Crossroads blog | 28 Feb, 2023

Can tourism be nature-positive?

Wildlife tourism provides essential income to support communities and conservation in many places in the Global South, but mismanaged tourism is also a major cause of nature loss. The tourism sector must reform to protect the unique places people travel to see, and every IUCN Member has a part to play in this transformation - write Cam Do and Olivia Schlaepfer of the Yale Tropical Resources Institute, an IUCN Member organisation.

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.

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Cozumel, Mexico

Photo: Cristopher Gonzalez

Keenly aware of the need for the tourism industry to address its negative impacts while preserving its positive impacts, members of the IUCN WCPA Tourism and Protected Areas Specialist Group (TAPAS Group) set out to highlight the issue by bringing Motion 130 to the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille. With insights from decades of research, IUCN Member Instituto de Ecología Aplicada (ECOLAP) emerged to sponsor the Motion. ECOLAP works with communities and wildlife reliant on ‘nature-based tourism’ and being based in Ecuador, home to the Galapagos Islands, is all too familiar with the opportunities and challenges tourism entails.

The Motion – now Resolution 130 - received overwhelming support from IUCN Members, who voted to invest more resources and further integrate tourism into the Union’s Programme. Work is ongoing to bring the Resolution to life through new ideas, projects and networks that help ensure nature-based tourism supports conservation and communities. But organisations like ECOLAP, the TAPAS Group and a handful of environmental NGOs cannot do this on their own. Every IUCN Member has a part to play, but ultimately individual tourists and tourism businesses must ensure the unique flora and fauna people travel to see are preserved.

We call on tourism businesses to join the Nature-positive Travel & Tourism Alliance, and demand that airlines and governments reinvest profits back into habitat conservation, communities and carbon mitigation.

Progress was made at last year’s UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), when the World Travel & Tourism Council, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, and numerous travel and tourism industry ‘heavyweights’ came together to make a pact to become guardians, rather than consumers, of nature. As signatories to the Nature-positive Travel & Tourism Alliance, almost 150 businesses have committed to give more importance to biodiversity and ecosystem health in their decision making. This pact helps guarantee that companies will strive to reduce the environmental footprint of tourism operations and value chains; increase their biodiversity impact monitoring; provide more support for Indigenous rights; and promote education for travelers, partners and communities about the need for conservation. It is a monumental step for the industry and an indication that the private sector can help reimagine nature-based tourism. We call on every tourism business to make the same commitment.

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Machu Picchu, Peru

Photo: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos

Tourists must step up too and make sustainable choices that minimise our individual footprint when travelling.

Individual tourists must step up too. Importantly, as tourists we must be cognisant of our choices and select companies and destinations that are sustainable, equipped to handle the experiences we seek, and able to contribute positively to nature and local communities. When travelling, we must be aware of our individual footprint and aim to minimise it. We must ask for opportunities for ‘voluntourism’ - in which tourists participate in voluntary work - and demand that airlines and governments reinvest profits back into habitat conservation, communities and carbon mitigation. Most of all, we must hold businesses and ourselves to higher standards of sustainable use, for example by maintaining appropriate viewing distances for wildlife; even if that means our vacations are a little less extravagant and our photographs a little ‘less wild'.

Today, the opportunities for sustainable tourism are rich and diverse. Well-managed it can share cultures, connect people with biodiversity, support local economies and provide vital funding for conservation, so long as we take care of the places we visit. Guided by Resolution 130, it’s the responsibility of us all - governments, businesses and individual visitors - to make sure that we do.

The authors would like to thank Dr Yu-Fai Leung, Dr Shane Feyers, Dr Kelly Bricker and Dr Anna Spenceley for their crucial support for Resolution 130 and its implementation.

Opinions expressed in posts featured on any Crossroads or other blogs and in related comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of IUCN or a consensus of its Member organisations.

IUCN moderates comments and reserves the right to remove posts that are deemed inappropriate, commercial in nature or unrelated to blog posts.

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User name: Sandra Nickel
on Tue, 28 Feb 2023 by Sandra Nickel (not verified)

Thank you for outlining these important steps to make tourism nature-positive. These are reminders we all need to hear.

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User name: Ron Mader
on Tue, 28 Feb 2023 by Ron Mader (not verified)

Very interesting, and good to see Resolution 130. That said, I don't quite get it. Can someone explain what the resolution calls for? For example, who and how will this resolution be monitored by the IUCN and others?

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User name: Juan De Dios Morales
on Thu, 02 Mar 2023 by Juan De Dios Morales (not verified)

totally agree!

Just happen to be a very fine Line between carrying capacity, Tourism-based development and Market (Price for travelling) and democratization of Tourism. At the end, natural areas should be take care way more than a Urban monument of a City, but how to compete to that kind of cheaper that can also hold larger amount of people. Perhaps, then is when tourism should be redesigned and clients be able to pay higher prices. And, in that way find the correct income threshold.

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User name: Paul Rogers
on Tue, 07 Mar 2023 by Paul Rogers (not verified)

Hi - a very nice article, although I'm a little surprised it didn't refer directly to the Nature-Positive report recently produced by the World Travel and Tourism Council and specifically the accompanying tool-box to enable companies of all sizes to develop nature-positive action plans? While I've heard some suggest the toolbox is too challenging for businesses to engage with, I'm not convinced this is case and think we need case studies and examples to showcase the successes and challenges...

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