Virgin Holidays, a U.K.-based travel company and part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, will no longer promote or sell tickets to SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove or any other parks that showcase captive whales and dolphins. 

Branson wrote in a blog post that the move is part of “a five-year journey to drive positive change in the tourism industry.” Two years ago, Virgin Holidays had announced it would not add any new attractions featuring captive whales and dolphins to its services. Now, Branson feels the time has come for animals born in captivity to be moved into larger coastal sanctuaries. 

“I feel strongly now that sanctuaries are the best solution to improve the situation of current captive populations, while changing the way tourists interact with whales and dolphins for good,” Branson wrote. “Today’s announcement thus comes at the right time and will hopefully give a fresh boost to these efforts.” 

Another U.K. travel agency, Thomas Cook, made a similar move last July. 

In response to Virgin’s announcement, SeaWorld defended its record of animal care, including its marine animal rescue programs. 

“It is disappointing to see Virgin Holidays succumb to pressure from animal activists who mislead and manipulate marine mammal science to advance their agendas,” said Chris Dold, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld. “Virgin’s own corporate mission is having a measurable purpose that positively impacts communities and the environment. SeaWorld is the epitome of that mission.”

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which is responsible for evaluating public animal exhibits, also criticized Virgin’s decision, saying its accreditation process “assures the well-being of the animals” always comes first among its member facilities. 

“Each year, the many animal encounter programs allow millions of children and families to experience and connect with animals and ecosystems they would likely never otherwise have the opportunity to see,” AZA president and CEO Dan Ashe said in a statement. “Ending these opportunities would mean that only the economically elite have the opportunity to encounter and be inspired by these amazing animals.”

After years of declining business after the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” criticized SeaWorld’s use of captive whales, the Orlando-based park chain has rebounded over the past year, with attendance and revenue increasing over the past five quarters. 

That hasn’t stopped animal rights groups from continuing to target the park with protests and public criticism, especially when whales under SeaWorld’s care have died

“Captive cetaceans cannot thrive in concrete boxes,” Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, told Orlando Rising in a statement. “The public has become increasingly aware of these inhumane conditions as the body of science on captive cetacean welfare grows. All tourism companies should follow Virgin’s pioneering lead.”

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