What COVID-19 Means for Ecotourism

For decades, ecotourism has helped to conserve nature and protect endangered species. COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of ecotourism sites has had an indelible impact on wildlife and the communities that protect it.

Photo: United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership Programme

Johannes Refisch is a United Nations Programme Manager and Coordinator, who oversees the Great Apes Survival Partnership. In this interview, he explains the dilemma faced by ecotourism and how the industry might change to accommodate a post-COVID-19 reality.

What exactly do we mean when we talk about ecotourism?

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” By limiting the number of visitors, hotels and other tourist infrastructure, ecotourism minimizes human impact on the environment and builds environmental and cultural awareness and respect.

Local communities benefit through employment, business opportunities and social projects; and ecotourism also contributes significantly to national economies. In 2017, for example, Rwanda received 1.5 million international travelers. Renowned for its mountain ranges, volcanoes and numerous wildlife species–including great apes–the country’s parks alone welcomed 94,000 visitors, generating a revenue of $18.7 million.

How has the spread of COVID-19 affected ecotourism, to date?

Great ape tourism sites were closed relatively early in the crisis because of the risk that humans could transmit COVID-19 to great apes. Since then, most borders have been closed, and international travel has come to a stand-still.

This has even affected areas without great apes, cutting off their source of income. Many protected areas use the income generated from tourism to fund law enforcement, biomonitoring and staff salaries. It has now been three months without tourism revenue, bringing many protected areas into a financial crisis. The release of staff and suspension of law enforcement can easily lead to an increase in poaching and encroachment–first because there is little law enforcement; second because community members have lost their income and have few other alternatives.

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Wade Lambert)

Primate sanctuaries and rescue centers are also affected. Although they are closed for tourism, they still have to feed the animals; they cannot just stop operations. A number of sanctuaries/rehabilitation centers in Indonesia have release and reintroduction programmes for orangutans, but reintroductions are currently not recommended because of the disease risk. And at the same time, they have to accommodate new animals, pushing them to the edge of their capacity.

It is urgent that that the international community establishes emergency funds to offset the loss of revenue from tourism. There are already some initiatives such as the call for proposals from the Lion’s Share initiative, to support communities that are highly dependent on income from tourism; or the SOS African Wildlife initiative, which responds to COVID-19 related threats.

With regard to great ape tourism­–which allows humans into natural habitats and in close proximity to wild animals–what are the prospects for re-opening sites in the future? 

This is a very complex and difficult question. On one hand, many sites need the income from tourism; it is their business model. On the other hand, a COVID-19 outbreak in a habituated great ape group would  threaten the viability of that business model–and could have disastrous effects.

We do not know whether there will be new waves of COVID-19 infections. And we have neither a vaccine nor a cure. The fact that great apes are so closely related to humans gives us hope that once there is a vaccine or cure for humans, it might also work for great apes, or could be developed to do so in a relatively short period of time.

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Wade Lambert)

The Primate Specialist Group, Section on Great Apes, and the Wildlife Health Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggest best practices for great ape disease control and tourism; and implementation of these guidelines is one step.

In a post-COVID-19 future, how might we expect ecotourism to change?

Digital solutions are scenario, like this initiative to promote virtual ecotourism.  The potential income will not compensate for the lost income from a visitor who is paying US$1,500 for a single gorilla tracking permit in Rwanda, but it demonstrates that we can find new ways of doing things. Other initiatives try to engage the gaming industry. The Internet of Elephants, a collaborative social enterprise working towards a stronger connection between people and wild animals has partnered with the Borneo Nature Foundation and the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project to design Wildeverse, an augmented reality game featuring gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.

How does UNEP support wildlife tourism?

The people who live with wildlife sometimes bear the negative impacts, such as the destructions of their harvest by wild animals; so it is important that these people also receive economic benefits. A lot of wildlife lives outside government-managed protected areas therefore it is important that the local communities that live with wildlife land owners–whether communities or private land owners–see the value in protecting wildlife. UNEP has been supporting community engagement in wildlife conservation and tourism. As an example, the Great Apes Survival Partnership Programme–with funding from the Spanish Government–supported the Lossi Interzone in the Republic of Congo, to establish the first gorilla tracking programme in a community-managed area in Africa.

For more information, please contact Johannes Refisch, Great Apes Survival Partnership Programme Manager and Coordinator: johannes.refisch@unep.org

Learn more about the Great Apes Survival Partnership Programme here.

Source: UNEP