Nature Positive Tourism as a Solution for Protecting, Restoring and Reviving Biodiversity
With biodiversity loss around the world, we are facing a serious challenge.
Scientists have warned us of a “sixth mass extinction” event in Earth’s history. Despite such a dire warning, the biodiversity crisis - the fact that our very existence is being threatened by human activities destroying nature - is not as widely recognized and discussed as it should be, both within the tourism context and in general.
Are we in a collective crisis fatigue? Is the thought of humans pushing planetary boundaries too big to comprehend? Or are we feeling powerless against such large-scale threats? The situation is, without a doubt, serious and scary. But rather than hiding from reality, tourism can choose to play a proactive role in creating solutions and supporting actions.
Tourism - with a very important caveat of “when managed well” - can be an effective tool for enabling and supporting protected areas and ensuring conservation of natural habitats. In fact, tourism (again, tourism done well) may be the only truly viable market-based tool that can enable and empower local communities living in natural areas to preserve ecosystems, while supporting their livelihoods. This is an amazing potential that our industry represents, and with this power, of course, comes great responsibility.
The good news is, we can look to a growing number of tourism leaders committing to that responsibility and taking concrete steps for biodiversity conservation. And these are examples that can inspire more action supporting biodiversity, and propel solutions for nature positive tourism.
This panel is presented in partnership with
How can tourism help combat the global biodiversity crisis? What examples and solutions inspire you?
Promoting Connections to Scale Solutions for Our Nature-Positive Future
The world is facing serious threats of biodiversity loss and disruption, and a multitude of related issues affecting humanity. With the biodiversity crisis, as with any crises, there are both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, the general public still lacks awareness about the importance of biodiversity, and how serious the crisis is. This is, of course, a major challenge to address.
On the other hand, in some key sectors there has been a tremendous increase in awareness. At the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), we’re seeing an unprecedented level of engagement by policymakers and business leaders. So this gives me hope.
The key point to understand about the state of the biodiversity crisis is that we do have solutions - from Gold Standard projects restoring ecosystems to REDD+ tools protecting forests. What we need is to scale these solutions. To do so, we need to engage those with decision-making powers, and to facilitate connections between funding bodies seeking to invest in effective nature positive solutions and those who can scale such solutions.
The connection between nature and travel has always been a critical part of what tourism is all about; tourism depends on, benefits from, and negatively and positively impacts nature. However, the pandemic has boosted our awareness of this interconnectedness. We need tourism to become part of the global push towards businesses taking responsibility and industries becoming active advocates for biodiversity. Many have already stepped up (such as these examples by Linking Tourism & Conservation). But again, we need to scale these solutions, and do so quickly.
Another key point about the biodiversity crisis is that nature-based solutions are not just about nature. The only way ecosystems restoration, wildlife conservation and any biodiversity related instruments can work is by working with local people as stewards of their environments. The values of nature are closely linked to our society’s interactions with it. The tourism sector, being an economic engine that touches on so many layers of our society, must address poverty, equity, health and education (in short, ALL of the SGDs) in order to become a nature-positive industry.
In addressing the SDGs, the most important solution is coordination. Harmonise the work by governments within and across the national, state and local levels to manage destinations holistically. Mayors and governors are a powerful force for change. And we need to empower them to work with each other and with other national and sub-national entities to scale solutions.
And here is a great example to serve as an inspiration for us all. The city of Medellin, in the metropolitan region of Valle de Aburrá, is a destination that has managed to clean itself up, and to forge its own path of development. It all started with a concept that the director of the Metropolitan Area shared about the need to see that resources are connected over the territory; the water from the mountains nourishes the city, and the river, with the water from the city, leads to communities downstream.
With this vision, mayors of 9 neighboring cities came together to support Medellin and the Metropolitan Authority in a path towards more sustainable development. Physically connecting places with cable cars and a metro train helped local community members to understand the connection between the city and nature, and people were involved in establishing linear parks and cleaning up springs and small rivers.
So as you can see in this example, achieving nature-positive tourism is about much more than goals to protect nature. It’s about sharing those goals in a people-friendly way, and understanding the interconnected nature of our relationships with biodiversity, business and communities.
