SHORTAKES: When tourism companies make ethical policy changes, look for the asterisk

In an unsurprising move, Virgin Holidays has announced that it’s dropping ticket sales to facilities that house whales and dolphins (also known as cetaceans).

However, the way the policy is being instigated actually contradicts much of the rhetoric and purpose behind the policy change.

The top question I’ve received from readers is if this new policy drops tickets sales to Walt Disney World, which houses four bottlenose dolphin at Epcot’s The Seas pavilion. It does not. Quite simply, Walt Disney World is one of Virgin Holidays’ most profitable destinations. Dropping Disney ticket sales could negatively impact between 25 and 50% of Virgin Holidays’ profits. Such an action could also have a negative impact on a sister Virgin company. High speed rail operator Virgin Trains (formerly known as Brightline) has recently signed an MOU to construct a potentially lucrative station on Disney property, with direct connections to Orlando International Airport, Tampa, and South Florida communities. Another way of looking at this – publicity surrounding ethical decisions within a company can lead to increased revenue, but the best way to make money is simply to maintain strong profit centers.

There are a number of large loopholes in the Virgin Holidays plan, similar to how Virgin Airlines dropped SeaWorld from its frequent flyer rewards program a few years ago, yet members could still use their rewards to purchase discounted SeaWorld tickets via Virgin Holidays. Under the new policy, Virgin Holidays will no longer include SeaWorld tickets in packages to the cities where the parks are located. But they will sell package vacations to hotels that have ticketing agreements with SeaWorld, where Virgin Holidays clientele can purchase discounted tickets at the concierge or tour desk. Same benefit, just one more step. Likewise, Virgin Holidays will no longer sell tickets to the dolphin experiences at the Atlantis Resorts in the Bahamas and Dubai (note: these are now two seperately owned and operated properties), but they will still sell packages to these resorts. Virgin Holidays customers will just need to purchase their dolphin swim tickets separately at a discount once they arrive.

Virgin’s approach is very similar to Thomas Cook’s (see my blog post here). As long as you purchase your ticket from somebody other than the travel agency, you can’t say that the travel agency sold it to you. So, even though both companies are officially opposed to whale and dolphin captivity, you can stay at a hotel that owns dolphins on property, as long as you don’t purchase a ticket from them. And though you may not be to access the dolphins at the Mirage in Las Vegas with your package, both Thomas Cook and Virgin Holidays would be glad to book you a room overlooking the hotel’s two dolphin pools.

It’s not my intention to tell you whether cetaceans in human care is good or bad. That’s completely up to you. But regardless of your standpoint, the best advice I can give is that when a tourism company claims to make a policy change based on ethical criteria, imagine that there’s an asterisk at the end of their statement.*

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