A green turtle swims through the pristine waters of the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia. (photo via Greg Sullavan / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
As we celebrate Earth Day and accept the challenge to make more sustainable decisions in our own lives, one subcategory of the travel and tourism industry deserves a bigger focus this year after being hit hard by the pandemic: animal tourism.
Plenty of destinations around the world rely upon animal tourism, also known as wildlife or conservation tourism, to bring travelers to their shores: think Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica… Did you not automatically also think of koalas and kangaroos, lions and zebras and elephants, sloths and jaguars and howler monkeys?
Animal conservation and tourism are intrinsically linked: when one falls, the other falls with it. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on communities and species that rely on conservation tourism around the world.
The Impact of Conservation Tourism on Communities Worldwide
Research from 2019 conducted by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) found that wildlife tourism directly contributed over $120 billion to the global GDP and employed 9.1 million people. These numbers are much larger when calculated along with indirect contributions, at $343.6 billion in GDP, employing 21.8 million people.
Tourism itself was ranked as the first or second highest export earner in 48 less developed countries, according to World Bank data from 2017. It’s the fourth largest industry in the world and is the largest market-based contributor to finance protected areas like national parks and conservancies.
Households in developing countries that live near protected areas like national parks, conservancies or reserves are on average 17 percent wealthier in comparison with households living farther away from these areas. They are also 16 percent less likely to become impoverished.
Without tourism funding local economies and conservation programs these past two years, animal species across the world are at increased risk of illegal poaching, which according to WTTC is considered to be a $23 billion industry.
Though travel is such a larger industry than animal trafficking and poaching, “the incentives [for animal poaching] become larger when the travel industry shuts down,” said Jim Sano, Vice President of Travel, Tourism and Conservation at World Wildlife Fund.
As we celebrate border reopenings, we must also celebrate the return of animal conservation, without which many communities become at risk for economic hardship and poverty, especially in developing countries, while the animals they protect would come under increased threat.
One Country’s Push Towards Conservation Tourism
One such place that is considered a conservation tourism success story is Namibia. When it achieved independence, conservation was written into the country’s very constitution in 1996, granting communities the ability to create communal conservancies.
Today, Namibia offers 87 communal conservancies across almost 65,000 square miles, which is about twenty percent of the country’s landmass. It directly employs over 2,500 people, many of whom are responsible for providing for up to ten family members, and it also produces more than 14 percent of the country’s GDP.
Even more miraculously: the animal species that call it home, including cheetahs, lions and black rhinos, are growing due to these conservancies.
Nature-rich developing countries aren’t the only ones benefiting from conservation tourism. Visitors to the United States’ national parks in 2019 generated $21 billion and supported 341,000 jobs. In 2020, the national parks welcomed 237 million visitors who spent $14.5 billion. National parks both directly and indirectly employed 234,000 jobs and generated $9.7 billion in income during the worst year of the pandemic.
The economic benefits of conservancies and national parks are clear to see; travelers, even in the middle of a global pandemic, flocked to these domestic destinations to get a breath of fresh air and visit the animals that call these parks their home.
But the focus on such tourism initiatives are always on the animals they protect and conserve.
The Role of Tour Operators in Conservation
Australia is another country whose travel industry is synonymous with wildlife tourism. The country’s bountiful natural wonders and wildlife have given it a great focus on sustainability and eco-tourism options.
One such tour operator is Exceptional Kangaroo Island in South Australia, which offers opportunities to view wildlife such as kangaroos, koalas, echidnas and many bird species, eighteen of which are subspecies that can be found only on Kangaroo Island.
Craig Wickham, the tour operator’s Managing Director and a former park ranger, explains their mission: “We are strong advocates for the environment and the role we play is to facilitate experiences where guests can see what is possible when we leave room for nature and learn how to behave in a way which lets wildlife accept us in a shared space.”
A kangaroo stands in long grass on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Australia. (photo via Ben Goode)
“We also provide a connection between visitors and landowners passionate about habitat protection on a landscape scale and the ecologists who work to deliver conservation outcomes. Often travelers learn first-hand what they might do at home to improve their wildlife interactions and also understand what an investment might deliver…Having such specific examples is important so travelers know exactly what their assistance actually delivers.”
Tour operators who have a role in animal conservation not only give travelers unique insights into ecology and the wildlife they view; they’re also ensuring the protection of these species for years to come and often participate in conservation initiatives.
The positive side to 2022 is that the countries that rely most on conservation tourists from other countries are now reopening, leading to a huge demand for these places, including countries in Africa as well as Australia.
“All the people who canceled their trips or whose trips were stopped and who had already booked, the great majority of them postponed their trips…Now they’re coming back. There’s huge pent-up demand. Many of these companies are anticipating record years above and beyond 2019,” said Jim Sano about tour operators and lodges in Africa.
How To Support Animal Conservation As a Traveler
So how can travelers make good choices that positively impact the animals they love and the communities that coexist alongside them?
Sano suggests choosing B Corp-certified tour operators, like Intrepid Travel, or other travel companies and destinations that have been certified by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. The good thing about the current state of the travel industry is that there are more options for sustainable travel than ever before.
“Travel corporations, large and small, have a bigger awareness and interest and are making commitments to conservation. I think the drivers in that are obviously COVID, climate…” Sano said. “They recognize the threats associated with these environmental disasters and threats. Natural resources are their tourism asset, so it’s in their business interest to protect those assets.”
The way we travel has a profound impact on communities and species around the globe. As we begin to celebrate our world’s natural wonders and incredible creatures, make sure to recognize the impact you as a traveler have on the destinations you visit and choose to support animal conservation initiatives wherever you may go this year and beyond.