Conservation in the age of COVID-19: adapting to the loss of tourism

    22 Sep 2021

    COVID-19’s impact on the global tourism industry has been severe: The United Nation’s World Tourism Organization found that international tourist arrivals have decreased by 70% globally since January, more than eight times the losses seen after the Great Recession in 2009. That revenue funds people’s livelihoods worldwide, as well as conservation initiatives in some of the world’s most environmentally vulnerable locations. Without it, many communities and environmental protection efforts are facing significant financial challenges. 

    This tip sheet is based on a webinar Earth Journalism hosted on 19 November 2020 with:

    • Joanna Elliott – Senior Director Conservation Partnerships, Fauna & Flora International;
    • Amanda Acosta – Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society;
    • Justine Vaz – General Manager, The Habitat Foundation, Malaysia;
    • Neila Manjate – Manager of Agricultural Livelihoods, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

    Three guest speakers represented regional organizations that rely on tourism funding to operate, while Joanna Elliott from Fauna & Flora International supports conservation efforts globally.

    Each described how they’ve experienced first-hand the challenges the pandemic has placed on conservation efforts and how their organizations have sought innovative solutions to continue protecting the conservation areas they manage and keep engaging the public, despite the lack of physical visitors. 

    Here are a few takeaways from their discussion.

    Diverse revenue streams are often the key to financial resilience

    “The impact of COVID-19 has been worse in places where international tourism brings in the majority of conservation revenue,” Elliott said. She noted that the most significant impacts had been felt in Africa, where many organizations rely entirely on tourism to support their operating budgets.

    The reason for this dependence is because tourism revenue is self-generated and unrestricted, said Acosta from Belize Audubon. Grants and donations can be helpful to fill gaps or fund certain projects, but restricted funding can’t always keep the lights on. 

    “If the boat engine dies today and we have to find $2,000 to fix it, where does that come from?” Acosta explained. 

    In Belize, Acosta said her organization has worked to evaluate the feasibility of other revenue streams, such as sustainable logging, the carbon offset market, honey and bee agriculture, and nurseries for high-demand plants, the latter two of which they’re supporting. Not all of them work for the conservation areas Belize Audubon manages, but having a combination of options is what matters, she says.

    Yet knowing you need to diversify and finding those new revenue options are two different things, said Vaz from Malaysia’s Habitat Foundation. Every organization has different needs and exists in a different local context, so identifying the right solutions is essential.

    The Habitat Foundation has managed to diversify in two ways: By creating new, digital programs like virtual tours, webinars with scientists, and wildlife education videos; and by targeting the domestic tourism market rather than just international visitors. 

    “Although we are missing 26.1 million people who visited Malaysia last year, there’s a whole lot of Malaysians who love to travel who can’t go anywhere,” said Vaz. Around 1 million of those visitors came to Penang Hill, the rainforest conservation area Habitat manages on Malaysia’s Penang Island.

    “We are finding across the board, people are seeking nature, and we want to try to facilitate that.”

    Engaging local communities, not just international ones, can activate new supporters closer to home

    Yet the domestic tourism market is less evolved in Malaysia than other countries, and Vaz said there’s a lot of visitor education that is necessary in order to reduce the pressures unregulated tourism can place on vulnerable ecosystems. It’s a lot of hard work, but it pays off by demonstrating to new audiences the importance of environmental protection. 

    Sometimes domestic tourists also face physical challenges accessing their local conservation areas. Some of Belize’s protected spaces, for example, are so remote that they’re actually easier to reach from Guatemala, Acosta said. Finding the money, time, and ideas to tackle these challenges in order to tap into potential new audiences can be a significant roadblock as well.  

    Beyond educating domestic visitors, it’s also possible to weave the livelihoods of the communities on the borders of conservation areas into environmental protection efforts, says Manjate in Mozambique. Gorongosa Park provides financial, technical, and business assistance to local farmers to enable sustainable agriculture and then buys their products (such as honey and coffee) from them. The products are sold for profit, and Gorongosa invests the money back into both the conservation area and the community agriculture programs.

    Manjate said this type of intervention diversifies individual income streams to make families more resilient while also engaging with them about the value of protecting the national park.

    “The right mix of strategy and interventions will change people’s behavior and attitudes and prosperity,” – Neila Manjate.

