Airbnb Experiences, the activities arm of the home-sharing platform, offers travelers many things to do in Lima, Peru. They can learn to cycle around the capital on a bamboo bike ($50); make ceviche in the home of a local ($97); and spend 90 minutes with Otto, the skateboarding bulldog who set a world record for the longest human tunnel traveled through by a skateboarding dog (picture a line of participants standing with their legs wide, creating a passageway for the rolling canine).
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In the three years since Airbnb introduced its experience bookings, it found some of its most popular involved animals. On Thursday the company is introducing "Airbnb Animal Experiences," an expanded and stand-alone category, much like its existing "Food and Drink" and "Sports and Outdoors" categories. The new animal division will have an ethical focus.
"We realized people want to reconnect with animals," said Mikel Freemon, head of animals at Airbnb Experiences. "We wanted to fulfill that urge in a responsible way."
The announcement comes at a time of increased scrutiny of organizations offering animal and wildlife experiences in tourist destinations; Wednesday, TripAdvisor announced it would end its practice of selling tickets to events or attractions that breed or buy dolphins, whales and other marine mammals. Indeed, there is growing concern worldwide over the level of regulation of zoos, wildlife parks and other animal refuges, particularly in developing nations, which may potentially attract travelers to situations in which the animals are abused for their entertainment, or worse.
In expanding the division — roughly half of its more than 1,000 Animal Experiences, available in 58 countries, will be new at launch — the company worked with World Animal Protection, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal welfare, to create a policy for the ethical treatment of animals. Animal owners, known as "hosts," must comply with the policy to be included on the platform.
Airbnb's policy bans direct contact with wild animals such as petting, feeding or riding them, with some exceptions for nonprofits conducting conservation research. Domesticated and farmed animals such as horses and camels may carry no more than one rider and no more than 20% of their body weight. The rules prohibit elephant interactions, including riding, bathing or feeding, as well as any experiences involving captive marine mammals.
"Instead of swimming with dolphins in captivity, you can go with a researcher and study wild dolphins," Freemon said.
World Animal Protection will not benefit financially from the Animal Experiences bookings but expressed appreciation for a partner as large and visible as Airbnb, where the experiences it offers across its categories have grown from 500 in 2016, when the division was introduced, to about 40,000 now.
"To have a travel leader such as Airbnb commit to making animal welfare a top priority will not only help educate travelers on the importance of cruelty-free animal tourism but also illustrate to them the opportunities to experience wildlife in their natural habitats while traveling," wrote Alesia Soltanpanah, executive director of World Animal Protection, in an email.
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Airbnb isn't the only company to find its animal activities surging in popularity. Five years ago, Intrepid Travel banned elephant rides on its trips globally, including Southeast Asia where they were popular, based on research by World Animal Protection about the abuse of elephants used in tourism. The company reported a record 12% growth in its wildlife tours among American travelers in the past year. Their popularity has inspired the company to add 10 new wildlife-focused tours in 2020, including trips to an orangutan rehabilitation center in Borneo and a non-riding elephant sanctuary in Laos.
Offering opportunities to work with rescued monkeys and parrots in Guatemala or rehabilitate kangaroos in Australia, Animal Experience International, based in Ontario, said its trips have caught on with gap-year travelers and families. The company visits the animal organizations it works with in order to vet them for ethical practices. In November, it will launch a new 10-day Expedition Nepal group trip to volunteer with dog rescue groups during Kuku Tihar, the day Nepali Hindus bless dogs (2,495 Canadian dollars, or about $3,000).
"Knowing that we have actually gone to these places really helps our clients feel confident that they will be helping animals," said Nora Livingstone, chief executive of Animal Experience International.
Ethics in animal tourism isn't, of course, restricted to paid tours. In Scotland last summer, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, a marine conservation charity, launched the Hebridean Whale Trail, which identifies locations on land where travelers may spot marine mammals from the shore as an alternative to potentially interfering with them on the water.
The expanded Airbnb Animal Experiences range from 90 minutes with Otto, the skateboarding dog, to multiday safaris with conservationists. There are expeditions in Brooklyn, New York, to see wild parrots, walks in Britain with mini ponies and tea parties with "naughty" sheep in Scotland known to steal crumpets and nibble on sweaters.
Animal Experiences start at $10 and run to $500 or more for more extensive safaris. The average price is around $50.
Many of its new animal experiences involve animal experts such as veterinarians, farmers, naturalists and researchers. In Chernobyl, travelers can participate in a program to meet the feral descendants of the dogs left behind in the 1980s when Ukrainian residents fled following the nuclear reactor explosion. Travelers can help socialise and clean the dogs, said to be safe from contamination, with a group that is working to promote their adoption.
"We want travelers to meet the animals through the eyes of the people who live and work with them," Freemon said. "They are translators for these animals so you can get to see and know them through their eyes."
Written by: Elaine Glusac
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES