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For the first time in history, travel and leisure have been prohibited due to national and local border lockdowns and strict health protocols that aim to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, an all-time loss of 58% or US $610 million unrealized tourism revenue as of July 2020 was experienced worldwide – a figure which was an ocean deep lower compared to US $37 million loss of the tourism industry during the 2009 global economic crisis.
Not even the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) had the capacity and insight to predict or react to such a nightmare. Will the ecotourism industry still ever recover?
What is ecotourism?
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES, 2015), ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Furthermore, TIES added that ecotourism is about integrating conservation, communities, and sustainable travel altogether.
Consistent with the terms set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCNs) own ecotourism definition, ecotourism is “environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features—both past and present) that promotes conservation has low visitor impact and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations.”
The elements are pretty much the same except that IUCN added the past and present cultural features of an area.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), UN’s unique arm for tourism-related monitoring and guidelines development, similarly defines ecotourism containing the above components with the additional mention of tour operators or service providers being locally owned, and maintenance or preservation of natural areas through the help of informed tourists and through making it as a livelihood to local communities.
In summary, it can be inferred that ecotourism development has the following components:
- Ecology-based or nature-based tourism is usually interpreted via ecotour by a local service provider
- Responsible travel to visit natural features whereby visitors are taught to have deeper appreciation and understanding of the ecosystem and the culture visited
- A tourism segment with low social and environmental impact and has benefits for conservation
- Mobilizes local communities to protect or maintain the base product through sustainable and environment-friendly livelihood for the local people
Principles of Ecotourism
A study of the University of Utah states that there seems to be an increasing trend in demand for adventure and experiential travel such as wildlife and nature encounters as travelers seek more authentic travel experiences.
Maybe this is the reason why the past decade showed a surge of backpackers, mountaineers, spelunkers, hikers, river rafters, snorkelers, divers, and tramping enthusiasts.
Is this enough proof of ecotourism activity?
For a tourism activity to be tagged as ecotourism Weaver and Lawton (2007) suggests that it should satisfy these three criteria, i.e.:
- Attractions should be predominantly nature-based.
- Visitor interactions with those attractions should be focused on learning or education.
- Experience and product management should follow principles and practices associated with ecological, socio-cultural, and economic sustainability.
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), on the other hand, suggests that anyone who wanted to be involved in sustainable ecotourism or to do business in this unique sector of tourism should adhere to the following ecotourism principles:
- Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Generate economic benefits for both local people and private industry.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
- Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
- Recognize the Indigenous People’s rights and spiritual beliefs in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.
Costa Rica, Palau, and Galapagos Islands consistently top the best ecotourism destinations in the world. They are included in the 8 Best Ecotourism Destinations to Visit in 2020, according to Skyscanner. The rest of the 5 sites can be found in Hawai, Columbia, Panama, Bhutan, and Sahara. The common denominator among these ecotourism sites is the visitors’ positive experience resulting from their direct environmental and cultural encounters with the host communities.
For instance, Costa Rica’s forest-based ecotourism (i.e., the Tortuguero National Park and the Cahuita National Park) has been the main driver of positive social and environmental changes the community. Aside from the socio-economic benefits, ecotourism successfully changed the behavior of the local people towards their rainforests. Before the ecotourism boom, there was widespread deforestation in favor of agriculture and pasturelands. But after seeing and realizing the million-dollar potential of their old-growth forests, the value of the forest land increased more than their new land uses.
Family-run lodging houses, tour guiding activities, and handicraft making are just some of the popular community-livelihood activities in Costa Rica in place of destructive practices such as timber and wildlife poaching. Visitors also learned more about Bribri traditions and beliefs through bow and arrow demonstration, the thatch roof building demonstration, the chocolate making, cocoa farm tour, organic farm tour where their traditional food is being sourced out, and cultural lectures.
