First published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix ePaper March 12, 2021.
In a March 7, 2021 article in the New York Times, Lisa W. Foderaro writes that, after authorities in Thailand banned international flights because of the Covid-19 pandemic, “…leatherback turtles laid their eggs on the usually mobbed Phuket Beach… the first time nests were seen there in years, as the endangered sea turtles, the largest in the world, prefer to nest in seclusion.”
If that’s the good news, unfortunately it doesn’t get better. Nature tourism has long been touted as a benign force for conservation. Developing countries bought-in to the so-called “ecotourism” explosion back in the early nineteen-nineties, with the full encouragement and participation of the hotel and air travel corporations. Since then, destinations have needed to use tourism revenue to offset the costs of conservation and enforcement. That revenue has dried up over the last year, and in many cases so have the conservation activities that all those nature-tourists had supported.
Commercial tourism is always a mixed blessing, whether it’s to view nature from a comfortable (and usually expensive) space, or to gawk at “the locals” when your 2500-passenger cruise ship drops in for the afternoon, or even to whoop it up at the massive sporting events that drag the last weary ounce of volunteerism and good will out of community members.
It would indeed be a good thing if we took this one-to-two year hiatus as an opportunity to seriously consider what we want to see as our new normal. For example, can we take a break from endlessly adding to the lodging sector’s already-overbuilt capacity, used to justify bidding for ever-larger events? Can our provincial parks reduce costs – and expectations – by simplifying their offerings and going back to providing access for our own families to celebrate being out-of-doors together rather than cater to the whims of our neighbours to the west?
And, of course, there’s you and I. Could we contemplate travelling smaller, ourselves? A century ago, the earth’s population was about 1.6 billion. In 1950, it was about 2.5 billion, and the global tourism industry saw fewer than 200 million arrivals. Fast forward to 2020, the earth’s population was over 7.7 billion and global tourism arrivals were in the order of 1.5 billion. International travel used to be a privilege for the wealthy few, and a curse for those whose travel was required for work, military service or migration. In 2017, travel and tourism directly contributed $2.6 trillion to global GDP.
For those who enjoy mathematics, that is roughly equivalent to the size of the UK economy, and it’s hard to imagine all that petty cash suddenly pouring out of the sky and back into our pockets. The pandemic has dug a deep hole in the global economy, and crawling out of that hole will require re-thinking the meaning of the word “sustainability”. If we do not take the time to consider a more sustainable approach to how we live, we will almost certainly be mired in that hole for our lifetimes.
How we live includes how, where, and why we travel. If we are careful, we may again be able to make some of those choices.