COVID-19 impacts on tourism detrimental to biodiversity conservation
In a tourist-free world, decision-makers need to critically reconsider the potential of ecotourism as a financing mechanism for conservation.
Since the discovery of the COVID-19 virus in December 2019 in Wuhan (Hubei province, China), case numbers keep increasing globally. In the meantime, quarantine, social distancing, and border closing measures taken by governments across the globe to halt the spread of the virus have pushed the world into an economic crisis far worse that of 2008. Arguments put forward to explain the transmission of the virus from animals to humans include the global wildlife trade, factory farming, and the ever-increasing degradation of ecosystems.
In the wake of the crisis, tourism has been one of the hardest-hit sectors. Earlier this year, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimated that global visitations in 2020 could drop by 60-80% due to the pandemic, hence threatening millions of jobs in one of the most labor-intensive industry. The impacts of COVID-19, however, aren’t just being felt in the tourism industry and among its workers, but importantly in the field of biodiversity conservation as well.
Over the past decades, conservation programs have indeed come to rely more and more on financing from the tourism industry through ecotourism strategies. Ecotourism, ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’, is increasingly being developed around the world in order to generate revenues for conservation programs funding, not least in marine and coastal areas. While often promoted as a win-win solution for the environment and local development by its advocates, the extent of the impacts – both positive and negative – of ecotourism for communities needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Ecotourism uses financial incentives in the form of payments for ecosystem services to achieve conservation objectives. Building on a neoclassical economics understanding of human motivation, economic incentives for conservation are expected to strengthen people’s intrinsic motivation to conserve ecosystems (‘motivation crowding-in’). However, studies point to situations where extrinsic motivation driven by economic incentives contrarywise erodes people’s preexisting intrinsic motivation to conserve biodiversity (‘motivation crowding-out’). And this all the more once the economic incentive comes to fall out.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the tourism sector, this raises crucial questions as to the feasibility of achieving the conservation objectives of many initiatives based on ecotourism revenues, initiatives which can only be viable in a stable global economy where travel is not restricted. In addition, ecotourism is often promoted as an alternative livelihood strategy aimed at reducing human pressures on the environment from other activities, particularly within or around marine protected areas – such as in the Banc d’Arguin National Park (Mauritania), along the coast of Benin, or in Senegal. When the ecotourism tap comes to dry out, however, the most vulnerable people are faced with increased socioeconomic risk. The strong dependency of local conservation projects to increasingly instable global markets therefore calls for new innovative initiatives that move beyond the sole use of market-based instruments.
Header picture: Sunset on Banana Islands, Sierra Leone
(Olivia Rempel, GRID-Arendal)