Sustainable recovery of tourism in protected areas from the COVID-19 pandemic

Sustainable recovery of tourism in protected areas from the COVID-19 pandemic

Transforming Vision Into Action - Oped

16 December 2020

IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas

In their guest post1 for Transforming One Planet Vision into Action, the authors (Anna Spenceley, Ana Baez, James R. Barborak, Clara-Jane Blye, Kelly Bricker, Hery Cahyadi, Katherine Corrigan, Elizabeth Halpenny, Glen Hvenegaard, Delphine King, Yu-Fai Leung, Ante Mandic, Steve McCool, Robin Naidoo, David Newsome, Dominik Rüede, James Sano, Mahmoud Sarhan, Veronica Santamaria, Thiago Beraldo Sousa, and Anne-Kathrin Zschiegner) share their reflections on working towards a responsible recovery from COVID-19 for the tourism sector.

Global experiences dealing with COVID-19 among the conservation and tourism community reinforces time-tested principles and practices we have developed over the years, such as those described in the IUCN Best Practice Guidelines on sustainable tourism2 .This pandemic has highlighted the interconnectedness between various stakeholders and sectors, including private enterprise, public health, protected area visitors, gateway communities, government and non-governmental organisations. Recovery requires we collaborate and work together if we desire thriving businesses, healthy ecosystems, resilient livelihoods and sustainable tourism economies.

We recommend that protected area tourism is ‘built back better’ than before COVID-19, by not returning to business as usual, by taking into account climate change, biodiversity loss2, and by being more inclusive, equitable and integrated with sustainable development principles. Nobody can predict how the pandemic will evolve, nor the recovery timeline, but stakeholders can identify plausible scenarios and create action plans that work towards sustainable tourism. Furthermore, market research suggests that post-COVID-19 people will seek out adventure travel, natural spaces, safe and quality experiences3. Therefore, it is imperative that protected areas are prepared for directing this surge towards positive outcomes.

Resilience is important for the health of visitors, local people, and staff; more diverse income streams for the local economy and protected areas; greater attention given to equity and inclusiveness; and a better understanding of tourism globally, such as changes affecting the airline4  and cruise industries. Long-term resilience for protected areas also means strengthening community wellbeing and local economies, reviewing the financial viability of enterprise infrastructure and possibly establishing long-term investment plans. Protected areas and their shift towards additional digital offerings; coupled with a better balance between local, national, and international visitors; can increase the bonding between nature and people, and facilitate conservation education despite physical distances and restricted travel.

Planning for the future starts with building on what we now know about the relationships between biodiversity, tourism, and health5. Those relationships can be uncertain, subject to change, and often loosely coupled. The challenges ahead are difficult and global, affecting many protected areas, the livelihoods of dependent people, and influencing visitor experience. Addressing these challenges in a post-COVID-19 world provides an opportunity to reframe nature-based tourism and outdoor recreation to be more attentive to these dimensions. Our future can approach these challenges in an integrated way, with models such as OneHealth6. We recommend that planning be more holistic, inclusive, equitable, adaptable and focus on what tourism and outdoor recreation sustains.  Many people involved are particularly vulnerable to change due to distances from markets and dependency on natural resources for livelihoods.  The way forward for tourism has five dimensions: (1) fostering openness to change, with a new way of thinking and acting; (2) developing a vision; (3) protecting natural and cultural heritage for their importance to the environmental services of the area and peoples’ dependency on tourism; (4) recovering and rebuilding local livelihoods and the health of residents and visitors; and (5) reframing tourism, includingthe resources it uses, to achieve productive and healthy livelihoods without degrading the biodiversity upon which it depends.

The net-impact of COVID-19 on protected areas, local communities, and wildlife is yet to be determined, and the balance of damage caused (i.e., loss of income for conservation projects, damage, wildlife crime in the absence of a management presence) and unanticipated benefits (i.e. ecological recovery and restoration, increased demand for sustainable travel)8. A critical assessment of previous tourism scenarios (focussing on what was good and what might have been bad) will be an essential step forward. We promote establishing consensus on a more sustainable pathway and then establishing appropriate management approaches. The coronavirus may be with us long into the future9 . Protected area managers, tourism operators, visitors, and gateway communities need to be prepared to meet the challenge of operating amid COVID-19.  This requires us to think differently about visitor experiences, community livelihood, protected area policies, and paradigms.

Tourism and Protected Areas Specialist Group is one of the volunteer specialist groups of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). The group’s mission is to provide a forum where people collaborate, stimulate dialogue, share expertise, develop and disseminate knowledge, and enhance learning, to enable the planning, development and management of sustainable tourism in protected areas. See Tourism - TAPAS website

1This text is extracted from a more extensive paper by the same authors, “Tourism in protected areas amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” submitted to the Special Issue on Protected and Conserved Areas and Pandemics in the journal PARKS.
2 Leung, Y.-F., Spenceley, A., Hvenegaard, G. T., & Buckley, R. eds. (2018).  Tourism and Visitor Management in Protected Areas: Guidelines for Sustainability (Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines Series No. 27). Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.
3Global Environment Facility (GEF) (2020). White paper on a GEF COVID-19 response strategy: The complexities and imperatives of Building Back Better, GEF/C59.Inf.14. 17 November 2020. 59th GEF Council Meeting, December 7-11. Virtual Meeting.
4 Galvani, A., Lew, A. A., and Perez, M. S. (2020) COVID-19 is expanding global consciousness and the sustainability of travel and tourism, Tourism Geographies, 22 (3), 567-576.
Riley, E. (2020). What the future of adventure travel looks like. Outside. 21 May 2020. Available at: (Accessed: 5 October 2020)
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5 Nunes, A. (2020). How Covid-19 will change air travel as we know it, BBC, Available at: (Accessed on 15 September 2020).
6 Naidoo, R., Gerkey, D., Hole, D., Pfaff, A, Ellis, A. M., Golden, C. D., Herrera, D., Johnson, K., Mulligan, Ml., Ricketts, T. H. and Fisher, B. (2019). Evaluating the impacts of protected areas on human well-being across the developing world, Science Advances, 5 (4),
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav3006
7 Hendricks, W., Schwab, K., Bricker, K.S., Zajchowski, C. & Dustin, D. (2019). The Future of Parks and Recreation: One Health. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, Volume 37, Issue 1, Spring 2019, pp. 141–145.
8 Newsome, D. (2020) The collapse of tourism and its impact on wildlife tourism destinations. Journal of Tourism Futures
Spenceley, A. (2020). Building nature-based tourism back from COVID-19: Recovery, resilience and sustainability. Report to the Luc Hoffmann Institute. 12 November 2020
9 Lovelace, B. and Kim, J., (2020) World Health Organization warns: Coronavirus remains ‘extremely dangerous’ and ‘will be with us for a long time’, CNBC, 22 April 2020, Available at: (Accessed: 15 September 2020)