A search online will provide you with hundreds of projects that call themselves sustainable. To know which projects are really sustainable will take proper research and will depend on which conditions you set before calling a project sustainable. Several international sustainability organizations together, including Green Destinations have selected a top 100 of sustainable tourist destinations183. Their number one natural destination is a combination of the Chobe, Makgadikgadi, Okavango and Selinda Reserves in Botswana. This area covers unique African landscapes and protects many of the endangered wildlife species, including the black rhinoceros, cheetah, lion, giraffe, African Elephant, hippopotamus and many, many more. The nature reserves are managed by local communities, private conservation organizations and big tour operators in collaboration with the government of Botswana and UNESCO. All together it is an impressive and much needed task to protect part of earth’s biodiversity. The few examples below are intended to briefly show how tourism can contribute to protecting endangered natural areas.
A direct way for the tourist industry to help the environment is by paying for nature conservation and protection. This happens with part of the African nature reserves, but also with other nature reserves around the world. The Orangutan Foundation project in Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park receives every year 45,000 US$ from wildlife travel agency Steppes Discovery. This money pays for rangers, the care of orphaned orangutans, and helps fund the park.
Several conservation projects in Ecuador, including the Huaorani Lodge and Jocotoco Foundation, buy rainforest and cloud forest to protect these areas from oil and mining companies. These organizations often buy this land with money from donations and then sustain themselves through tourism. In this way tourism provides for new jobs and sources of income for local communities living on and from this land. Without the income from tourism, these communities might have to work for the same oil, mining, or logging companies that almost destroyed their homes. In Rwanda tourism doesn’t only help the local environment and economy, it even prevents conflict!
The Great Lakes Region of Africa is a unique place in the world. It is home to a group of mountain gorillas, one of the world’s most endangered great apes, that play a critical ecological, economic, and political role. Their habitat lies on the borders of northwestern Rwanda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and southwestern Uganda. These countries share borders and a contiguous park that is broken into each country’s own protected area: Park National des Volcans (PNV) in Rwanda, Park National des Virunga (PNVi) in Congo, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP) in Uganda. The shared park contains about half of the region’s mountain gorilla population. A separate park, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) in Uganda, is home to the other half of the mountain gorilla population.
The uniqueness of the mountain gorilla makes this area very popular among tourists who don’t mind to pay a park fee from 300 US$ up to even 1500 US$ per person187 to see these impressive animals! It isn’t only the entrance fee, but also all other revenue and employment generated from these visiting tourists that give the park such high economic importance. Income from tourism has contributed to development at the local, regional, and national levels. To give an example of the importance of tourism: Led by nature-based tourism focusing on mountain gorilla viewing, the tourism sector in Rwanda has risen to the largest foreign exchange earner, followed by coffee and tea, generating more than 438 million US$ annually, or 14.9% of its GDP in 2018. The presence of such a valuable tourism revenue source in this fragile mountain forests ensures that these critical habitats are protected, thus fulfilling their valuable ecological function including local climate regulation, water catchment, and natural resources for local communities.
Despite years of political crisis and civil war in the region, the need for revenue from ape-related tourism has led all countries/ sides in the conflict to cooperate in protecting the apes and their habitat. Kalpers, a former staff member from the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), contributes to the survival of the gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo to several factors, including the size of the reserve. The entire Virunga massif is relatively small (437 km2), which makes it relatively easy to control. The gorillas are also protected through the Virunga culture, which doesn’t allow the communities to eat gorilla meat. Another reason why the local people prefer to eat other wildlife instead of gorillas is because they recognize their economic value. The national and local authorities of the three countries sharing the Virunga forest block have adopted Gorilla Tourism as an important economic resource.
The conservation strategies developed in the past three decades have had a very sustainable impact on local people’s attitudes. The mutual importance for tourism related revenue resulted in the unusual cooperation between citizens from Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda to protect the mountain gorillas around the Great Lakes Region. Even during the various phases of the conﬂict, many of the warring factions have shown commitment and invested resources to ensure that the gorillas were not harmed. Their mutual effort resulted in a slow but steady population growth of these endangered ape species!
The conservation projects with orangutans and apes are great initiatives, but they do have one downside. This type of tourism is often very expensive and only focuses on high-end, rich tourists. It is understandable that conservation projects need money to sustain themselves, but it isn’t fair if splendid natural areas are only accessible to the rich. Focusing on only one type of tourist doesn’t make high-end eco-tourist initiatives very resilient to changes in tourist dynamics. Currently, during the Covid-19 crisis, there are no rich tourists traveling to expensive natural conservation projects. With only very limited foreign support and supervision it has been very difficult to estimate the damage this lack of international tourism is causing in many nature reserves. Since international travel and border restrictions are likely the last to be lifted, national tourism could help the tourist sector to restart. Something similar happened in Mexico after the H1N1 epidemic in 2009. However many high-end sustainable tourist initiatives are often way too expensive for normal national tourism, which makes them less sustainable. Another disadvantage of being too expensive for national tourism is that they miss the opportunity to create more awareness and support among their own population. The Izhcayluma Eco Lodge in Ecuador might offer a good example to learn from…