Africa’s wilderness areas are under threat. Even more so now that the Covid-19 pandemic has uncovered the cracks in the conservation models that have been keeping projects afloat. Traditional funding mechanisms for protected areas – including wildlife sanctuaries, conservancies, nature reserves and national parks – have either relied on donations from philanthropic individuals and government / private development banks, or on tourism, usually high-end tourism only accessible to wealthy individuals and targeted at western markets. Both mechanisms were severely affected by the global pandemic to such an extent that, practically overnight in Africa, 90% of African tour operators experienced an approximate 75% reduction in bookings (Hockings, M. et al. 2020), and it was expected that philanthropic donations were diverted to other “priority” projects or cut all-together (Nature.org. 2020).
Research carried out a couple months after the pandemic became global (and the world came to a stand-still) found that most tourism outfits on the African continent were suffering and that there would be no immediate respite. According to the UNWTO, visitor numbers to Africa in the summer of 2020 were down as low as 99% (Independent. 2021). Despite the doom and gloom, the UNWTO predicted that the tourism industry would recover to 90% of its pre-covid levels by the middle of 2024. Even now, 64% of tourism professionals that were surveyed believe that tourist numbers won’t reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024, or later (UNWTO. 2022). In the first quarter of 2022, tourism numbers to African countries were up by 12% since European Covid restrictions have been relaxed (UNWTO. 2022), a far cry from reaching the UNWTO predictions.
Negative impacts on community
Even though the world – especially in Africa, the Americas and Europe – is now seeing a resurgence in tourism activities and accommodation being booked, there is a sense of cautious optimism across the industry. The trauma of Coronavirus and the restrictions that were imposed on travel habits across the planet will most likely continue to affect activities that relied heavily on the international tourism dollar such as community-based and conservation projects for generations to come.
In 2021, a year after the pandemic started, the negative impacts on community and conservation projects were being felt. an article in the Conversation magazine, poaching in some of the most well-known national parks was on the rise, poverty around protected areas was increasing, logging was gaining ground, and all this was predominantly because one of the major lifelines – tourism – that supported communities and conservation projects ground to a standstill. Not to mention other challenges to local economic development, such as restrictions on cross-border trade and an increase in the price of commodities. The resilience of international tourism dependent conservation projects was being questioned.
Atacora, Department in Benin - Africa
Looking to resilient tourism and conservation post-pandemic
Skip to 2022, and solutions on how to make tourism and conservation initiatives more resilient have become a top priority for leading organisations. In March 2022, the Luc Hoffmann institute, a WWF affiliated organisation aiming to crack the challenges of sustainably funding conservation initiatives, launched the Future of Conservation NGOs Innovation Challenge campaign to find alternative sustainable income streams for protected areas. Recently, in May 2022 the United Nations convened a High-level thematic debate of the General Assembly around the theme of “Putting sustainable and resilient tourism at the heart of an inclusive recovery”, quoting that:
“Tourism is a major driver of economic growth and development, providing direct and indirect livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people. Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, tourism contributed directly to 4% of world GDP, representing USD 3.5 trillion. It has also been one of the hardest hit sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a sector of strategic importance to many vulnerable countries, its rebound can be a driver of the global recovery overall. The recovery of the tourism sector also provides an opportunity to build the sustainability and resilience of the sector, which supports calls to ensure that the world “builds back better, stronger, greener and bluer” post-pandemic” (United Nations. 2022).
Conservation recovery is directly linked to the recovery of tourism, and therefore it is important to consider wildlife protection as part of this drive for a more sustainable, responsible, and inclusive “reboot” of the global tourism sector.
View of a village in Africa
Solutions to a more resilient recovery
One of the solutions, which was tested during the covid crisis, was the promotion of domestic and local tourism development. Countries such as Rwanda and Malawi were at the forefront of testing out how these under-developed markets could bolster the revenue losses of protected areas. Akagera National Park, in Rwanda, was a great example of how the government took the lead in promoting tourism to national parks for local markets and taking the opportunities that lock-down measures presented to support such projects.