Big companies may also operate under the principles of ecotourism through their corporate social responsibility programs. For example, Island Outpost, a hotel in Jamaica, provides jobs by employing workers from nearby communities. They also partnered with the local fishermen association to restore an overfished bay area by converting it into a fish sanctuary. Island Outpost also provided educational outings such as snorkeling and glass-bottom boat tours in the bay while teaching the visitors about the hotels’ eco-friendly initiatives and programs and suggesting how the visitors can be a part of sustainable tourism.
Ecotourism vs. Mainstream tourism
The 21st century’s turn has boosted the love for sight-seeing, experiential traveling, culture, and food tourism. Urbanization and modern lifestyle drove people farther and farther away from their natural habitat. Not to mention, that the stress and pollution in the cities have gotten worse, which urged people to travel to natural areas and breathe some fresh air.
Today, we have a generation of millennials and young professionals who are financially and emotionally capable of reconnecting to natural areas that conserve local people’s diverse cultures worldwide.
No wonder international ecotourism has become one of the largest and fastest-growing industries worldwide – accounting for 10% of the world’s GDP, 7% of the global tourism market, and 1 in 10 jobs (UNWTO, 2017). In general, tourism product remains the world’s third-largest export category after chemicals and fuels, and ahead of automotive products and food. By 2024, it is projected that ecotourism will have a 5% share in the regular or mainstream tourism industry.
However, the remarkable difference between ecotourism vs. mainstream tourism needs to be established as a handful of data presentations still fail to disaggregate data between the two. Below is a brief comparison between them in terms of the base product, type of visitor, impact on the environment, and community share.
The base products for ecotourism are nature-based. It could be a beach ecosystem, a forest or mountain ecosystem, a river ecosystem, and a cultural landscape. They could be inside a protected area, a national park, a wildlife conservation reserve, a small community, a marine sanctuary, or an ancestral domain.
The base products for mainstream tourism, on the other hand, are usually man-made, such as theme parks, archeological or historic sites, museums, zoos, cultural shows that are orchestrated in stadiums, etc.
Visitors to ecotourism call themselves ‘ecotourists.’ An ecotourist stays for more than a day to know more about the culture and the different ecosystems they pay to visit. Because of their high sensitivity to the intrinsic values of ecotourism products and the natural heritage as a premium product, they are willing to pay more if the proceeds go to the conservation of an ecosystem, culture, or species. They are usually the leading advocates of ‘responsible traveling’ and could be considered as environmentalists themselves.
On the other hand, mainstream tourists are known as the mass tourists, who do not concern themselves with culture or the environment more often than not. Their primary purpose is leisure, travel, family bonding, etc. In most cases, mass tourism has caused some severe damage and degradation to the natural environment.
Ecotourism, if properly implemented, has a relatively low environmental impact and carbon footprint compared to mainstream tourism. Among the utmost ecotourism goals, the operation promotes sustainable development, which means meeting the present generation’s needs without compromising the future generation’s condition to meet their own needs. Thus, it often involves identifying the ecosystem’s carrying capacity that will be made available to the public and promoting low impact activities such as wildlife observation (e.g., bird watching, dolphin watching, whale watching, etc.). Carrying capacity will ensure sustainable management of ecotourism resources while also controlling the influx of visitors. In some ecotourism areas, they promote low mass, high tourism value to place a premium amount on the ecosystem’s carrying capacity.
Ecotourism’s infrastructures and facilities are mostly eco-friendly accommodations known as eco-lodges, with a minimum environmental footprint that physically blend with nature to preserve its surrounding ecosystem’s character.
On the other hand, mainstream tourism also promotes sustainability but in terms of resource efficiency to reduce water and energy cost. The carrying capacity indicator for mainstream tourism is more inclined to describe visitors it can accommodate rather than what the ecosystem can bear. Mainstream tourism is also commonly inclined to invest in permanent structures such as hotels and leisure infrastructures such as swimming pools, gyms, bars, etc.
