As tourism languishes in lockdown purgatory the communities it supports will be feeling the pain. Vital funding for conservation has vanished too, writes Dr Andrew Venter
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Lockdown and social distancing have slipped relatively easily into our daily language as we grapple with our new Covid-19 reality.
Harder to absorb are its effects on every sector of society.
The South African economy is forecast to contract by over 6%, against a global contraction of 3%. And the aftermath is likely to linger for decades to come.
Many sectors have begun putting recovery plans in place, structured around new social distancing rules and online and digital innovations. But the tourism sector remains stranded in lockdown purgatory.
According to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation, tourism will be the worst affected of all major economic sectors globally.
Global tourism revenue was forecast to grow by 4% in 2020; now it is forecast to drop by 35%, accompanied by global job losses of over 75 million.
In previous pandemics, it has taken tourism an average of 19 months to recover, but such is the scale and impact of Covid-19 that recovery will take a good deal longer.
The economic contraction will erode business and personal wealth, leaving less for business and recreational tourism. At the same time, additional social distancing requirements will increase the cost burden on businesses while reinforcing fears of infection across society, further slowing the tourism recovery.
In South Africa, tourism had been touted as a “sunrise sector” and the “new gold” of the economy. It contributed 9% of all economic activity and over 1.5 million jobs in 2018.
The sector is diverse, anchored by large, well-established hotel groups and travel companies, that complement a network of micro and small enterprises, including bed and breakfasts, tour guides, caterers and many others.
The Covid-19 lockdown has affected the entire sector and there is little clarity on when or how it will start operating again, beyond the symbolic use of a few hotels as quarantine facilities and the conversion of restaurants and catering companies into take-away meal providers.
Social media is crowded with pleas for help from this sector as owner-run businesses face ruin, having to make staff redundant and losing assets they have invested their life savings in.
The hard reality is that over 40% of tourism spend comes from international travellers who are unlikely to be allowed back into South Africa until 2021. It leaves little hope for many of these businesses.
Our efforts to protect and restore the cultural and natural assets that underwrite our tourism offering will experience a roll-on impact.
This is particularly true for our natural landscapes and systems, where state agencies and private conservation businesses rely heavily on tourism income to fund operations.
Perhaps more importantly, the tourism operations associated with these landscapes underwrite local economies, as demonstrated by the cluster of tourism activities around the Kruger, iSimangaliso, uKhahlamba, Addo and other landscapes.
It’s much the same throughout Africa, with tourism clusters associated with the Okavango, Serengeti, Virunga and Simien Mountain landscapes, to name but a few iconic destinations among hundreds.
In 2018, nature tourism contributed over $120 billion globally to the protection and restoration of these critical natural systems and the local economies they support. With the grounding of international travel and tourism, this income has now largely dried up.
Philanthropists contribute a further $50 billion to the same cause, but this too will be heavily eroded as the clamour for Covid-19 relief grows.
This loss of revenue comes at a bad time for nature, with three-quarters of our planet’s land and two-thirds of its oceans significantly altered by unsustainable human activity.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services, we have lost 50% of the world’s forests and coral reefs, and 70% of wetlands; we have dammed two-thirds of the world’s main rivers; and wildlife populations have declined by 60% since 1970.
Our health and wellbeing are threatened as a result, as food production is directly affected and freshwater becomes scarcer.
The decline of our natural systems will make it harder to reverse global warming as we rely on natural systems to absorb massive amounts of greenhouse gases.
The global network of protected landscapes and oceans is a system of nature banks. These protect essential systems and the biodiversity that constitutes life on the planet.
Without a vibrant and responsible tourism economy, there is simply not enough funding to support the protection and restoration of these natural systems, and the livelihood of the communities who live close to them.
Governments around the world have grown increasingly complacent about their custodianship of this essential service. They have come to rely on tourism revenue to make-up the shortfall in their spending.
Hopefully, the loss of tourism revenue will serve as a massive wake-up call.
To be sure tourism is not without its faults. At many tourism hotspots it has done harm to the environment, caused pollution, destroyed ecosystems and damaged or warped the social fabric.
However, its role in helping to underwrite nature’s protection and restoration is significant.
The sector needs to be embraced, enabled and prioritised.
We need to do more to develop partnerships that will protect and restore nature, while developing vibrant and sustainable local economies.
Our common good and future demand it.
• Dr Andrew Venter is the director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s operations in South Africa. Venter joined CISL SA from WILDTRUST, where he was chief executive for 19 years. Over this period, he led the development of WILDTRUST into one of the region’s largest and most influential environmental organisations. This story forms part of The Future We Want Series launched by the CISL and Roving Reporters in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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