Rwandans were asked to stay at home – like most of the world during this uncertain period – but if they wanted to leave their abode, they could (only) visit their national parks. This provided much needed financial support to conservation initiatives and to local communities, whilst at the same time introducing Rwandans to their natural heritage. The affects of this decision are still ongoing. Currently, Rwandans are the main source market for Akagera National Park, many of which hold season passes, and Akagera is generating 90% of its operational costs thanks to this initiative (Empowerafrica.com. 2022).
Local and domestic tourism may have been a short-to-medium solution to weather the impacts of the pandemic on local economies and conservation initiatives, but beyond this it is important to develop strategies that, if another global crisis arises that will affect tourism numbers (which may be very likely), will ensure that wildlife protection and local community development initiatives are also sustainable, responsible, inclusive, and resilient. Organisations and agencies that have these tenets as part of their key objectives may want to consider the following (this list is not exhaustive):
Into the jungle in Africa
Identify existing products and services in and around protected areas against criteria centred around quality, health & safety, and accessibility – and priorities ‘low hanging fruit’ that can be used as catalysts for tourism development.
Develop market-led activities and accommodation offers to attract diversified target markets to protected areas via innovative and affordable marketing strategies (e.g. SMART social media campaigns).
Train key local SMEs and key tourism stakeholders to meet target market expectations, and on responsible tourism principles and practice.
Implement a multi-sector approach to promote nature and community-based tourism to domestic and local tourism markets in destinations involving key public, private and third sector decision makers.
Improve accessibility by road, and air to protected areas and make it affordable and inclusive.
Explore the development of innovative ways by which people can discover the protected areas, such as ‘virtual tourism’.
Design a monitoring and evaluation framework to assess and report on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of tourism activities and accommodation.
Africa: Lion in its natural habitat
Tourism is not a panacea for conservation
As much as tourism is seen by many as a panacea, this is unfortunately not the case. Even with tourism generating high levels of revenue for the protected area and the surrounding local communities, it cannot be relied upon as a sustainable source of income as the Covid-19 pandemic proven. It only works if tourism markets are visiting the destination regularly. As soon as travel is restricted, these protected areas lose their income and suffer the consequences that follow. It is therefore important to diversify sustainable income streams for the conservation activities and the local communities:
Many protected areas harbour a variety of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) that, by creating a partnership with a socially and environmentally conscious established Agro-forestry company, can be sustainably harvested over a long period (e.g. 15-25 years) to generate significant revenue for the protected area and local communities.
Carbon sequestration projects and the trade of carbon credits can also generate significant revenue for protected areas but require a lot of field-based research to be done to accumulate the level of data needed to make the credits competitive on the carbon market.
Grazing cattle in protected area buffer zones can also generate sustainable income for protected areas if good practice models are implemented and local herders are included in the development process from the start. In Ol Pejeta Reserve, in Kenya, a herd of 8.000 head of cattle grazed for 10 years in the protected area, with significant positive impacts on wildlife numbers (e.g. a 60% increase of wild ungulates), fire management by keeping grass short, and income for conservation initiatives.
Non-Fungible Tokens (NTFs) are – potentially – the future of sustainable funding for conservation initiatives. By using blockchain technology to ensure the uniqueness and traceability of a digital commodity (e.g. art-piece or trading card), NTFs can, via the income generated via initial sales and commission thereafter via their trade, sustainably support protected areas.
Conservation is often complex and therefore it requires a complex and innovative mix of income streams as part of a sustainable revenue model for protected areas. Tourism can, and does, offer clear opportunities for sustainable revenue that, if designed with sustainability in mind and involving local communities in all stages of development and management, can support conservation activities and local economic development. However, to ensure that projects can be supported during times of crisis, it is important to diversify income streams by developing partnerships with private enterprises that prioritise the sustainable use of resources and fair employment of local community members. The ideal scenario would be to integrate alternative income generation activities into traditional protected area tourism itineraries and immerse the visitor in the conservation story, creating an emotional attachment to the project and guaranteeing support for years to come.