Nature conservation and tourism are odd bedfellows. Tourists travel to wonder at the shimmering beauty of the natural world while their aircraft, trains, cars and boats spew huge amounts of carbon.
Behind the scenes, armies of workers toil to collect the rubbish left behind while visitors trample pristine forests, mountains, deserts and beaches.
Nature has bounced back in many places following the COVID lockdowns that abruptly halted international travel.
The respite from tourism has enabled much flora and fauna to re-establish in margins once given up as lost.
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Chasing The Tourist Pound
A puzzle for many countries is how to balance nature conservation with tourism.
Countries need the tourist dollar as a source of income, while conservationists warn habitats and species that attract tourists are suffering from exposure to visitors.
The problem is a worldwide phenomenon—the same complaints about failing conservation echo from the heights of the Himalayas to the fast-disappearing Amazon rainforest.
One environmental success story is where few people would expect to find the front line of nature – Koli National Park in Finland.
Founded in 1991, the park is one of Finland’s most popular outdoor spaces.
Jewel In The Tourist Crown
Lying 350 miles north of the capital Helsinki, the spectacular landscape of rolling hills and mountains crested with forests and bordered by beautiful waterways is a jewel in Finland’s tourism crown.
The opening involved a fierce debate arguing conservation should outweigh the needs of tourists.
On one side, environmentalists wanted to protect the park’s unique landscape, while others supported developing the park for mass tourism. Finally, after almost a decade, the government accepted the concept of sustainable nature tourism – a solution designed to conserve and protect.
The experiment has succeeded mainly as nature and visitors brush up against each other in the wild.
A recent study shows some friction as tourist developers are accused of greenwashing in a bid to advance their projects.
COVID Restrictions Lifted
But overall, the park’s natural beauty survives and thrives while visitors ski the slopes, take out their boats and hike the forest paths.
The key to the park’s success is credited to cultural heritage and an awareness of history.
“In the future, we may have large green parks, a new type of conservation area, which doesn’t push people away but rather highlights coexistence with nature, interaction with other people, and well-being,” said Professor Maria Lähteenmäki, the project’s principal investigator.
Elsewhere, a favourite South-East Asia destination for backpackers and students on a gap year break is feeling the strain of balancing conservation with economic necessity.
Tourists are welcome back in Thailand as the last COVID restrictions are lifted, but they are yet to throng the country’s perfect beaches, and resorts like before the virus led to the lockdown.
Tourism is vital for the Thai economy. Many small islands and resorts would die without the tourist dollar.
And that’s a delicate issue for conservationists and developers.
Boarded Up Shops
Tourists want to go to places like the small island of Koh Tao because of the area’s spectacular natural beauty and the chance to swim in warm, transparent waters among shoals of brightly coloured fish and the occasional basking shark.
COVID has dealt a blow to tourism. The main streets are busy with visitors, but stepping away from the lights gives a different picture. The shutters are down on boarded-up shops, bars and diving businesses. Hotels are running on low bookings.
Once an unspoilt haven for coconut farmers and fishermen, Koh Tao’s east coast is a sprawling urban area devoted to tourism. Rutted roads have become tarmac highways, and once-quiet lanes are lined with neon-lit bars.
Granted, the island’s jungle centre remains mainly unspoilt, while planners have tried to lessen the impact of building by restricting construction height to three storeys.
Before COVID, Koh Tao was heaving with 300,000 visitors thronging the 88 square-mile island.
Businesses want them back, or they risk going bust, but conservationists hope they stay away.
The sad reality is people want to visit the fun and exotic places they see on films and TV, and as the world grows more affluent, more can afford foreign holidays.
How much carbon does tourism generate?
Studies show that tourism generates around eight per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The figure accounts for flights, tourist activities, accommodation, and even making souvenirs.
What generates the biggest carbon footprint?
Air travel is the largest generator of carbon gases, with solo travel another significant contributor.
How does climate change impact tourism?
Science shows many places most vulnerable to climate change are also tourist hot spots – the UN identifies these as coastal regions, mountainous areas and the polar ice caps. Besides the polar regions, many of these places rely on tourism to drive the local economies.
Does sustainability matter in tourist areas?
The reality is if fewer people visit tourist destinations, less carbon would be emitted into the atmosphere, and the ecosystems at places people want to see would face less strain.
Does COVID affect climate change?
During lockdowns, tourism was virtually zero worldwide. Many struggling environments displayed encouraging signs of recovering from the effects of climate change, so, yes, COVID did affect climate change and for the better.
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