LT&C: Global Network of Conservation Leaders Creating Locally Rooted Solutions Through Tourism
Standing on the shores of Chumbe Island, a private nature reserve off the coast of Zanzibar, overlooking its marine protected area (MPA), a group of local students is on a guided snorkel tour and rangers are engaging with tourists while watching blacktip reef sharks swim in the shallow waters. This is a typical day on Chumbe and sights like these always fill me with confidence that well-managed tourism has an incredible potential to be an enabler of private parks and thereby create biodiversity havens.
Through my work, I have had the chance to meet and work with passionate and dedicated individuals from the public, private, and NGO sectors that have made it their mission to tackle the biodiversity crisis with the help of tourism.
One such organization is Linking Tourism & Conservation (LT&C). LT&C is an international nature conservation NGO that supports the UN goal of creating a global protected area network by 2030. LT&C does this by working towards making the tourism industry a leading actor in implementing the 30×30 goal (a global aim to protect 30% of the planet's land and water by 2030).
As part of our efforts at LT&C, we profile a number of “LT&C Examples”, examples of tourism businesses, organizations and destinations supporting the development and management of protected areas through policy, education, or finances. Currently, we have a network of more than 50 of these examples, Chumbe Island being one of them.
Chumbe Island has effectively promoted conservation initiatives through tourism, by creating a locally rooted management structure. The park works closely with fishing villages in its vicinity and has negotiated the size and borders of its ‘no-take’ private MPA wisely to allow positive spillovers into neighboring fishing grounds. Engaging and educating stakeholders is also a key part of the equation. Local community members come on free environmental education trips to the island, and guests are accompanied by local guiding rangers throughout their stay.
Chumbe’s example - and all the LT&C Example stories - provide evidence and best practices of how tourism can contribute to protecting and regenerating vital spaces for biodiversity. But these places cannot exist in isolation. At the core of LT&C's mission, we look to inspire and replicate these efforts to lobby for the necessary international processes, political frameworks, and capacity building on the ground to move at a faster pace as our window of time is ever decreasing.
Tackling biodiversity loss through tourism, therefore, requires seeing the full picture both at the local and global levels; understanding the specific local context for habitat and species decline and working with all stakeholders to create locally-rooted solutions, and at the same time, pushing for international frameworks and support systems to enable change at a scale.
Ranthambhore National Park: Game Reserve turned into Wildlife Sanctuary
Ranthambhore National Park is one of the tiger reserves in India, and a world-renowned destination for its large Bengal Tiger population. Ranthambore was first established in 1955 as a Governmental Game Sanctuary. But today, the Maharajas’ former hunting ground has been turned into a major wildlife sanctuary, and recently became a world class destination for nature lovers and wildlife photographers. It has an annual turnover of US$ 3 million in park fees. They get approximately 60,000 overseas visitors and 400,000 local visitors.
India has very small national parks, and an extremely large human population surrounding their areas. As such, conservation efforts face challenges of the complexity of human-wildlife coexistence, and in particular poaching. As park tourism and the population of neighbouring villages increased, there were more frequent fatal human-tiger interactions and poaching events.
The Ranthambhore Foundation ensures the revenues generated by Park Fees are reinvested in the management and maintenance of the park, as well as for conflict resolution such as paying compensation to local residents for crop and cattle loss due to wildlife occurrence and attacks. This has led to almost zero “revenge killing” of animals by farmers, and reduced poaching.
Ranthambhore also represents a great example of a safari lodge that applies the philosophy of linking tourism with conservation. Thakur Balendu Singh, who belongs to a family of ex-hunters and knows this area intimately, has turned his knowledge to wildlife conservation and opened the hotel Dev Vilas to be close to nature and share his passion for Ranthambhore’s wild wonders with guests. He has also been appointed a Honorary Wildlife Warden for three years by the Government.
Today, Ranthambhore National Park is a showcase and a model of partnership between a lodge owner, the government authority and NGOs working together and creating synergies for wildlife conservation and community development. This model is in the process of being further strengthened to include more like-minded organisations and individuals joining efforts for a purpose.
*The above contribution is based on the LT&C Example of the same title. See the full example here.
From a Sanctuary to Ecological Corridors: Working with Nature’s Interconnected Systems
Tourism is an essential part of solving the current biodiversity crisis. Costa Rica is a very privileged location and it’s hard to see the effects of the crisis when you live in such a green country. Even in the cities, there are a lot of trees, natural views, animals, plants and if we move deeper into the forests, jungles or national parks, we can feel the biodiversity.
