Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought tourism to a halt, queues to see the world’s most beautiful, natural wonders have disappeared. Gone are the clicking sounds of photos being snapped of wildlife through big lens cameras. On many island destinations like Hawaii and Fiji, beaches have been devoid of tourists due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
This is beneficial for the recovery of the environment in the short term, but a catastrophe for national and local economies, communities, and the small and medium enterprises that depend upon nature-based tourism (NBT) for their survival. In fact, in the long term, if tourism does not recover, it will disincentivize communities from promoting natural resource management.
Across Africa, wildlife is the single biggest driver for NBT and much of the tourism takes place in protected areas. A study found that Africa’s 8,400 protected areas generated $48 billion in direct in-country expenditures. These revenues are a key source of financing protected area systems, and as they dry up—taking income, jobs and safety nets for local communities with them— threats to nature such as poaching and logging increase, degrading the very asset on which NBT is built.
For example, Maasai Mara Community Conservancies in Kenya used to receive $7.5 million per year in lease fees from tourism partners, which benefited 14,500 landowners and 116,000 community members. Without these payments, local landowners have fewer incentives to support conservation. Uganda Wildlife Authority generated 88% of its revenues from tourism and South African National Parks (SANParks) depended on tourism for 84% of their revenues. In Indonesia, the loss of tourism revenues of up to $6 billion has reduced support for parks and has impacted small businesses that rely on tourists.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo closed to protect its endangered gorillas from the possible and unknown effects of COVID-19. This required cancelling 100% of their bookings and not taking new reservations, the financial effects of which have been devastating on cash flow for the park to protect the gorillas, provide support to rangers and the families of rangers who have been killed in the line of duty, and to help deliver essential disease prevention services.