Angeli Mehta reports on the delicate balancing act required to channel funds from the multi-billion dollar industry into protecting nature, rather than destroying it

You might have thought that when the pandemic brought tourism to a sudden halt, it would have been good for nature. Some areas overrun by tourists fell quiet, and animals roamed more widely, while trampled flora began to recover. But the impact on species and ecosystems wasn’t all positive.

“What we saw very clearly, when tourism had evaporated, was that people really started to wake up to how important the sector was,” suggests Anna Spenceley, an independent researcher and chair of a specialist working group on protected areas for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“Conservationists realised: hang on … communities are no longer getting any benefit from (tourism). And now they're going to start hunting whatever we have tried to protect in our conservation area, because they've got no money coming in,” says Spenceley.

Coming out of the pandemic, conservation groups, governments and some tour operators  are trying to promote a more sustainable approach to tourism, reframing relationships with nature to encourage biodiversity rather than degrade it. And surveys suggest travellers do want to take a more sustainable approach.

Alternatively, governments will need to decide to leave those areas alone completely, keep them isolated and keep people out of them

But it’s a delicate balancing act. Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, acknowledges that “tourism can be both one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss, or a vehicle for biodiversity conservation. And it all comes down to the policies in place from governments, and the approaches that the tourism operators, and the tourists themselves take.” 

There is plenty of guidance for those multiple actors, from a framework drawn up by the Convention on Biological Diversity, guidelines from the IUCN, and criteria developed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. The latter sets out minimum requirements for both governments and tourism businesses to sustain natural resources. A hotel industry grouping, the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, has an environmental action planner covering biodiversity impacts such as chemicals use or informing guests about the local environment.

Getting the balance right is even more important as we stand on the threshold of tipping points that will see irreversible loss of biodiversity. Negotiations on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework centre on getting agreement to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030. Previous targets have come and gone, unmet over the years, and the so-called 30x30 is a last-ditch attempt to stop the rot. But time is tight. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity summit (COP15), which it is hoped will agree the framework, was originally meant to take place in China in 2020. But it’s been delayed repeatedly owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and now will not go ahead until December, moving instead to Montreal, Canada.

Tourist boats surround a pod of resting sperm whales off the coast of southern Sri Lanka.(Credit: David Loh/Reuter)

Is tourism compatible with the 30x30 vision? It’s certainly possible that having an expanded range of protected areas might help disperse tourism away from some of the most crowded places on the planet to others that are overlooked. However, tourism might not be compatible with all forms of protected areas, such as strict nature reserves or wilderness areas, says Spenceley.

That will mean funding for conservation will have to be found from other quarters such as debt for nature swaps (where a portion of developing nations’ debt is forgiven in exchange for local environmental or conservation measures), or state funds, or philanthropy.

Alternatively, she adds, “governments will need to decide to leave those areas alone completely, keep them isolated and keep people out of them, which also is a good option in many circumstances”.

Tens of thousands of tourists go to see these natural wonders, and so the profits of these companies are directly related to biodiversity and to nature

So far, tourism has been raised in the negotiations only in terms of closing the multi-billion funding gap for biodiversity that exists, because of a lack of government finance.  Where and how big a role the tourism sector will play won’t be addressed until countries formulate national biodiversity and finance plans after the COP 15 biodiversity conference.

But researchers who looked at the economic implications of the proposed 30% target found that such conservation efforts can lead to tangible economic gains. In the nature sector, much of the anticipated growth in revenues comes from an increase in nature tourism. For example, wildlife watching in Africa is expected to drive expansion of the continent’s tourism.

Nature tourism is already a huge contributor to global GDP, but the IUCN has found that while global protected areas generated over $600 billion in income in 2015, just 2% of that sum was invested in preserving them.