It is said that approximately 4.5% of the world’s biodiversity can be found in Costa Rica. This means many tourists who come from other countries will be able to feel, see and come to understand the value of biodiversity.
Macaw Lodge, nested in the forests of Cerros de Turrubares in the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica, offers an excellent space for visitors to learn about different species: cacao, almond trees, scarlet macaw, trogons and other birds, snakes, frogs, you name it; they are in our grounds and we are constantly studying, observing and learning from them.
Macaw Lodge is also an educational center where both residents and tourists come to learn. Visitors come in close contact with nature through our tours and programs that are built with the vision of creating awareness, sharing new ideas, and promoting collaboration.
Through our work with visitors from all around the planet, we’ve seen firsthand the educational value we are creating, and how this can contribute to helping solve the biodiversity crisis. Tourists, volunteers and organizations come to Macaw seeking unique experiences. They return inspired from what they’ve learned during their stay, having gained not only ideas, but a desire to change.
Here are more examples of how Macaw Lodge has contributed to increasing Costa Rica’s and the planet’s biodiversity.
- Reversing soil degradation: Back in the 1990s, we started an initiative of tree reforestation on the landscape that was being deteriorated by agriculture and ranching practices of that time. The soil in the landscape was losing its quality, the mountains were looking more yellow and brown than green. By adding trees to recover the soil, we managed to promote and restore the biodiversity from one of the first layers: Earth.
- Expansion of biological corridors: Restoring biodiversity requires more than planting trees for the sake of it. We need to consider the entirety of the forest - from the creation of functional gardens that attract butterflies and other insects, to the maintenance and growth of our agroforestry systems - because it’s all connected. Macaw Lodge and the surroundings which we call 'Santuario' or Sanctuary, connect into Carara National Park. We are trying to create bridges and corridors that fill in gaps of biodiversity in the Central Pacific region, by restoring and helping expand the Ecological Corridors for Scarlet Macaws and other species that call these forests home.
Nature Positive Travel: Prioritising Climate and Biodiversity Actions in Tourism
The first thing to acknowledge is the part our sector is currently playing in contributing to the biodiversity crisis. Whether through carbon emissions, pollution, waste, or over-exploitation of ecosystems (through over-tourism, or the building of tourism infrastructure for example) many aspects of our travel are currently harming our natural world.
However, the sector has already shown huge potential for contributing to the protection and regeneration of biodiversity. Over the last 130 years, over 100,000 protected areas – such as national parks, sanctuaries and reserves - have been established, in large part incentivised and funded by tourism and now covering some 12% of the Earth’s land surface (WWF). Global wildlife tourism generates five times more revenue than illegal wildlife trade annually (WTTC), and responsible tourism has contributed to the protection of various endangered species, such as the mountain gorilla in the Virunga Mountains of Central Africa.
Given our current context, we need to double-down on these efforts. Our sector not only has a responsibility to ensure we are proactively pursuing biodiversity preservation and restoration, but to start setting clear and measurable targets in this area. The tourism industry has started to make more widespread progress in recent years around the measurement of our carbon emissions, and the setting of quantified reduction goals. Given the inextricable link between climate change and biodiversity collapse, we should be aiming to do the same for our impact on nature.
Not dissimilar to the concept of ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ in the construction sector (soon to be a mandatory requirement in UK planning regulation), we should try to better understand and measure tourism’s negative impacts on nature, eliminate them as quickly and as far as possible, and ensure any remaining negative impacts are far outweighed by our proactive, positive support for nature.
This is not easy – beyond carbon emissions, tourism’s impacts on nature can be hard to quantify and set targets around. But some useful guidance and resources are starting to emerge. GetNaturePositive is a campaign launched by the UK’s Council for Sustainable Business, providing case studies, guidance and resources to businesses who want to set targets in this area. The science-based targets network developing science-based targets for nature which businesses can adopt (similar to those the SBTi have developed for carbon reduction) and in the meantime have published an initial guidance document. At Exodus Travels, we have published our own Nature Net Positive plan, along with the resources used to develop it, in the hope it provides some useful signposts to other tour operators.
