At first sight, this is an odd question. Nature, wildlife, pristine natural habitats, birds, coral reefs, whales & dolphins and the charismatic mega fauna like the African “Big Five” are core tourism products. For some holidaymakers, these natural assets are at the heart of their travel motivation; they are also an essential part of the backdrop for beach and mountain holidays.
UNEP has just published Making Peace With Nature, described by UNEP as a “A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies”. They argue that we must improve our relationship with nature, understanding its value and putting that value at the heart of our decision- making” – we need to stop being at war with nature. Incredibly tourism is mentioned only five times in this 130-page report and then only in passing. In several of the references, tourism is mentioned as an economic sector threatened by the degradation of nature and the damage done to wild and natural environments by human-induced climate change.
Travelling as a tour leader, taking relatively wealthy travellers to visit some of the worlds greatest natural and cultural heritage sites in the nineteen eighties, I increasingly saw the ecotourism slogans “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” and a little later “Take only memories, leave only footprints.” Often lovingly hand-painted on the side of a shack or on a crafted sign.
Local people were paying through their governments to maintain these natural areas undeveloped to provide habitat for species, some of which are dangerous neighbours that invade crops, and protected areas are protected from people who can no longer collect firewood or forage. The local community has opportunity costs imposed upon it. The primary beneficiaries of these protected areas are the tour operators, lodge owners and guides who retail these assets to the consumers, the tourists. The local community loses out.
It is not enough to leave only footprints – tourists must leave money behind for local communities and to fund conservation. Too often, relatively wealthy tourists and eco-tourists freeload and exploit local communities and the protected areas we love to visit.
The various lockdowns and releases of people occasioned by the pandemic have left some areas without tourism. Others have experienced real pressure and degradation from day visitors unable to travel further afield as tourists. Two examples have made the local headlines in the UK. There, some areas saw a huge increase in “wild toileting”. Cash-strapped councils, which have no obligation to provide toilets, have been shutting them for years and relying on shops, pubs and cafes to fill the gap. Closed during the pandemic the shortage of public toilets in the UK was revealed. The Clifton Downs in Bristol have suffered heavy damage in the past year as hoards of visitors flock to the popular spot for fresh air and exercise during the pandemic. Walkers have churned up the grass and vans parked on grass verges have caused two drains to collapse. “The amount of trampling/wear and erosion to the ground has gone from being only in a few key places and at certain times of the year, to be in all parts of the Downs throughout the year.”
As we come out of lockdowns caused by the pandemic, we need to think about how we can impact more lightly on nature and how we can generate more revenues to support conservation. At the very least, we should expect that the fees we pay for entrance to national parks and protected areas cover more than the costs of managing us and cleaning up after us. We should expect to make a net contribution to the natural areas we love to visit and which we are in danger of loving to death. We must also learn to tread more lightly.