Trend theories abound on the topic of the still-nascent outbound Chinese travel market, despite its prodigious size and rapid growth. Every day it seems, more and more Chinese tourists are discovering a range of previously unavailable experiences, both at home and abroad.
One increasingly popular travel experience is marine parks, where tourists can view exotic marine animals, particularly large cetaceans like dolphins or beluga whales. By one estimate, new marine parks are opening monthly in China, with 36 parks set to open in China over the next two years—and that’s adding to the roughly 60 such parks that are already in operation. This trend has raised understandable concerns among animal rights activists around the world, in large part because companies with little or no experience caring for cetaceans are running these new parks. Moreover, China has few legal protections for such animals, and there’s little recourse to punish parks that mistreat animals for profit.
This criticism isn’t just limited to smaller and/or newer marine parks. Some of China’s most prominent, big-name resorts and their owners are receiving complaints about their animal treatment. The Atlantis Sanya, a resort built by Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group in Hainan, China, opened this year and features its own aquarium and marine animal shows. Fosun is the owner of the international resort chain Club Med and a major investor in Thomas Cook, the British holiday package company. Fosun and The Atlantis Sanya received criticism for the living conditions of dolphins at the resort, and Thomas Cook came under fire for its partnership with Fosun and the sale of Atlantis holiday packages.
But it isn’t just animal treatment that’s a concern. The way parks often get the animals is just as troubling. Many of the animals in marine parks around the world get captured and are sold—often for millions of dollars—illegally. While China is not alone in fueling demand for illegally-captured cetaceans, the country is a major driver of demand. According to the China Cetacean Association, 872 whales, dolphins, and porpoises have been illegally obtained and shipped to China for display in Chinese marine parks, though these figures are challenging to verify. And with the influx of new parks in China, many of which are cash-poor and have few legal avenues for obtaining animals, poachers have stepped in to fill the demand. Many of China’s cetaceans, particulalry belugas and orcas, were imported from Russia.
But there’s a silver lining to all of this. Growing interest in viewing these animals could help spark efforts to better protect these animals, both in China and the rest of the world. It could also help drive demand for destinations around the globe that give tourists the chance to view these animals in their natural environments, or at the very least, in ethical facilities. Russia’s Far East, Alaska, the Philippines, and Japan, just to name a few, are all relatively accessible to Chinese tourists and have well-established—and ethical—whale watching industries.