Ultimately, as a sector, we should quickly get to a place where we see our climate action and our biodiversity action as one and the same in terms of urgency and impact, and set our targets accordingly.
Ecotourism Supports Biodiversity by Preserving Cultural Heritage and Promoting Natural Values
We are a network of local nature guides in and around Soomaa national park, Estonia. Since 1994 we offer guided activities such as canoeing on the rivers, walking on the bogs and in the forests, kick-sledding on the frozen winter landscapes. From the very start the philosophy of our team has been ecotourism, which for us means supporting the preservation of cultural heritage and natural values of Soomaa, promoting local economic development, educating travelers and the public.
Soomaa national park (established in 1993) is a large wilderness area, home for large carnivores such as brown bear, lynx and wolf. We have been actively contributing to the creation of a Sustainable Tourism Development Strategy of the national park, and the process of certification of both national park, and local service providers by the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism (ECST).
The most important contribution to biodiversity conservation by our guides is sharing our passion about the conservation aims of Soomaa national park with our customers. We also regularly work with the media aiming to raise awareness about wilderness values of the national park and the need for better conservation measures. Since 2014, they are part of the local group in Soomaa, who actively participates in the dialogue and campaign for better forest conservation in the national park. As a result of this campaign, the protection regime of some state-owned floodplain forests have been changed, and planned logging inside the national park canceled.
Knowledge of building aspen dugout canoes is a living culture that has survived in the remote villages of Soomaa due to the regular natural floods, called “the fifth season” by local people. In 2022 the building and use of Soomaa dugout boats was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding list.
There is a decline in the number of aspen trees suitable for building dugout boats (60-120 years, at least 5 m tall, diameter of tip end at least 50 cm) in Estonian forests, as a result of the forest industry’s activity, which prioritizes short cutting rotations and clear cutting methods. This shows the important connection between the promotion of boat heritage and the conservation of old forests and sustainable forestry practices.
*Soomaa national park is part of the LT&C Examples. Read more about this example.
Collaborative Tourism Development and Marketing for KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area
The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), commonly known as KAZA, is enormous. The world’s largest terrestrial TFCA, its geographic scope stands at approximately 520,000km². Occupying part of the Okavango and Zambezi River basins, KAZA encompasses areas within the borders of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and includes 36 formally proclaimed protected areas made up of a host of game reserves, forest reserves, game/wildlife management areas, and communal lands.
KAZA is endowed with a wide range of species diversity. There are more than 3,000 plant species throughout the TFCA, of which 100 are endemic to the sub-region. KAZA also caters to large-scale migrations of megafauna. Its elephant population represents more than 50% of the remaining savanna elephants found in Africa (Loxodonta Africana), a species recently listed by IUCN as Endangered. It is the largest contiguous transboundary elephant population in the world, and a keystone species for KAZA. The TFCA is also a key conservation area for threatened species such as the lion, cheetah, and African wild dog, of which an estimated one quarter of the population is found in KAZA. Additionally, over 600 bird species have been identified, as well as 128 reptile species and 50 amphibian species.
There is also a strong cultural and natural heritage aspect to KAZA. The TFCA is home to the Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and two further UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Okavango Delta and Tsodilo Hills. Furthermore, an estimated 2.5 to 3 million people live in KAZA across its five Partner States. Through cultural heritage tourism, KAZA Partner State authorities aim to enhance their participation in the tourism economy not only through their provision of tourism-related goods and services, but also through the celebration and nourishment of the region’s rich cultural diversity, allowing communities across borders to share their age-old knowledge and symbolic traditions with each other and the world at large.
KAZA’s conservation and tourism development objectives are interdependent. On the one hand, the TFCA is an ideal platform for promoting regional tourism integration and growth in Southern Africa, thereby contributing towards employment creation, economic diversification, and subsequently to poverty reduction in rural and remote areas adjacent to its major tourism attractions. Conversely, tourism is the largest market-based contributor to financing many protected areas in KAZA, with the tourism industry in KAZA destinations being largely dependent on healthy natural and cultural heritage systems, often with wildlife as the primary attraction.
