Dec 24 2020

COVID-19 has meant fewer visitors to environments like rainforests, and gives us a chance to rethink ecotourism for the better.  

Bio-diverse rainforests, colorful and sprawling barrier reefs, national parks with sweeping forests – the places that typically play home to ecotourism are broad and far reaching but they all have something in common – they offer us much more than a photo opportunity. They give travelers the chance to immerse themselves in some of the most abundant environments on earth.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” In other words, ecotourism means conscientiously partaking in a culture, and coming away from the experience not just moved by the sublime beauty of a place, but more knowledgeable and more caring of the planet long term – hopefully inspiring us to do more to save it.

By helping to monetize natural habitats, ecotourism can also help to incentivize the protection of these important regions from deforestation and degradation, which often has a positive impact on the climate. However, a combination of wildfires and a halt on global travel due to COVID-19 has left these habitats at risk, as well as the people that depend on them for their livelihoods. 

The effects of COVID-19

“Ecotourism means you’re able to benefit off the protection of natural resources rather than the exploitation of them, and it should also provide jobs to local communities”, explains Peter Houlihan, Technical Lead of Prize Operations on XPRIZE Rainforest. 

Yet, over the course of 2020, he points out, the ecotourism industry has been badly affected by the pandemic. Places like Tanzania or Costa Rica, he says, where ecotourism infrastructure has massively advanced over the last ten years– they have almost entirely closed for business. From the Galápagos Islands to the Masai plains, tourism excursions across the world have been cancelled, and as reported by Forbes, it was estimated by the UN in August that the tourism industry as a whole could suffer $1 trillion losses in 2020, with over 100 million jobs at risk. 

A report in The Guardian published in May detailed some of the more specific effects of this on the ecotourism industry. Conservation projects funded by visitor income are put at risk of closure, or are able to employ fewer staff. Meanwhile, in places from Colombia to The Democratic Republic of Congo, an uptick in poaching was reported, attributed to less staffing to protect wild animals, as well a lack of other revenue streams for some local communities. 

Dickson Kaelo, chief executive officer at Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, said: “Poaching for bushmeat already existed on a small scale even before the coronavirus outbreak. With more Kenyans out of work, bushmeat will be more appealing than meat sold by the licensed butcher. If the rangers have no salaries, how will they effectively monitor human activities in and out of the conservancies?”

Elsewhere, in Malaysia, travel agencies reported a 90% decrease in bookings compared to last year. As one report on Earth Journalism explains, The Lower Kinabatangan area in eastern Sabah, Malaysia, Asia’s last forested alluvial plain, is a rich biodiverse habitat that was saved from becoming oil palm plantations partly due to the value of ecotourism. Yet local experts now worry about its future in lieu of ecotourism income. 

“I know that in the absence of ecotourism and the absence of funding for park rangers, many areas have been hit extremely hard, so I am really hoping that areas that have been negatively impacted through illegal deforestation and poaching are going to be able to rebound with strategic long term plans for the future,” says Houlihan.

Big, sustainable changes

Houlihan believes that ecotourism may not pick back up until the end of 2021, with people feeling more comfortable with international travel once vaccines have been rolled out, and when that happens, he adds, we have a big opportunity to do things better. Ecotourism must return in “the most sustainable way possible, with the lowest impact and energy usage, so as not to negatively impact the environment... while local people need to be in mind.” 

How do we do this? Well, if the majority of biodiversity on planet earth is on indigenous lands and indigenous people have always been stewards of these tropical environments, they need to be part of the business – shareholders or partners in these ventures, rather than just beneficiaries down the line. “They need to be integral in the business model. This is a path forward for success in ecotourism, and what I hope to see more of,” urges Houlihan. 

We also cannot ignore the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in a tropical rainforest. It emerged because of the opening up of tropical rainforests through deforestation and degradation, which in turn increased access of human populations for wildlife trafficking and markets, he explains. So ultimately, if we can be more successful in monitoring ecotourism practices, that’s one way to mitigate viruses and protect rainforests. “It will protect us as humanity against releasing pandemics, pathogens, and tropical infectious diseases into our population,” he says. 

Perhaps one final lesson of this year, explains Houlihan, is how reliant these areas are on foreign visitors, and what we can learn from this that we need to look at reducing this dependency on international travelers. 

Indeed, in Kinabatangan in Malaysia, campaigns and promotions are targeting Malaysians

Similarly, in April 2020, Kenya’s tourism minister, Najib Balala, called for moves towards cultivating a domestic and pan-African market. “It is no longer about waiting for international visitors to come in. If we start now, in five years we will be resilient [in the face of] any shocks whatsoever, even travel advisories imposed by the western countries.”

“If there’s a way to safeguard against future pandemics, it is to provide more travel opportunities for nationals of countries wherever these ecosystems occur, or subsidize their incomes through national education programs as a way to provide a safe baseline of revenue,” concludes Houlihan. 

Playing our part 

When ecotourism does open up again, there are things we can all do to ensure that we are playing our part in making these practices more sustainable. We can fly less and take alternative forms of transportation where possible. We can stay in greener accommodations. We can boycott petting or riding animals to improve animal welfare. All of this means taking an active role in the responsible opening of these areas, and the shoring up of their futures. We can travel to lesser-known places as well as the popular tourist spots that will perhaps once again become overrun, in order to spread out footfall and distribute wealth. Where possible, we can spend more than usual to support local economies that have been hit hard by the virus. 

At XPRIZE, we believe that the long term health of ecotourism environments relies on conserving these areas, and to do that, we need to gather more information about them. The $10M XPRIZE Rainforest is a five-year competition to enhance our understanding of rainforest ecosystems. 

“The XPRIZE Rainforest will revolutionize our understanding of the planet’s most diverse and complex ecosystems, rapidly and remotely quantifying their intrinsic value in unprecedented detail, in a time that has never been more urgent for conservation,” Houlihan has said

By revealing the true potential of the earth’s rainforests, we can accelerate the development of new bioeconomies. We can measure these place’s exponential value and so, even when ecotourism returns, we can prove just how important they are when it comes to the future of the planet.