The COVID-19 pandemic drove the global tourism industry to a grinding halt. With would-be travelers stuck at home, many tourist destinations were left deserted. In the Global North, news articles and social media posts led us to believe that wildlife had flourished during our absence. The phrase ‘nature is healing’ became a popular refrain, following reports of decreased pollution and unanticipated animal sightings in urban areas.
But was nature really healing? In reality, the decline in global travel decimated essential income for many protected areas, where biodiversity and local communities need it most. The sudden drop in tourism led to job losses and food insecurity, forcing households to return to wildlife and natural resources to survive. Poaching surged in some places in the Global South.
Before the pandemic, wildlife tourism had been steadily increasing. A 2019 study found that it had grown to have a direct economic value of USD 120 billion annually, providing over USD 344 billion of wider economic benefits and supporting 21.8 million jobs worldwide. With more visitors came more funding; with greater funding, better protection. For example, in the Philippines, Kenya and Zambia, over half of funding for protected areas comes from visitors. In Botswana, it’s more than 80%.
Mismanaged wildlife tourism can do more harm than good. Long before the pandemic, construction of infrastructure for tourists was a major cause of habitat loss.
However, research also shows that mismanaged wildlife tourism can do more harm than good. Long before the pandemic, the construction of large and luxurious accommodation, roads and other infrastructure for tourists was a major cause of habitat fragmentation and loss in popular destinations. Single-use disposables worsened plastic pollution problems. Greenhouse gas emissions from travel intensified climate change, and demand for extravagant food, hot showers and uninterrupted battery charging over-exploited local energy resources in remote areas.