Much attention, although not enough, has rightly been focused on COP26 in November. But, in October, COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity is taking place in Kunming, China. The tourism industry has paid little attention to this, and yet our planet’s biodiversity, its wealth of plants and animals and the communities they form and habitats they live in, is fundamental to much of our product. It is in the interest of the travel and tourism sector, as Sir Colin Marshall, then Chair of British Airways, said at the launch of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards in 1994, whether it “is a coastline, a city, a mountain range or a rainforest. These “products” must be kept fresh and unsullied not just for the next day, but for every tomorrow.”
I have long been sceptical about the claims made for ecotourism by the specialist tour operators. The ecotours use the same planes, vehicles, and accommodation as the mainstream operators, with a few exceptions. Tour leading in Africa and Asia in the nineteen-eighties and nineties I saw the ecotourism slogan “leave only footprints, take only photographs”, no acknowledgement that the charismatic megafauna was there because the local communities had foregone development. I was acutely aware of the irony that wealthy tourists were travelling to undeveloped parts of the world to see the Big 5 and other dangerous species we had long ago hunted out in most of the developed world. We do not pay enough to see the wildlife we do not want to live with.
Research I directed over three years at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology sought to find those examples of ecotourism in Gonarezhou (Zimbabwe), Keoladeo (India) and Komodo (Indonesia). Ecotourism can easily be found in brochures and tour operators’ websites, but it is not easy to find examples in national parks. Our research showed that with entry fees for national parks set low as merit goods, the taxpayers were generally subsidising the tourists from wealthier countries, and the profits went to the accommodation providers and tour operators.
There are some excellent examples of protected areas that have won Responsible Tourism Awards because they are able to demonstrate that revenues from tourism make a significant contribution to the conservation of species, Ol Pejeta, and habitat, Grootbos. There are more examples of businesses, which like Dyer Island Cruises, have solid evidence of their positive conservation impact.
Our industry needs to think hard about how it can make a more adequate, positive, financial contribution to the costs of conservation and the opportunity costs borne by the communities who live with the wildlife we like to see for the landrover or jeep while we are on holiday. Crocodiles are reckoned to kill 1,000 people a year, hippos and elephants 500 each – humans kill 437,000, but the mosquitoes kill 750,000. Then there is crop damage and the loss of access to bushmeat, thatching, grazing and new land to grow crops on. But we think that it is acceptable to leave only footprints. Really? Should we be freeloading like this?
Tourism businesses are being asked to join the journey towards the new global goal for nature (the equivalent of net-zero for carbon), which is to be nature positive by 2030. The UK’s Council for Sustainable Business has created a Nature Handbook for Business, where you can read 25 key actions that the travel industry can take and sign up for the journey to nature positive 2030.
The UN has set out a Paris-style plan to cut the species extinction rate by a factor of 10. The text is to be agreed in Kunming at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), COP 15 in October. Goals for the middle of the century include reducing the current rate of extinctions by 90%, enhancing the integrity of all ecosystems, valuing nature’s contribution to humanity and providing the financial resources to achieve the vision. more