Against this backdrop, KAZA Partner States have taken important strides towards collaborative tourism development as well as joint marketing and investment promotion interventions that go beyond conventional marketing, towards market development which focuses on both supply and demand sides and adds value to the tourism experience in a manner that expands the benefits of tourism to more than one country. This approach is intended to complement individual Partner State efforts, while diversifying the tourism offerings in SADC through capitalising on the region’s natural and cultural heritage assets and contributing to socio-economic growth.
To get a better idea of the natural and cultural heritage experience throughout KAZA, here is a great overview and a virtual ‘journey’ through KAZA. For an overview of the accommodation offers in KAZA with some sort of sustainable tourism certification take a look here.
*KAZA is part of the LT&C Examples. Read more about this example.
Ensuring Tourism’s Net-Positive Benefits for Conservation and Communities
Ecolodges Indonesia is a social enterprise with a strong environmental and community benefit ethos. Our two primary areas of focus are:
- conservation of wildlife and the protected areas adjacent to where we have our four ecolodges
- supporting local communities to develop the skills, knowledge and experiences provide the full range of services expected from a wildlife ecotourism experience
Local conservation efforts cannot occur without investment for increased local knowledge, engagement and their acknowledgement of the net benefits that come from preserving and presenting the natural resources, rather than exploiting them. In our case, that means enabling economic replacement for practices such as land clearing for crops or to sell timber, illegal bird capture and trading, using unsafe fishing practices and so on with training and jobs as guides, as house-keepers, as mechanics for our vehicles and boats, as gardeners, as cooks, waiters etc.
For example, at Kelimutu Crater Lakes Ecolodge in Flores, there is a lovely little creek that flows along the border of the property, and on the other side of the creek is a large rice field which adds to the visual ambience of the ecolodge experience. That piece of land was subject to purchase and development, so we made a deal with the local land owner to buy the land from him on the condition his family continues to farm the land as a rice field and produce rice for the lodge and the local community. A win-win for all.
Over at Rimba Orangutan Ecolodge adjacent to Tanjung Puting National Park, one of our newer guides has spent most of his life as an illegal wild bird poacher. Now he gets paid as a guide to protect and conserve the birdlife and includes stories about how and why he came from a family that needed the skills to hunt and catch wild birds in the national park just to provide the income his family needed for basic food and shelter.
The past 2+ years of COVID pandemic shutdowns has put substantial economic pressure on the business. But we have survived! One of the survival approaches was to establish a separate not-for-profit Indonesia Conservation Foundation which received funds from kind donors which were applied to conservation and community projects relevant to the protected areas adjacent to the lodges.
Those conservation and community projects enabled staff members we were unable to keep during the shutdown to be involved in projects which gave them a reduced, but important income to cover some of their basic needs during the shutdown period.
South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project: Support through Visitor Education
For the last two centuries seabird colonies on the Sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia were nearly decimated by non-native rats and mice. Whalers and Sealers beginning in the late 1700’s carried rodents on their ships which inadvertently colonized the island and had feasted on seabird eggs and chicks. The Islands of the South Atlantic are key breeding grounds for the whole South Atlantic bird populations.
In the absence of sufficient government funding to tackle the environmental challenge, the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT.org, a UK charity) and the Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI.org, a US non-profit) jointly worked with expedition cruise vessel operators to educate and enlist the support of the 6000-9,000 visitors they bring to South Georgia each year to eradicate the rodents. As of 2018, South Georgia was declared rat free. Success!
We are also thrilled to be part of the Wild Waters Whales Research program, studying the return of the large whale populations also nearly exterminated by showing remarkable recovery. Both FOSGI and SGHT have coordinated and participated in numerous projects since 2005 to promote the conservation of natural and cultural history of South Georgia. We are currently working on a Whaling Station initiative and waste clean-up. We also sponsored an Invasive Species Workshop representing +350 projects and are currently supporting the South Atlantic Gough Island and Marion Island Rodent Eradications by sharing best practices.
Imagine visiting remote beaches colonized by +400,000 penguins, thousands of Petrels and Prions flying around the Island and islets or seeing Wandering Albatross with 12 foot/4-meter wing span flying alongside the ship on the journey to both Antarctica and South Georgia and knowing we have re-created the chance to breed. South Georgia is a magnificent small island which is in the process of a remarkable recovery due to the collective responsibly that both visitors, expedition tour companies, charities, the public at large and government have taken on the responsibility for protecting and conserving. We are thrilled to be an active participant in this unique partnership.