Destinations Dependent on Ecotourism Are Facing a Silent Crisis

How travel's abrupt halt affected global conservation efforts

A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
AndamanSE / Getty Images

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Characterized by responsible travel to natural areas, ecotourism helps conserve the environment, sustain local economies, and is meant to educate travelers on the importance of nature and wildlife in the process. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), successful ecotourism contains educational features, highlights small, locally-owned businesses, and minimizes any negative effects on nature and society. Lastly, it supports the conservation and maintenance of the very attractions and destinations upon which it depends. 

When you buy an admission ticket to a natural preserve in Costa Rica, for example, that money goes towards the employees who work there as well as conservation and research projects within the preserve. Whether by generating economic advantages for host communities and organizations dedicated to protecting or managing conservation areas, increasing awareness towards wildlife or natural resources, or providing sustainable income opportunities for locals, ecotourism helps maintain the delicate balance between travelers and nature.

What happens, then, when tourism comes to a grinding halt? How does the sudden and sharp decline in ecotourism affect the communities and environments that rely on them?

The Role of Ecotourism

From climate change and habitat loss to poverty and the illegal wildlife trade, conservation has enough obstacles without the added stress of a pandemic. When an industry aimed at providing responsible, nature-based experiences for tourists suddenly stops, it threatens to upend more than just the local economy.

For many communities, and especially for those in underdeveloped countries, the devastating loss in tourism bookings has resulted in a dramatic decrease in funding for both conservation operations and local livelihoods. In certain South and East African countries, emergency relief funds are so difficult to access for nature-based tourism enterprises that the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Environment Facility have organized nearly $2 million to develop an African Nature-Based Tourism Collaborative Platform.

UNWTO found that international tourist arrivals decreased by 74 percent in 2020, representing a loss of approximately $1.3 trillion in tourism-based exports. They also indicated a potential drop in visitor spending that put 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs in danger, many of them among smaller or medium-sized companies.

Natural areas also stand to suffer as the loss of tourism revenue cuts off funding for conservation and protection. In 2015, a UNWTO survey determined that 14 African countries generated $142 million in entrance fees to protected natural areas. The tourism shutdown means that the areas highly dependent on tourism based jobs are going months with no income and limited options for monetary safety nets. Without these opportunities, communities may have to turn to more exploitative or environmentally unsustainable income sources in order to feed their families.

In some cases, parks agencies rely on tourism for more than half of their operational funding costs. Since there are a substantial number of highly endangered species whose entire population is confined to a single protected area, the preservation of that threatened species is incredibly reliant on tourism revenue. Ecotourism jobs aren’t limited to tour guides or ticket sellers, either, but also include the park rangers and patrollers who work to keep conservation areas safe from illegal poachers, loggers, and miners.

In Brazil, researchers predict that the reduced number of visitors during the 2020 pandemic will lead to a loss of $1.6 billion in sales for tourism businesses that operate around protected areas, as well as a loss of 55,000 permanent or temporary jobs. In Namibia, communal conservancies stand to lose $10 million in direct tourism revenues, threatening funding for at least 700 game guards who conduct anti-poaching patrols.

While there have been plenty of environmental perks to tourism’s interruption (giving the earth a chance to rest from transportation based carbon emissions and allowing wildlife the freedom to live undisturbed from human interaction, to name a few), the pandemic’s negative effects on ecotourism are difficult to ignore.

A school of fish in The Maldives
Giordano Cipriani / Getty Images

Reduced Ecotourism Is Taking a Toll on Nature

According to a study commissioned by High Level Panel for A Sustainable Ocean Economy, small island states have seen a 24 percent decline in tourism revenue since the start of 2020. The report also cites that in the Bahamas and Palau, the gross domestic product (GDP) is poised to shrink by at least eight percent, while in the Maldives and Seychelles, the GDP is expected to drop by 16 percent. In 2020, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association reported that at least 279 hotels and resorts had closed since the pandemic hit and 25,000 workers had lost their jobs.

