Rebuilding Global Nature-based Tourism will Protect Fragile Environments and Economies

Food & Land Use, Financial Risk & Reward

The impact of COVID-19 on the global economy is just beginning to become clear. On 7 April, the International Labour Organization (ILO) cited expected worldwide job losses at 195 million.[i] The ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, urged that maintaining relationships between workers and their enterprises to keep them in the labour market will pay dividends when it comes to the recovery.

The World Travel and Tourism Council calculates that in 2019, tourism contributed $8.9 trillion to the world’s GDP and accounted for one in ten jobs around the world. In much of the world, tourism and nature are co-dependent as nature-based tourism relies upon natural capital to drive economic stability and conservation.

Beaches, mountains, scenery and wildlife are key draws. Without robust natural resources, the impetus for tourism would be sharply diminished. Without earnings from tourism, there would be much less incentive to invest in the conservation of resources. The tourism sector is the largest market-based contributor to the finance of protected areas such as national parks, according to the World Bank.[ii]

For nature-based tourism, COVID-19 related losses may be prolonged, or even permanent, unless decisive action to conserve and protect the natural capital base is taken.

There is a risk that natural capital may be lost because of major economic shocks when they hit a natural capital rich country without a social safety net. This is a global problem, but it is particularly acute in the case of wildlife tourism in Africa.

For example:

  • In Kenya, the tourism sector, which is almost exclusively nature-based tourism focused on wildlife, earns an average of $1 billion annually.
  • In Namibia, nature-based tourism based in community conservation contributed $488 million in 2018 to net national income and created 5,147 jobs from 1990 to 2016.[iii] Namibia’s GDP in 2018 was $14.2 billion.
  • In Uganda, gorilla nature-based tourism contributes $34 million to the local economy.[iv]
  • In Africa, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that 3.6 million people are employed in the nature-based tourism industry, worth $29 billion in 2018.
  • Globally, natural protected areas receive eight billion visitors annually generating (up to) an estimated $600 billion compared to (est.) $10 billion spent on protecting these sites.[v]

In Kenya, 15 Mara Conservancies form a 140,500 hectare protected wildlife area bordering the northern Maasai Mara National Park. Part of a major community conservation programme, Mara Conservancies’ land is leased from 14,500 Maasai landowners by 40 tourism partners. Using conservation fees generated from guests, these tourism partners pay lease fees, create employment and provide education and health services to local communities and landowners. Without income from tourism, wildlife conservation will be compromised as no funding will be available to pay lease fees. As a result, the landowners will be incentivized to convert their land into agriculture production with significant negative consequences for wildlife and the economies that depend on wildlife.[vi]

Loss of protected areas and wildlife is the functional equivalent of eating one’s seed corn.

A wildlife economy, according to Stellenbosch University’s African Wildlife Economy Institute, understands nature as an economic asset, utilizing undomesticated animals and plants and the ecosystems in which they live to produce goods and services for human benefit.

The world needs to manage these risks by directly investing in natural capital economies.

There is no question that a humanitarian crisis is looming, and that relief will be urgently needed very soon. Our global challenge is to invest in relief in ways that will accelerate recovery and help all countries to come back stronger. The COVID-19 pandemic is an inflection point in world history, a point at which we can either take a path upwards towards sustainability and resilience or choose one that takes us lower into the world of shocks and crises.

In much of the world, recovery will be best served if we provide bridge support to the unemployed through jobs programmes that directly invest in natural capital. A green infrastructure strategy can provide necessary skills and wages to draw down our environmental deficit – through replanting mangroves and watersheds, removing invasive species, upgrading and rewilding our conservation areas, building fire breaks and restoring areas damaged by wildfire in natural forests, restoring shorelines, rebuilding tourism infrastructure to minimize environmental impacts and installing better waste management and energy systems. Investment in recovery should help us to build the world that we want, rather than shore up the old one.

A modern model would include a focus on capacity development especially for local communities and would advance social equity through opportunities for women and youth.

Among the most hard-hit components of the “nature-based tourism wildlife economies” are fragile small businesses in the developing world and communities surrounding protected areas that rely on tourism for income.

Governments can support these critical conservation efforts by issuing temporary tax waivers, encouraging banks to renegotiate loans, granting tax breaks to prevent firms collapsing, thereby preserving jobs and economic activity to earn export revenues in the recovery. Nature-based tourism businesses can engage philanthropy to request stop-gap funding measures and critical supplies to enable conservation outcomes. Businesses and individuals can support these nature-based tourisms activities via paying ahead of time for trips and paying now for “remote safaris” similar to how individuals now “visit museums remotely”.

With foresight and investment, we can help developing countries dependent upon a wildlife economy to build back better.


John Waugh, Principal Global Practice Specialist – Environment, DAI, contributed to this blog.


[i] McKeever, CNBC (8 April 2020). Coronavirus is set to cost 195 million jobs in the second quarter, UN labor agency predicts.

[ii] World Bank (2018). Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism.

[iii] World Bank (2018). Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism.

[iv] World Bank (2018). Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism.

[v] Balmford et al., PLOS Biology (2015). Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas.

[vi] The Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) was formed in 2013 to serve as a membership organization for current and future wildlife conservancies in the Greater Maasai Mara with a mandate from landowners and tourism parties to play an overarching coordination role for Greater Mara Ecosystem stakeholders. The MMWCA focuses on ensuring the prosperity of biodiversity and wildlife, the regional Maasai population, recreation, tourism, and the nation of Kenya for generations to come. The MMWCA is a member of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) that comprises 12 regional wildlife conservation associations across Kenya.

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