In ecotourism, the leading players are the local communities. They are often the operators, the business owners, the managers, the supervisors, and the workers in the ecotourism sites with technical support from the local government. The ecotourism revenues are equitably shared among the community through organized groups such as associations, federations, and the like.
Mainstream ecotourism is mostly operated by big players and industry owners. The local communities are primarily involved as workers or employees. The financial benefit goes only to the operator/owner. The community only gets a share if the owner decides to adhere to the principle of corporate social responsibility (CSR). When the owner’s commitment is shallow, CSR initiatives turn out half-cooked and labeled as greenwashing.
Benefits from the Ecotourism Industry
The benefits of ecotourism can be summarized as follows:
- it stimulates the rural economy while providing environment-friendly livelihood options;
- it promotes the sustainable development of resources in an area;
- it heightens awareness and promotes conservation benefits that deepen the appreciation of tourists and local communities on a particular ecosystem, flora, or fauna;
- it is an effective strategy to involve local communities to preserve their natural heritage; and
- it is a powerful medium to generate support and funding to pursue conservation efforts in the ecotourism areas.
The first quarter of the year showed some grim data to the tourism industry as follows:
- 67 million fewer international tourist arrivals, which are expected to rise to 850 million to 1.1 billion fewer international tourist arrivals by the year 2020 ends;
- 80 US$ billion lost in export revenues in tourism, which is projected to increase up to US$ 910 billion to US$ 1.2 trillion loss by the year 2020 ends;
- 100% destinations with travel restrictions; and
- 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk
- By regions, Asia and the Pacific, the first region to suffer the impact of COVID-19, saw a 35% decrease in arrivals in Q1 2020. The second-hardest hit was Europe with a 19% decline, followed by the Americas (-15%), Africa (-12%), and the Middle East (-11%).
According to Rawlins, M. (2020), a Natural Resource Management Specialist, “As more people become unemployed due to the fallout of COVID-19, they are more likely to turn to illegal activities to supplement incomes, such as illegal wildlife trafficking and logging, and clearing forests for agriculture”.
This is especially true for developing countries. Due to extended lockdowns, the deprivation of livelihood has pushed the people to clear the mountains, plant agricultural or cash crops, or tend livestock (if not poaching) that would quickly provide them food on the table. Suppose governments do not continue to provide subsidies or alternative livelihoods. In that case, the pressure might become so high it would be too late for these natural assets to be used once again in ecotourism activities.
In 2019, the UNWTO projected an increase of 4% tourists arrivals globally or around 1.5 billion tourists by 2020. And this was all gone in the blink of an eye. Unemployment rates soared high that the majority of the population was left in confusion.
But Rawlins (2020) and the World Bank are optimistic about the ecotourism industry, saying that it can be a post-COVID’s strategy. For them, ecotourism products’ viability after all these crazy lockdowns is very high and could revive the economy.
Why? Because after this pandemic, people will be excited to go to the nearest beach or hike the nearest mountain – as if it would be their first time.
Scenic view of nature, after its long rest, would be like newly explored destinations.
Like the natural fluctuating patterns of the fish population, it is almost possible that the ecotourism industry would rebound from the brink of loss to its once height of golden age.
Destinations worldwide are gradually opening and easing the travel restrictions they placed in response to COVID-19. From 3% in June, it is already up by 40% as of the end of July. This includes 20 countries in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) which heavily depend on tourism in terms of employment, economic growth, and development, and 41 countries in Europe.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is very positive that domestic tourism, which accounts for around 75% of the tourism economy in OECD countries, will recover quickly after this pandemic.
This is good news for many considering that tourism is regarded as the top export sector and employment creator.
Each of the billion tourists worldwide will, at the minimum, spend money on transportation, food, and accommodation that will pump the economy of nations relying on the tourism sector.
This remarkably high relevance of tourism to the economy pushes UNWTO and many national governments to revive the said industry as soon as possible. But this time, they want to reopen the trade under the principle of Building Back Better with sustainability as the main anchor for restarting.
