National Parks: The Delicate Balance of Sharing and Protecting

4 April 2017

From the famous Inca ruins of Peru’s Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary and Kruger National Park’s wildlife in South Africa to the world’s largest coral reef system in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef National Park, the planet’s national parks and protected spaces are drawing visitors in on an unprecedented scale.

A snapshot of the situation shows that in the United States, 325 million people visited the country’s national parks in 2016, up from a record-breaking 307 million in 2015. In New Zealand, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park visitation increased 25% from 2015 to 2016. And in South Africa, park visitation has also been rising steadily over the years, according to annual reports.

People want to enjoy the natural landscape when they travel, but at what cost?

This is good news for tour operators, whose livelihoods often depend on providing experiences in these areas, particularly for adventure travelers. And, of course, one of the reasons for maintaining protected areas is so people can appreciate and enjoy them. Nonetheless, this increase in visitors also presents conservation challenges, yet conservation efforts in many countries depend on park entry fees. Visitation is important to keep revenue flowing, especially in places where federal funding doesn’t match demand. But more people means more trail erosion, more trash, longer lines, more interactivity with wildlife, and, unfortunately, a possibly less pleasant experience.

Despite any potential interest in sustainability, the truth is that most people just want to enjoy their vacations. They want to trek, snorkel, and see wild animals – that’s what they signed up for. As a result, tour operators acquire a certain amount of responsibility when it comes to actively safeguarding these fragile areas. The question is, however, how they can best support conservation efforts in protected areas while still maintaining their businesses.

Visitation Considerations 

With successful marketing and word-of-mouth promotion, some hot spot destinations universally remain on bucket lists the world over. People want to hike the Grand Canyon from rim-to-rim or see the Big Five in the Serengeti, but these aren’t the only places travelers can have incredible adventure experiences. “A small subset of parks and reserves in both developed and developing nations face overwhelming visitation and insufficient staff and budget to adequately manage the visitation,” said Jim Barborak, co-director at the Center for Protected Area Management at Colorado State University. “However, most parks and reserves open to tourism and recreation – and that is the vast majority of the world’s parks and reserves – do not have enough visitation to garner needed public, business sector, and political support to achieve the needed prestige, budget, and personnel to adequately conserve resources.”

Executive vice president and chief operating officer of National Parks Revealed Mark Campbell agreed: “We are always trying to encourage agents to present to their clients not just the usual cast of characters – Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone. What about the Olympics, the North Cascades, Mt. Rainer? Lots of parks are very underutilized, and adventure travelers will love getting off of the beaten path at less well-known sites.”

This is an opportunity for tour operators, who can turn their offerings to less visited, but no less deserving, protected areas. Entrance fees, guiding permits, and money spent in nearby communities helps supports those areas that don’t receive as much attention.

Role of Self-Education

Prior to solidifying itinerary details, tour operators should take it upon themselves to understand the underlying ecological, cultural, and political issues and efforts in the area. For example, Pedro de Castro da Cunha e Menezes, national coordinator for ecotourism and business in Brazil, noted that, while general ecotourism operators have a good idea of how the country’s park system operates, they lack knowledge on how tourism and conservation efforts can complement each other. “For instance,” he said, “tour operators do not know a well-planned long-distance hike can double up as an ecological corridor or realize tourists can help inventory wildlife.”

Tour operators are encouraged to put in the time to really understand the local community within which they are working. “It is not only the right thing to do from an ethical point of view, it’s good business,” said Nicky Fitzgerald, the owner of Angama, a lodge on the edge of the Maasai Mara, who has also worked with a number of parks in Africa and Asia over the years. “Don’t make false promises. You have to work with the communities, and you have to give back, otherwise you won’t have a business.”

Once tours are underway, operators should adopt sustainable practices with fuel conservation, waste management, and recycling. Also, they should not work in isolation and, instead, remain in contact with and hire local help where appropriate, thinking about how they can take ownership and be part of the solution for the visitor experience and environmental and cultural sustainability.

Philanthropic Offerings

Knowing the impact adventure travel has on parks, many tour operators commit to philanthropic efforts, giving everything from time to money to curb their carbon footprints. Some include donations to worthy local causes in the price of their tours. These may include destination-specific organizations or projects focusing on a certain type of issue, such as water access or education. Some organizations, such as the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund, feature ongoing funding for a variety of projects. Beyond financial gifts, some tour operators commit hands-on volunteer time within the local communities where they work.

“The travel sector certainly gives back, especially thanks to the efforts of groups like Tourism Cares,” said Donald Leadbetter, national tourism program manager at the U.S. National Park Service, “but it would be great to see the larger industry step up a level of scale, which would also be to the benefit of parks that conserve cultural and historical resources.”

Educating Travelers

Though a lot of due diligence rests on the shoulders of tour companies, travelers need to be made aware of how their choices impact the environment and the national parks they want to visit. Luckily, those working in the adventure travel industry have the power of education at their fingertips.

In pre-tour communication, tour operators can share more than just a packing list and logistical details. Providing background information about the protected area travelers will be visiting, and suggesting additional reading and resources they may want to look into before they leave, such as literature on flora and fauna, indigenous populations, and historical context, is a good start. Such communication can include simple reminders about the small things people can do to help keep the wilderness wild, such as picking up and packing out garbage, staying on paths, and avoiding contact with wildlife, but it should also encourage travelers to ask questions before, during, and after their experience.

During the tour experience, it’s important to keep a dialogue going with travelers about the local environmental challenges, organizations dedicated to addressing these issues, and what they can do to help protect parks, including educating them about advocacy communities affiliated with specific parks and natural areas, and encouraging them to apply political pressure on decision makers. “Adventure travelers are very ethical travelers,” Fitzgerald said, “and every voice makes a difference.”

Government Advocacy

Fitzgerald’s point about putting pressure on park managers and government decision makers is an important one. Experts working in national parks and protected areas around the world mentioned that tour operators and travelers can only do so much in the absence of strong leadership. It is essential that national and regional government representatives address conservation issues with community locals and apply best practices when it comes to park zoning.

In order to balance the desire to share wilderness areas with travelers while also maintaining and preserving them sustainably, those running national parks need to “create a shared vision with the community about what they want the natural areas to be like for future generations, then translate that into long-term management plans,” said Beth Masser, community relations program manager for the Department of Conservation, Te Papa Atawhai (Fiordland) in New Zealand.

Ultimately, conservation of the world’s natural spaces is a shared responsibility among governing bodies that oversee them, tour operators who rely on them for their livelihoods, and the travelers who seek to explore them. After all, it is only through a shared commitment to support and protect these important natural environments that they will be around for another generation to enjoy.

What do you do as a tour operator and/or traveler to help with park protection? Join the conversation in the HUB.