Open letter to ABTA

Update: ABTA shuns transparency by refusing to answer our open letter

26th June 2014

Re: TTGDigital article, 02/05/14. Campaigners want to stop 'orca circuses' - but do vacationmakers feel the same?

Dear Mark,

We are writing in response to the article discussing the use of captive cetaceans in tourism that appeared in TTGDigital on 2nd May 2014 [since deleted but found here], and specifically to draw your attention to the statements made by ABTA's spokesperson within the article. Keen to maintain constructive dialogue between the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA), Responsible Travel and ABTA, concerning the promotion of captive whale and dolphin facilities, we welcome your feedback.

As you are no doubt aware, the WCA and Responsible Travel are opposed to the keeping of whales and dolphins (referred to as cetaceans) in captivity. Our position is supported by both scientific evidence and public opinion. Our concern is that ABTA and the mainstream British travel industry remain supportive of the keeping and display of captive cetaceans, despite the opposing evidence, and continue to promote and sell tickets to marine parks and dolphinaria with captive cetaceans.

We believe that it is time for an open and honest debate on these issues. Following efforts to start discussions, and as public awareness has increased to an all time high, it is now essential that we present this dialogue publicly and on the record.

Referring to the TTGDigital piece, we would like to address four specific points:
  1. "The big question for the industry, he explains, is whether or not there is now conclusive science that cetaceans suffer in captivity. 'We've asked to see the science so often invoked by campaigners,' says Pickup."

    With respect, there is significant scientific evidence readily available supporting an end to the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. Some of these have been reviewed by the newspaper articles below, for your interest. We remain unsure what further evidence ABTA requires? Given that all leading animal welfare experts believe cetaceans should not be kept in captivity could ABTA confirm what further evidence is necessary?

    We would also be interested to understand ABTA's position following action by your member, Virgin Vacations, apparently committed to a formal review of whether to continue this activity or not. In light of Virgin's apparent leadership in the assessment of this issue, do you envisage ABTA will be formally reviewing their position on the keeping and display of cetaceans in captivity?

  2. Despite meetings and presentations from world leading experts, ABTA does not appear to accept this is a moral issue and in our opinion, have to date, presented no counter argument.

    In 2015, it will be illegal to keep wild animals in circuses in England. This was as a result of various public opinion polls in 2010 (Defra) and 2011 (ComRes) identifying 95% and 71% of the British public were opposed to the keeping and performance of wild animals in circuses. This was further supported by the UK Parliament, following a back-bench debate on the issue (2013). Whilst the science was debated, but found inconclusive, due to a lack of study on the topic, the use of wild animals in circuses was deemed morally irresponsible. This conclusion is also apparent in ABTA's Global Welfare Guidance, which indicates circuses as an 'unacceptable practice'.

    Recognising the similarities to the keeping and performance of whales and dolphins in tanks to the keeping and performance of wild animals in circuses, could ABTA please provide its reasoning for failing to recognise the similarities, and justifications for the promotion of dolphinaria? Can you explain why ABTA and some of your members continue to support the performance of cetaceans for entertainment purposes, when the British Government is clearly opposed to the practice?

  3. "When ABTA helped facilitate a visit to SeaWorld for its members, it found no cause for concern over the standard of care for animals there."

    We would welcome further information about your visit to SeaWorld and specifically, details about the independent experts, who we assume advised on the health and welfare of the animals. Please could you clarify the identity, or at least the caliber, of the experts and who they represented? Did you have unlimited access to the facilities and did this include both the on-show and off-show tanks holding marine mammals? What inspection criteria were utilised for this assessment? Lastly, was there a written report detailing inspection conclusions, and if so, could a copy of the report be made available?

    As ABTA has recently adopted the Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism, recognising the need to improve standards in animal welfare in tourism and encourage their suppliers to aim for best practice, did the inspection of the SeaWorld facility meet the Minimum Requirements? Furthermore, has SeaWorld accepted that there is a need to improve and meet higher standards in care, ceasing those practices identified by the Global Welfare Guidance as being 'unacceptable' and detrimental to animal welfare and or public safety?

    If ABTA is satisfied, as your response in the TTGDigital suggests, could you clarify your reasoning concerning apparent compliance with the Minimum Requirements: No. 2 (feed routine and mental stimulation), 3 (freedom of movement), 4 (environmental complexity), 7 (sedation of animals), 8 (direct public interaction and photo props) and 10 (animal performance) specifically? Please note, since the early 1990s there have been no dolphinaria in the UK, due to the fact that the established minimum standards (which are weaker than those of the ABTA's Global Welfare Guidance) have prevented the construction of captive dolphin facilities.

  4. "The people working at these attractions do so as they have a genuine love and passion for animals." This may well be the case, but this statement misses the point that fundamentally both science and public opinion indicates that the keeping and performance of cetaceans in captivity should end.

In April Responsible Travel and the World Cetacean Alliance Working Group on Captivity launched a petition against captive cetaceans in tourism. Over 10,000 respected individuals, organisations and tour operators, which includes some ABTA members, have signed the pledge.

Furthermore, in May, WCA, Responsible Travel and the Born Free Foundation commissioned an independent poll of over 2,000 UK vacationmakers. The results, released on 25th May, indicated that 86% of UK vacationmakers no longer wish to see orcas and dolphins in captivity during their overseas vacations.

Recognising the significant results from such public surveys, we would be interested to hear ABTA's reaction to these results. Does ABTA have data that challenges these results and continues to justify your actions, and those of your members, in the promotion and sale of tickets to marine parks and dolphinaria? If so, we would welcome the opportunity to review those results.

We believe we will all look back on these orca circuses and wonder why on earth they were allowed to continue for so long.

We look forward to your response on the above points in a format that is on the record and made available to the public. We hope you share our belief in the need for an open dialogue on these important issues.

Best regards,

Dylan Walker,
World Cetacean Alliance
Justin Francis,
Responsible Travel

Appendix & press coverage:

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