A Thai wildlife department officer stands guard at Maya Bay in Thailand to prevent overtourism. (Credit: Jorge Silva/Reuters)

“Tens of thousands of tourists go to see these natural wonders, and so the profits of these companies (that take the tourists) are directly related to biodiversity and to nature. But you don't see a reinvestment from those companies into maintaining, sustaining and conserving that nature,” says O’Donnell.  “You can look at that as extractive tourism where we are taking from the reef, taking from the glaciers or the inlets in order to make a profit, but what is the reciprocal relationship to ensure that those places endure?”

One example is the previously unspoilt setting for the film “The Beach”, which catapulted Maya Bay on the Thai island of Phi Phi Leh into a tourist destination. Those visitors generated some £9.5 million in revenues, but coral reefs were destroyed, reef sharks disappeared from their nursery waters and rubbish piled up. So Thai authorities closed the bay to visitors in 2016, reopening earlier this year with strict rules and limits on visitor numbers.

Governments could look at entrance fees to park and cruise ship and lodging taxes – already used in different destinations. But the income those measures generate needs to stay in the locality, says O’Donnell, so communities see the benefit and the money can be used to manage the environment and safeguard the very ecosystems that visitors have come to enjoy.

I don't think there are good standards yet, for the tourist industry investing with, in and through local communities

Some countries in Africa, such as Kenya and Namibia, have taken a conservancy-based approach, where responsibilities are devolved to local communities who have intimate knowledge of the land.

Take the Northern Rangelands Trust, a grouping of 43 conservancies covering 11% of Kenya’s arid landscape. Opportunities for commerce are limited, and a changing climate means it’s challenging to make a living from livestock farming. But tourism, here centred on wildlife, brings job opportunities within the accommodation and facilities, says Ian Craig, director of conservation and founder of the trust. “That raises awareness of the value of wildlife within a local community that may have lived with wildlife forever, but had never seen any financial or economic incentive to protect it.”

Now there are community-run sanctuaries for endangered species such as black rhino; degraded land is being restored and mangroves planted in coastal areas. 

A member of the Northern Rangelands Trust and ranger harvest mangrove seeds in Kenya. (Credit: Vivian Jebet/NRT)

But one critical aspect of the trust’s work is “bringing communities into coordinated forums to enable investment”, says Craig. “I don't think there are good standards yet, for the tourist industry investing with, in (and) through local communities.”

Understandably, operators want to maximise profits, but multiple layers of costings and payments can be opaque. “There are good and bad and there are different standards,” says Craig. “But the narrative that this is a community project, so they’re the people making the money … they might be, but there’s no transparency on how the money flows”.

There are a raft of guidelines and examples of best practice in supporting livelihoods, but these don’t necessarily tackle inequities in wealth distribution head on.  As the industry recovers from the pandemic, the Future of Tourism Coalition has set out a series of guiding principles including a call for policies that counter unequal tourism benefits within destinations and maximise retention of revenues for communities there. Operators should “take a holistic view of sustainability and conservation, which includes the social and economic wellbeing of the local community,” says Gregory Miller, executive director of the U.S.-based Center for Responsible Travel and one of the coalition’s founders. It’s about “really looking at what it takes to be a good destination steward”.

It’s very important that responsible travel companies know where the responsible operations are, and are not. We shoud be demanding that every operation is transparent

He acknowledges that often communities have no leverage, so “it’s very important that the responsible traveller, and responsible travel companies, know where the responsible operations are, and are not. ... We should be demanding that every operation is transparent, and that they understand that people are looking at them for their footprint and their impacts.” Attitudes are starting to change, but it needs to be amplified, he adds.

In another forum, the 500-plus signatories to the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism this decade have committed to restore and protect ecosystems, including safeguarding biodiversity. They’ve also undertaken to support the communities at risk from climate change through adaptation measures and building resilience. Indeed, some of the most biodiverse regions – often those most attractive to tourists – are found in areas of the planet that are themselves particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

It’s an impact travel may only exacerbate through ballooning emissions from aircraft. Squaring that circle is the challenge for the tourism industry.

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.

Main picture credit: Radu Sigheti/Reuters
International Union for Conservation of Nature  Northern Rangelands Trust  tourism  overtourism  ecotourisn  COP15  30x30 agenda  Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism 

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