Tourism for Tomorrow

Can nature be part of the solution please? asks Emma Gardner

Can tourism play a part in addressing the ecological crisis and post COVID-19 recovery? A timely thought as we all move out from months of lockdown. 

With reports of wildlife taking back beaches, rivers and cities during the global quietening, what does this mean when the humans return? They are ready to.

And what about the heartbreaking news of increased poaching and illegal hunting in areas that were once full of tourists and rangers? There is a place and a need for a form of tourism that supports and protects nature.

May 22nd is the International Day for Biological Diversity; this year’s theme ‘our solutions are in nature’.  With talk of a ‘green recovery’ and ‘building back better’ post-COVID-19, can tourism provide a means to support and protect?

With many locations depending on tourism to support conservation efforts, provide local jobs and support indigenous communities, I believe so.

Of course, tourism has to be done in the right way and the principles of ecotourism or sustainable tourism can be seen as a way forward. Although in all things ‘sustainable’ there are good and bad practices. 

Then there is the tourism where profit and greed lead to pathways of destruction and disregard, eroding what was once unique and raw. It is evident that this is still business-as-usual.

And what about air travel, what part does it play in this? Can it have a role? Before COVID-19 aviation contributed over 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions, and this was rising.    

There is a real dilemma of travelling and supporting tourism that protects wildlife. I have first-hand experience of this.

As I sit in the garden on an unseasonably hot May day, the scent of my applied sunscreen brings fond memories of my honeymoon in Borneo travelling around Sabah and Sandakan.

My spirit still visits the rainforests, mangroves and winding rivers. As I close my eyes and shut out the sounds of England for just a second, the sights and sounds are ready waiting for my return. 

Borneo was an easy choice for a honeymoon destination. The longing to see the rainforest and orangutans so great. However, the challenge was turning off the guilt voice as flying was meant to be a thing of my past. A flight-free pledge to reduce my carbon footprint and play my part to address the climate crisis. 

The new holidaying was meant to be in the UK or places reachable by ferry and train. Ireland was a suggested honeymoon destination or a rail trip across Europe, but Borneo kept calling. My mind was in turmoil, what about the carbon emissions? I was offered the choice to offset the carbon, however, I personally do not advocate carbon offsetting (the reasons why is a blog-in-waiting). The long-haul trip was not an easy decision.

After years studying sustainable tourism and teaching modules to undergraduate students I felt prepared to find a trip where positive impacts outweighed any negative – not including the flight, which weighed heavy on my mind! 

I found a company that supports nature conservation and local communities, with revenue going towards conservation projects, guaranteeing a fair wage to employees and tours to villages that would offer a diversified income. This was evident from the outset, spending our first night in a locally owned lodge and third night in the rainforest with an indigenous tribe, all making our decision to visit even more worthwhile.

In our second week we visited Tabin Wildlife Resort, and to get there we had to travel through palm oil plantations for over an hour. Eventually we reached an oasis of pure beauty, a rainforest full of life tucked away behind the monoculture of loss. We were told how tourism is helping to preserve this forest and many others, stopping the encroaching palm oil and giving a reason to preserve the wildlife. People pay to stay in and visit the rainforest, not the palm oil plantations.  

Since COVID-19 my thoughts about Borneo have turned to worry.  Have the orangutans trees to climb and call from, and have the rehabilitated orangutans a place to go to? Are the proboscis monkeys still sitting in the trees watching life go by, are the macaques still causing mischief by the rivers? Are the birds and insects still singing their songs and flying mystical patterns to the skies? 

Or, like other parts of the world, have the poachers and loggers taken advantage of the empty lodges, quiet tourist tracks and silent waterways? Will the forests that were valuable with tourism visits now be more valuable as monocultures?

I hope with all my heart that the forest and its magical collaboration of wonder are safe.

So coming out of Covid-19 what will this mean for the tourism industry. Can we build it back better to support efforts to address the ecological crisis, while keeping our carbon footprint low to address the climate crisis? How do we find balance? Are we looking for a robust scheme where we can pay to keep these places safe without having to visit? Will people do this or do we need to wait for a more sustainable airline industry and a miracle low carbon fuel?

There are lots of questions presented here. For me the answer has to have nature at the heart, there is opportunity to look at this now. Hopefully.

Dr Emma Gardner has studied and taught sustainable tourism before her current role as Head of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Manchester.  Emma and her team are preparing a zero carbon pathway in support of Manchester’s 2038 zero carbon target and are implementing measures to reduce business air travel.

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