A Delicate Balance: Building Back Tourism In Ways That Support Nature and Communities

Photo: Pexels

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Nature is healing” memes aside, the past year of paused travel has had an unexpected downside for wildlife worldwide. In some countries, fewer tourists and cruise ships have given animals a reprieve, like whales off the coast of Alaska no longer subjected to five months of constant cruise ship traffic. However, a lack of ecotourism “wreaked its own strange havoc” on people and wildlife, as the New York Times reports. Because many countries finance conservation through tourism dollars, a drop in tourists meant a drop in those budgets, leading to illegal logging, fishing, and poaching in order to keep people in local communities afloat. 

Why This Matters: As we emerge from the pandemic and the travel industry resumes, building back better includes ensuring that tourism doesn’t harm wildlife, but can also help fund its safeguarding and renewal. What will be the lasting impacts — it’s anyone’s guess. After leatherback and hawksbill turtles returned to Thai beaches for the first time in years, the country’s natural resources and environment minister announced plans to close national parks for months at a time “so that nature can rehabilitate itself and the park rangers can improve the parks,” as he told BloombergThe trick going forward is balancing the need for tourism so locals don’t turn to illegal means for basic needs, but also ensuring that the natural world can continue to heal. 

A drop in ocean noise

Underwater noise is extremely disruptive for marine life, making it harder for aquatic creatures to communicate with each other and find food. This year, with cruise ships docked, marine life caught a break. In Juneau, researchers were able to pick whale feeding calls and contact calls, sounds that they’d never heard before because of boat noise.

Clearing the air

Emissions dropped 7 percent because of the pandemic’s grinding halt, with transportation emissions falling more than double compared to the year prior. It was the largest single reduction in the past century — and what we need to replicate year after year in order to hit global emission goals. However, the conditions of the past year’s reductions aren’t ones we want to replicate, and the responsibility should not rest on individual actions alone. As climate activist Bill McKibben told the Times, even with everyone not flying or commuting, the scale of emissions reduction didn’t match the scale of dramatic change in peoples’ lives. 

“It means that most of the damage is located in the guts of our systems,” he said, “and we need to reach in and rip out the coal and gas and oil and stick in the efficiency, conservation and sun and wind.”

To Go Deeper: For a chuckle check out some Nature is Healing memes here.

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