Tourism normally employs 1 in 10 people on Earth and is the top export earner for sixty countries around the world. The happiest times of our lives are often those spent when on holiday vacationing somewhere else. The “knock-on” and “trickle-down” benefits of tourism are massive and complex, but it’s safe to say that they are not simply material. To quote Mark Twain “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime.” Bon mots indeed!

“Tourism is the largest market-based contributor to preservation funding.”

Yesterday I watched a webinar held by WWF and Natural Habitat Adventures titled “How Travel Can Protect the Planet” that provided interesting insights into how nature tourism aids conservation worldwide. Historically, ecotourism has been transformational of both societies and the environment.

The romantic poets in England put walking holidays in Cumbria’s The Lake District firmly on the map and it was appreciation of clear landscape views and some of the creatures living there that maintained those views going forward. The love of the land felt by author Beatrix Potter, she transmitted to millions of others through her delightful children’s books. She used income from those books to preserve some of the places she loved and to open them to the public, which meant that the places in between were protected as well, along with the wildlife in those habitats! Visitors are happy to stay and eat locally and buy local things to take away with them. The mental and physical health benefits are hard to quantify but are undoubtedly substantial.

I learned that Key milestones in the American history of ecotourism were President Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 Yosemite Act, precursor of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the Sierra Club in 1901 with their Outings Club that proved essential in enlisting the help of government officials in protecting the many and varied outstanding wild spaces in the USA. Those places are enormously popular today, and with good reason because they are spectacular exemplars of America’s natural spaces.

Natural Habitat Adventures are keen to be green. Since 2007 they have been carbon off-setting. That means tallying up their carbon emissions and then finding ways to negate that carbon, either through tree planting or the substitution of carbon saving technology in place of carbon emitting technology. It is now possible to offset the carbon emitted during your flights. They say some of their tours will off-set the carbon emitted by the tour member for a whole year prior to their travel as well!  Last year they held their first “zero waste adventure”.

To cut a long, but important story short, it’s fair to say the following things:

Many people will travel far and wide to experience natural habitats and the species and human cultures that live there. These tourists want to see healthy animals, plants and indigenous people when they get there and the money they spend on preparing for their trip, on location and getting there and back validates sustainable conservation in these places. Short term profits made from destroying nature simply don’t compare with long term, repeatable benefits of non-consumptive wildlife use. You can shoot an elephant dead once and that’s your lot. Each live elephant in Kenya is thought to be worth over a million dollars in ecotourism revenue.

Natural Habitat Adventures say that the benefits begin with the tours. Natural Habitat Ecotourists contribute $4.5 million to the countries they visit, but afterwards they contribute $14 million through continued donation support of the organizations that ‘moved’ them while they were there. Thus positively proving the adage that “you can’t protect something you don’t love, you can’t love what you don’t know and you can’t know something you haven’t seen”.

The panel detailed success stories in the USA and other countries. In the USA, they cited Churchill Manitoba, now famous for Polar Bear ecotourism. Back in the ’50’s if a bear wandered into town it was shot dead. Now those bears are important partners in the local economy along with Beluga whales and the Aurora Borealis. People are returning to Churchill for different attractions in different seasons. In October the draw is the magnificent Polar bears, in Summer it’s the Belugas and in Winter it is the glorious shimmering curtains of “Northern Lights”. They say “to know Churchill is to love Churchill.”

Another good example they cited was Mountain Gorilla tourism. Natural Habitat offer visits to experience gorillas in their habitats in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Volcanoes National Park. When Diane Fossey was working there the population was about only 220, but now, thanks to incentives to conserve the gorillas, there were 1063, this is despite threats from poaching, Ebola and even the fatal common cold virus! Now the habituated groups of gorillas have a better survival rate than the ones that have no contact with visitors. In the ’60’s and ’70’s plans to convert the area to agriculture promised between $60,000 and $70,000 annually but ecotourism has yielded $34,000,000 in its place!

The panel talked of ecotourism’s gestalt where the saving of iconic ‘umbrella’ species also necessitates and enables the preservation of the ecosystem and the myriad species that are not famous, but valid in their own right. They talked of the thrill of seeing bison, bears and wolves in the wild and how wolves have been reintroduced to Colorado’s Rockies on the east slopes after the very positive effects noted in the Yellowstone eco-system where wolves protected the landscape by inducing fear into the browsing elk. Wolves cost a couple of million dollars in stock losses per year but they bring in $35 million in wolf watching tourism.

I’ve participated in a lot of nature tourism myself, so I’m hooked already, but in case you haven’t tried it I’ll tell you that you can begin very locally indeed, by participating in nature walks and talks and then spreading your feelers and trying further afield!

Unfortunately many areas that have come to rely upon ecotourism revenue have suffered from the lock-down in response  to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help sustain communities, Natural Habitat Adventures offer visitors a chance to pay $250 down on their future ecotour now so that rangers can receive some income during the hard times of the pandemic. Less people are traveling these days but the Natural Habitat Adventures are doing their best to offer safe tours this year to see Monarchs in Chiapas, Mexico and in the USA ( View Trips).

For walking holidays in the Lake District consider hiring a trained mountain guide like Malcolm Wade of Lakeland Mountain Experience. I designed his website a few years ago.