Getting priorities right for tourism and protected areas

The 2019 World Protected Areas Leaders’ Forum (WPALF) was convened by Parks Victoria in Melbourne and the Wilson’s Promontory National Park from 25-29 March, with a focus on the role of tourism in protected and conserved areas.

Delegates take a walk along the pristine beaches of Wilson's Promontory

Protected Area agency leaders met for the 11th time, in Victoria, Australia for this meeting that examined the multiple considerations involved in managing tourism in protected areas. Representatives from countries, including Canada, Czechia, South Africa, Israel, Korea, New Zealand and a strong contingent from the many parks agencies across Australia, were present. The WPALF offers an opportunity for CEOs to consider key strategic issues affecting protected areas, enabling frank and critical examination of issues, and a consideration of future options.

This time, the essence of the debate revolved around the role of tourism, and especially, the trend developing over several years for tourism to become a dominant activity in protected areas, requiring extensive attention of management and field staff. Some doubts were cast on whether it remains true to its envisioned purpose, or whether the “tail is wagging the dog”. Most protected areas agencies fully embrace sustainable tourism as a valid activity that helps to build a constituency for nature conservation, creates opportunities for a tourism-based economy and employment across the industry as well as at the local level. But there were concerns that the promise of tourism for protected areas and nature conservation more generally could be lost when experiences start to involve large numbers of people, which place pressure on sites and systems to manage visitors, and which don’t necessarily result in a meaningful relationship with nature, support for conservation or in the worst case, actually degrade or damage the resource.

The meeting heard fascinating and rich accounts of how protected area agencies deal with high visitor volumes, including an array of planning and zonation mechanisms, systems to disperse visitors in space and time using sophisticated monitoring and communication technologies, as well as risk management and other mechanisms to ensure visitor safety and to ensure investment and maintenance of the essential assets. Fortunately, all of these mechanisms work very well when applied by capable managers, and this was reflected from all over the world by the WPALF leaders.

Some takeaway messages of interest were:

  • Visitation to protected areas had the opportunity to be a very important mechanism to celebrate the coexistence of culture and nature in destinations and to leave visitors with an indelible impression of the value of nature for peoples’ lives, experiences, understanding and support;
  • Tourism can also contribute financially to the cost of establishing and managing protected areas, and make an important economic contribution more broadly, especially in diverse rural situations and involving communities and other stakeholders in the activity;
  • But an exclusive focus on high visitor numbers and commercial opportunities can drive planners and managers towards situations in which a large proportion of time and resources are dedicated to simply managing the situation, rather than on supporting the essential foundation which is nature itself. The conservation message can be lost in the process;
  • As an alternative, a stronger legal and institutional framework involving the nature conservation agencies, the tourism authorities and the tourism industry itself can yield a more coherent and coordinated approach to beneficiating the resources and result in win-win outcomes for nature and for the economy.
  • An appropriate use of information technology, social media and communications can drive more appropriate visitor behaviour and enlist visitors, especially those based in cities, to a better appreciate and use of these resources.

The WPALF ended on a high note with a visit to the Wilson’s Promontory National Park on the southern tip of mainland Australia, where very constrained access to the site and high visitor numbers brought into focus the multiple planning, regulatory and management measures that can successfully bridge these complex considerations.

Watch the WPALF 2019 video

Opinion by Trevor Sandwith, Director of IUCN's Global Protected Areas Programme.

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