The pandemic overthrew a thriving ecotourism industry. Now, some see the sector is regrouping to make a comeback. Can it return, stronger and more sustainable?

Of Africa’s approximately 400,000 savannah elephants, about a third live in Botswana. The country is usually described as an African success story, where ecotourism and nature and wildlife conservation are important components. In 2019, tourism accounted for 14 percent of Botswana’s GDP and it continued to grow steadily.

Robert Taylor is an ecologist at the award-winning tour operator Wilderness Safaris, with over 2,000 employees in seven countries. According to him, it was tourist dollars that had made it possible to keep elephant herds and other endangered animals alive in countries like Botswana.

But the revenue curves turned sharply downwards in the spring of 2020. Well-to-do tourists have been replaced by local and South African travelers during the pandemic. For Wilderness Safaris’ local employees, this has meant that they have been allowed to keep their jobs, but at lower salaries.

Elsewhere, the money has not been enough. Many Botswanans who were employed in the tourism sector have returned to their home villages. Although international aid shipments have helped a lot, it is not a long-term solution, says Robert Taylor.

“Most households here are directly or indirectly dependent on international tourism. Suffering and hunger persist while we wait for tourism to recover,” he says.

Robert Taylor, Wilderness Safaris. Wilderness Safaris is an acclaimed ecotourism operator that offers high-end African safari experiences, with 40 luxury camps in 7 countries.

Since covid-19 put a stop to global travel, there are reports of increased poaching of endangered animals in Africa and Asia. According to the WWF, many people are now surviving in several African countries by hunting “bushmeat” in the forests. In the national parks of India and Nepal, park rangers now find a much larger number of snares – which catch everything in their path, including endangered tigers and leopards.

Quality over quantity

Costa Rica is considered one of the pioneering countries in ecotourism. To date, the country has set aside over a quarter of its territory for protected areas, while neighboring Nicaragua and Panama have followed in the same footsteps. One of Costa Rica’s most famous sustainability profiles, Glenn Jampol, co-founded the GEN (Global Ecotourism Network) and today operates the Finca Rosa Blanca facility, with its organic coffee plantation, outside the capital San José.

Previously, Finca Rosa Blanca was almost always fully booked. Now the occupancy is around a quarter, with mostly domestic tourists not being able to pay the same prices as foreign visitors.

Glenn Jampol still sees life positively. He is convinced that ecotourism and sustainability will become even more important for travelers “post covid.”

“In recent years, we have seen that a new movement is emerging, even in countries like China,” says Glenn Jampol, who continues:

“This new movement seeks quality over quantity and appreciates personality and sustainability. And they are willing to pay for it.”

Since the early 90s, Costa Rica has been recognized as the definitive ecotourism definition, with visitors drawn to its extensive national parks and protected areas and low-impact activities. But along with its successes, examples of overtourism and an excess focus on profit maximization have put the sustainability of the model to question. [Photo: Alvaro Cubero]

More people visit national parks

The same pattern can be seen in Australia, another country that is big in ecotourism. Tony Charters runs a consulting company focused on sustainable travel, and has been in charge of the organization Ecotourism Australia. There is already a sharp increase in group walks in Queensland’s national parks, says Tony Charters:

“The pandemic seems to have triggered an increased willingness to stick together.”

A concept that is heard more and more often is “regenerative tourism,” where people not only want to travel more sustainably, but also to give back to the places they visit.

However, Tony Charters predicts that it will to some extent be “business as usual” after the pandemic, as so many in the travel industry must quickly get back on their feet:

“But in the long run, I believe that ecotourism will recover and increase further.”

Go one step further

That picture is shared by Christina Beckmann, vice president of the global network ATTA (Adventure Travel Trade Association). She lives in San Francisco and works in Santa Fe, and has seen the devastating effects of the pandemic up close. Safety, she believes, will be a crucial factor for travelers “post-covid.”

“We are already seeing an increase in nature-based travel in small groups,” she says.

At the same time, Christina Beckmann believes the industry must continue to develop. The climate impact of air travel is an important part of that work. She herself is a co-founder of the Tomorrow’s Air network, with the goal of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, corresponding to what the trips cause. Today, travel companies and travelers are already offered to buy ready-made CCS packages (Carbon Capture and Storage) via Tomorrow’s Air, in collaboration with the Swiss research company Climeworks.

“We must stop preaching and instead offer our travelers solutions,” says Christina Beckmann.


Photos: Roger Borgelid

Johan Augustin
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