Why We Need to Save Ecotourism in a Post-Pandemic World

Date Published
August 25, 2020
Protected areas for primates, including those for orangutans in Borneo, were closed to visitors early in the pandemic to prevent the virus from being passed on to them by humans. Photo credit: iStock/USO.

Ecotourism has become an important contributor to local and national economies, providing income to rural communities while helping to preserve natural resources and cultural heritage.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis however has disrupted lives and livelihoods worldwide and has limited travel within and across borders. It has badly hit the tourism industry, including ecotourism.

Source of conservation funding

The loss of revenue from ecotourism is a major concern as it affects efforts to conserve and protect ecosystems and their rich biodiversity, said Theresa Mundita Lim, executive director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity.

Ecotourism funds the maintenance of protected areas, which includes law enforcement. With lack of enforcement, poaching and other illegal activities may increase especially if communities that rely on ecotourism do not have other income.

Speaking at a webinar on ecotourism opportunities in July, Lim suggested that ecotourism be covered by economic stimulus programs. Communities need immediate support to “relieve mounting pressure on ecosystems, such as poaching, overfishing, and illegal logging.”

Among the protected areas affected early in the pandemic are for primates, including the orangutans in the Indonesia part of Borneo.

“Great ape tourism sites were closed relatively early in the crisis because of the risk that humans could transmit COVID-19 to great apes,” said Johannes Refisch, who manages the United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership Program, in an interview on the UN Environment Programme website.

The sanctuaries may be closed to tourists, but they need to continue operating to care for the animals and therefore need financial assistance, he said. “Many sites need the income from tourism; it is their business model.”

Increased demand for nature travel

It is important to ensure the survival of ecotourism because it can help economies recover from the impact of COVID-19, said Lim.

A study commissioned by Campaign for Nature shows that the nature conservation sector is a net contributor to the global economy with the benefits of environmental protection outweighing the costs by a ratio of at least 5 to 1. The nature sector, which is primarily driven by growth in nature-based tourism, is projected to “grow 4% to 6% per year compared to less than 1% for agriculture, timber and fisheries” after the pandemic.

“Based on these scientific studies, ecotourism, which coexists harmoniously with biodiversity conservation, has a significant economic contribution, especially in the post-pandemic scenario,” Lim said. “What the sector (ecotourism) is experiencing now is temporary. Once lockdowns and travel restrictions are lifted, people will want to be closer to nature.”

According to the Campaign for Nature report, protecting natural areas also provides significant mental and physical health benefits and reduces the risk of new zoonotic disease outbreaks, such as COVID-19. It also cites a recent study that estimates the economic value of protected areas based on the improved mental health of visitors to be $6 trillion annually.

Digital solutions

In meantime, while COVID-19 is still a threat to public health, digital technology may offer an alternative source of income, such as virtual ecotourism and online games.

Refisch said Wildverse is a mobile game featuring gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. It was designed by social enterprise Internet of Elephants in partnership with Borneo Nature Foundation and the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.