What is the FUTURE of CONSERVATION TOURISM?
Conservation tourism has been pummelled into the dust by Covid. It is no wonder that now battled and bruised, conservation areas are licking their wounds, and talking quite seriously about moving beyond tourism. And while I have always been the first to argue for the critical importance of diversified income sources, I can’t help but find the current rhetoric troubling.
You see, I don’t believe that conservation areas have ever actually understood how to unlock tourism. So how can there be so much passionate talk about the need to move beyond this “failed” tourism model, when they haven’t actually understood how to design a successful model in the first place?
Why do I say this? Because conservation tourism as it stands is comprised of an exceptionally narrow and limited toolbox. Open this toolbox and you find the same standard set of cookie cutter experiences that haven’t changed much over the past couple of decades, besides for the addition of a couple of colourful sprinkles here and there. Experiences such as the army-green khaki-clad game drive replete with giant ogling zoom-lens; the pampered luxury tented camp topped off with a fire-lit boma dinner; and for the adventurous, a taste of tracking capped off with savannah sundowners.
The result of such a limited toolbox is that by default only conservation areas boasting the Big 5 (fallacy), or other charismatic species, are deemed worthy for tourism. While the other areas have just fallen by the wayside of attraction with nary a shrug of concern.
All that has changed with Covid, and it’s not all for the worst.
While the economic impacts have been dire for popular parks that have never had to move beyond their traditional toolbox. Covid has actually opened up opportunities for other parks who could never compete with the Big 5 drawcard.
How can I say that?
Just pause for a moment and consider the extent of heightened stress you have been under for the past year. Can you feel the tenseness in your shoulders from sitting in front of this computer on zoom calls for hours on end. The utter exhaustion that has overtaken you from being “on call” 24/7 without separation between work and home.
I don’t know about you, but I for one am in desperate need of a time out. After all of this seemingly endless sitting, I am craving space to breathe, to move and to be. My entire being just yearns to disconnect and be outdoors. And I am not alone. Just look around at how many people you know who never exercised at all before Covid, who have taken up walking, running or cycling during the past year.
You see, while Covid may have disrupted and limited the international market, at the same time it has created a much larger market for nature-based wellness tourism. The fact that we have been cooped up and chained to our desks has resulted in the creation of deep and resounding need (not merely desire) for escape, for the outdoors, for connection with nature, and for travel to wide open remote spaces where the threat of crowds and covid can be shrugged off, if only for a while.
Covid has in fact created a new market of people searching for new ways to engage with nature so that they can recover, recharge and replenish their mind, body and spirit. And this market is a boon for conservation areas that have never had the Big 5 or other charismatic species to offer up on a platter.
So yes I agree, now is the time for conservation areas to move beyond their narrow cookie cutter definition of tourism to embrace the opportunities of nature-based wellness tourism. Now is the time for conservation areas of all types and sizes to realise that their assets are being sought out by a vast market almost literally sitting on their doorstep. Now is the time to start creating a new model of conservation tourism.
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