphins and riding them around like surfboards in circus-style shows,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman.

One of the higher profile companies to sever ties with SeaWorld was Southwest Airlines, which five years ago ended its 25-year marketing relationship with the theme park company. That was one year after the release of “Blackfish,” a documentary that was critical of SeaWorld for its treatment of killer whales.

While the film played a role in the marine parks’ declining attendance in past years, more recently, SeaWorld has staged an impressive comeback as it introduces more thrill rides and coasters in its major theme parks. The company also ended the captive breeding of killer whales three years ago. PETA, however, has launched a campaign in recent months calling for SeaWorld to end its dolphin shows.