    Along with the loss of finances, organizations are facing losses of confidence and stability 

    Elliott, from Fauna & Flora, has seen more than just drastic financial challenges stem from the pandemic. People are also feeling less confident, less stable, and less sure of the future. 

    “Covid has just had the most dramatic impact on the whole context in which we operate,” Elliott said. “What we’ve noted as 2020 as gone on is the impact on people’s sense of confidence, resilience, sense of the future.” 

    The loss of tourism in many local communities has meant a return to unsustainable practices, such as deforestation and poaching, when the funding to pay for conservation activities runs out. But it’s about more than the money, Elliott said.

    “Yes, the global tourism sector has dropped by 80% in value during the year and we see the huge impacts of that,” she noted. But the emotional and psychological toll these losses are having on people are shaping the work Fauna & Flora is supporting more than the financial problems, she added.

    The climate impact of international travel versus the benefits of global eco-tourism

    International flights have a large impact on climate change through their carbon emissions, but the benefits tourists bring to eco-tourism ventures worldwide is unquestionable. As we’ve seen airplane-related emissions drop during lockdown, the question of ‘to fly or not to fly’ has only become more relevant. 

    “What 2020 has taught us is that we don’t need to be doing all this flying for business,” Elliott said. The focus now should be on reducing flights for events that can be held digitally, like business meetings or conferences, she explained, and only taking international flights for experiences that can’t be had online.

     Acosta agreed, noting that Belize Audubon has been exploring the possibility of offering carbon offsets so that visitors could donate money to offset the carbon emissions they generate during their travel – essentially creating a carbon-neutral vacation.

    Plus, the value of an eco-tourism experience extends beyond simply the financial investment. “The experience that you’re having matters,” Acosta said. The Belize Audubon’s programs work to instill the value of responsible living in all visitors by talking about solutions for environmental problems, hoping that once they leave, they’ll decide to get involved in environmental protection in their home communities. 

    Story ideas

    Look at responses and adaptation: For many organizations, taking action to combat the disruptions caused by the pandemic has meant completely altering their traditional programs and operations. Many have landed on solutions that will continue funding conservation efforts and may even make them more resilient to future shocks. How are land managers, community groups or governments solving these problems in your coverage area? If they’re not, how can the ways the organizations participating in this webinar are responding be adapted to your local context?

    Look at barriers and local participation: In Belize, a major issue for domestic tourism is that the conservation areas are remote and difficult to access. What other barriers are organizations and conservation projects facing in their journey to become more financially resilient? How can organizations overcome those barriers? How can local communities be involved in those efforts?

    Look beyond the direct, immediate effects: The loss of confidence and stability brought on by the pandemic will have environmental ramifications beyond eco-tourism. If, for example, families return to unsustainable practices due to a loss of income from the drop in tourist revenue, they may then be more reluctant to participate in sustainable activities in the future because they no longer see them as providing a stable source of livelihood. How can organizations combat this emotional loss and the toll it takes on individual and collective resilience? 

    Look at potential innovations: Both a reluctance to travel and the ongoing restrictions may continue well into 2021 (and it really happened – Ecolife). If international travel is not an option, how can supporters of eco-tourism continue to invest in projects from afar? Are there new, digital forms of eco-tourism that might be financially feasible in the future, and what would that look like?

    Areas of focus 

    Financial resilience: If tourism and international travel don’t rebound, organizations will need to find financial alternatives for the short and long haul. How can conservation programs develop without relying on tourism funding? We’ve offered a few examples here, but what other options exist? Are there commercial products these communities can create? What other jobs might be available? Can information technology be leveraged to bring in money?

    Local engagement: Many people lack the resources to visit, enjoy, and invest in nearby eco-tourism opportunities for a variety of reasons. For some, the areas might be too remote, they may not have enough money to pay entrance or trip fees, or they may not even know these conservation areas exist. Finding new ways to incorporate these communities, both as audiences and partners, could be a possible solution right now. 

    The emotional toll: Major funding organizations and foundations will need to take the emotional and psychological toll of unemployment, the loss of stability, and other non-monetary pandemic impacts into account as they plan how to support grassroots projects moving forward. What that will look like will be different in each location and require conversations with local stakeholders to have meaningful impact.


    We use nature for free. How can tourist thank the wildlife for the experience? Take a look here.

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