The governments in these coastal communities often use revenue from marine tourism to fund marine research, conservation, and monitoring or protection actions. As a case in point, ecotourism makes up over half of the conservation budget needed to protect marine areas from illegal fishing in the Philippines’ Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.

While a handful of marine protected areas were able to make up the lost revenue with the help of local governments (the Great Barrier Reef, in particular, received emergency funds from the Australian government) others weren't so lucky. The budget for Nusa Penida Marine Protected Area in Indonesia, which faced significant losses of tourism fees in 2020, actually suffered a 50 percent cut in government funding in order to prioritize local pandemic responses.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) most recent research into the staggering impacts of the pandemic on nature showed that Africa and Asia were the most severely affected. More than half of protected areas in Africa were forced to either halt or reduce field patrols, anti-poaching operations, and conservation education as a result of the pandemic.

In Uganda, where acute conservation efforts between 1996 and 2018 brought the mountain gorilla off the red list of critically endangered species, the substantial population increase achieved over the few decades is under threat of reversal. Because of the decrease in ecotourism during the pandemic, the main source of revenue for gorilla conservation in Uganda has all but dried up. Even worse, the loss of reliable sources of income from tourism-based jobs in surrounding communities could push locals to turn to poaching in order to make ends meet.

After an incident in Cambodia where poachers killed three giant ibises, a critically endangered bird species, the Wildlife Conservation Society revealed that there had been a sudden upsurge in poaching in the area since the pandemic began. The three birds accounted for 1 to 2 percent of the entire global population.

In late April 2020, the conservation non-profit Panthera reported that there had been an increase in wild cat poaching, especially jaguars and pumas, during that year's pandemic lockdown in Colombia. The organization feared that poachers were feeling more confident in expanding their reach into conservation areas since the lockdown had decreased patrolling and law enforcement due to layoffs.

Poaching isn’t the only factor causing rifts in nature-based tourism; according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest increased by 64 percent in April of 2020 compared to the same month in 2019. So much so that the Brazilian Armed Forces deployed 3,000 soldiers and environmental officials to help control the influx of illegal loggers who’d continued to operate during the shutdown. Activists are worried that the rampant activity could also threaten indigenous communities, who live isolated from foreign diseases.

Logging operation in Brazil
Marcio Isensee e Sa / Getty Images

The Future of Responsible Ecotourism

Now that the world has seen its implications, will the pandemic inspire the tourism industry to prioritize nature-based ecotourism in the future? The global crisis certainly allowed us an opportunity to rethink the relationship between tourism and nature, as well as how the industry impacts social and environmental resources. If travelers take the time to make more informed decisions, they have the power to drive the economic demand for legitimate and sustainable ecotourism.

Dr. Bruno Oberle, IUCN's director general, said it best in an accompanying statement to the 2021 journal release: "While the global health crisis remains a priority, this new research reveals just how severe a toll the recent pandemic has taken on conservation efforts and on communities dedicated to protecting nature. Let us not forget that only by investing in healthy nature can we provide a solid basis for our recovery from the pandemic, and avoid future public health crises." 

There are a few ways that travelers can prioritize responsible, sustainable ecotourism on future trips. Before booking, find out if the organization provides direct financial contributions or benefits to the conservation of its natural ecosystems and wildlife. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your tour company or accommodation about the steps they take to protect the local environment. Look for activities like recycling or reducing, sourcing local products instead of imported ones, encouraging sustainable practices (such as bringing reusable water bottles or using reef-safe sunscreen), and offering educational or awareness programs to teach their guests about the importance of the surrounding natural areas. Ecotourism is about using tourism as a valuable tool for conservation and economy, not as an excuse for exploiting natural resources.

Successful ecotourism employs members of the local communities but also recognizes the rights and cultural beliefs of the local people as a whole. Generating financial benefits for local people and businesses is just the tip of the iceberg; it's important for ecotourism agencies to work in partnership with locals to empower them. The pandemic was a good learning experience for many businesses that are heavily reliant on tourism revenues to maintain successful operations; going forward, there may be more emphasis placed on finding ways to foster long term sustainable benefits to host communities so that they aren’t hit so hard in the event that tourism is cut off again in the future.

Article Sources
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