The UNWTO prepared Global Guidelines to Restart Tourism that prioritizes the 3 pillars of sustainability (i.e., people, planet, and prosperity) encapsulated within the plan of action under “One Planet Vision for the Responsible Recovery of the Tourism Sector.” Among the areas of focus in the program include:
- public health,
- social inclusion,
- biodiversity conservation,
- climate action,
- circular economy, and
- governance and partnerships.
For the full text of the document, you may download it here.
UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili is confident that “The restart of tourism can be undertaken responsibly and in a way that safeguards public health while also supporting businesses and livelihoods.”
The ecotourism sector has proven itself a resilient industry after the 2009 economic crisis. From a US$37million loss in 2009, it was able to recuperate and surpassed 2008, US$930 million in revenue. It bounced back to US$952 million in 2010 and since then increased at an unprecedented rate.
How can this segment of tourism recover after the coronavirus? Below are some of the thoughts that could help the industry to rebound back to its original status:
- Accreditation of ecotourism areas that follow the health protocols – the “One Planet Vision for the Responsible Recovery of the Tourism Sector” stipulates very detailed health protocols for visitors, tour operators, and accommodation owners’ facilities before, during, and after the travel experience of each visitor. Host communities that have been consistently following these protocols should be accredited by relevant government agencies to bring back the public’s confidence in traveling.
- Promote resource efficiency in ecotourism establishments – economic sustainability requires resource efficiency to be profitable. One way to do this is by sourcing out locally grown or indigenous materials that will replace products with high logistical costs. This would not only help reduce its value, but it would also boost the morale of local growers and local producers. Ecotourism establishments may also consider gradual shifting to renewable energy such as solar-powered lights or water pumping or heating system to reduce operational costs and be competitive globally. It enhances the business’s image and reputation as an ecotourism service provider.
- Strengthen inclusive development – involve the local community in the reopening of the sites. Brief them on their responsibility of ensuring that health and safety protocols are met. Provide comprehensive training on health aspects, product development, and motivational talks to re-kindle the entrepreneurial spirit. Empower them to start small businesses again by providing access to material support or monetary funding. And lastly, mobilize them to rehabilitate ecotourism facilities or natural assets that had been compromised during the pandemic.
- Lobby tax subsidies or deduction from the government could be through VAT deduction in entry fees, food, and accommodation establishments. For example, Ecuador has approved a six months VAT payment deferral as well as 2019 income tax for small companies, airlines, accommodation, and food businesses due to the pandemic. Other examples of fiscal subsidies in different countries can be found on pages 9-10 of this document.
- Gather primary or secondary baselines to measure existing socio-economic and environmental status during the pandemic – the data will be instrumental in tracking the progress and impact of ecotourism after the pandemic. The data can also be integrated into local tour guides’ spiels to bring light to the community’s stories during the pandemic and how they have recovered.
- Strengthen collaboration among local sectors on health, transportation, communication, tour operators, and other stakeholders – local stakeholders should work on the primary goal of bringing back the confidence of the public to travel safely. There is nothing more frustrating as a traveler than to find that the transport sector is not attuned with the area’s health protocol or that the tour guides and the accommodation facilities have long queues of crowded guests. Proactive communication, collaboration, and visitor management are essential activities to implement to ensure that health will not be compromised over the income that is being desired by all stakeholders.
So, How Do We Sustain Ecotourism After COVID-19?
Ecotourism is a tourism industry niche that has a significant contribution to the economy, environment, and overall well being of the local people and the tourists themselves.
It conserves the ground, has direct financial benefits to the host community, and even economic benefits for the conservation of threatened species, thereby encompassing most of the sustainable development goals.
We must believe that the coronavirus has temporarily paralyzed the industry and optimistic that all these things will soon get back to normal. I’ll wait for you here at the white sandy beach of Palawan.