Back in 2020, lockdown around the world wasn’t all bad news. With empty roads, skies and water, pollution levels, we reported on nature reclaiming its rightful place. We smiled at reports of kangaroos, wild boars and penguins taking over the streets, cheered at dolphins and whales breaching closer to the shore, and applauded the news that leatherback turtles have been nesting on beaches in numbers not see for decades.
But for all the good news, there were also fears that poaching had risen. South Africa and Botswana had rhinos killed in areas which are usually considered ‘safe’ from poachers due to them being patrolled by safari vehicles of camera-laden tourists and keen-eyed guides.
Since then, conservation charities and wildlife sanctuaries have expressed serious concerns for their futures as the tourism they rely on to support them has dried up. Who is going to pay for the preservation and upkeep of important habitats? Who will pay ranger salaries? This is serious. Without tourism, do we really think that mountain gorillas or indeed tigers would still be here?
And it’s not just the wildlife that is at risk. Tourism is often suggested to be the world’s largest employer; it is believed that the industry may be responsible for one in 10 jobs. Whole communities rely on it. When I visited Rewa, a community-run eco-lodge in Guyana in 2019, the couple of hundred tourists who visit each year had been responsible not just for the conservation of previously hunted wildlife in the area, but jobs had been created, with a primary school, junior school and medical centre all being funded.
Yes, there are plenty of examples of bad, unthinking tourism, and we are all aware of the scourge of overtourism, but it is also responsible for the conservation of wildlife, wild places, historic sites, and cultural heritage. Throughout the world are countless examples of community-based tourism projects, of poverty alleviated, of village communities saved, of schools supported by tourism, of tourism completely transforming lives for the better.
None of us knows when we’ll be travelling the globe again without any restrictions. Will some countries for the foreseeable future? Will we need to prove we are free of COVID-19? How long will we continue to practise social distancing? What will change that we haven’t even thought of yet?
We may find that travel can’t be taken for granted to the degree it was before. But what is clear is that tourism, certainly the sustainable tourism that you and I practise, will be desperately needed. It can and should be a major force for good.
So, continue to dream, to plan. The wanderlust urge is strong. Travel will return, and when it does, let’s travel well and with kindness. Not just for ourselves but for the planet.