One of the leading economic casualties of the COVID-19 outbreak is tourism. The impacts in Africa from a decimated tourism industry will have ripple effects into rural communities and wildlife conservation across the continent. While Africa’s leaders grapple with how to best protect and save lives while avoiding financial ruin, one of the continent’s leading industries is carrying the most onerous economic, social, and environmental burden.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation predicts that in 2020, global international tourist arrivals could decline by 20-30%. Meanwhile, tourism in Africa was the second-fastest-growing industry pre-COVID-19, with projected growth of 55% between 2017 and 2027.
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Much of this growth was expected to benefit the wildlife economy, paying for park management, community conservation, and jobs for 23 million Africans — many of whom live in wildlife rich rural areas.
Revenue streams of many of the agencies managing protected areas — the backbone of biodiversity conservation — have been significantly eroded by COVID-19.
South African National Parks authority, for example, closed tourism facilities in support of the lockdown and future bookings are being canceled. Zimbabwe’s Parks Authority is entirely dependent on tourism revenues for its operations, money that has disappeared with the closing of iconic sites like the Victoria Falls. Poverty rates are already spiking in rural communities dependent on wildlife for their livelihoods.
These impacts compound hardships stemming from locust infestations in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, as well as a series of severe weather events and floods and droughts linked to a changing climate.
The hole in the budgets for people and parks is coming at a time when we need conservation efforts more than ever. Experts agree that healthy ecosystems are essential to mitigating risks of spillovers of novel infectious diseases like COVID-19. Rich and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems provide us with food, medicines, wood energy, and one of the scarcest resources of all, clean water.
“Supporting wildlife tourism means supporting healthy economies and individual livelihoods designed to thrive and respect planetary and environmental boundaries.”—
Most African parks and conservancies rely on revenues from tourism and other wildlife economies to run their operations. The African Wildlife Foundation is convening protected areas directors from across the continent to better understand the current difficulties they are facing and strengthen the response to the current crisis and enhance management capacities across the board.
These conservation leaders are highlighting the precarious situation brought about by COVID-19, with most directors confirming that the frequency of patrols have decreased due to limited resources available following national lockdown measures. Some managers have reported that they only have three months’ worth of funding reserves, after which they might have to cut some programs for protected areas entirely.
Conservation in Africa also receives important funding from external sources such as public sector giving and private donations, which helps to fill the gap between the required budgets for conservation management and income generated from tourism. Conservation may be cushioned for a time if there are government reserves, but these are likely to be very limited, and will not last long.
Yet with unprecedented demands on government resources to tackle more immediate and pressing health concerns, there is apprehension that resources for biodiversity conservation may be constrained. As the tourism industry faces an uncertain future, political and financial support targeted at the sector is going to be particularly needed.
In South Africa, the Department of Tourism is offering eligible small-, micro- and medium-sized enterprises to apply for a share of the R200 million ($10.6 million) Tourism Relief Fund, which we welcome.
The G-20 and IMF both announced debt relief plans this week to free up over $20 billion for the world's lowest-income countries this year. But some experts say this merely kicks the can down the road.
Furthermore, the debt relief agreed by the G-20 and International Monetary Fund for low-income nations — many of them African — is also a step in the right direction and will offer some much-needed fiscal breathing space for governments, although not all African economies are covered and so is not comprehensive.
The European Union’s proposition in its Global Response to COVID-19, which recognizes that countries relying on tourism will be among the hardest hit, is another encouraging step forward. But it does not address this specific challenge in its financial response to the current crisis, which AWF believes is a missed opportunity to support a sector which was the second-fastest-growing industry on the continent pre-COVID-19.
Emergency funds to cushion protected areas, revive the tourism sector, and provide a safety net for communities dependent on wildlife economies are needed urgently. International partners should support the wildlife tourism industry to address the social and economic consequences of the outbreak.
Supporting wildlife tourism means supporting healthy economies and individual livelihoods designed to thrive and respect planetary and environmental boundaries. This in turn encourages the regeneration of nature and the equitable distribution of benefits.
African protected areas are unique on this planet, exquisitely beautiful, and home to iconic species that attract domestic and international tourists. Wildlife forms the foundation of Africa’s natural ecosystems. Wildlife-based tourism employs 9.3 million Africans directly and indirectly.
These are jobs that support livelihoods and local economies in places where there are few other options and thereby incentivize people to protect the space needed for diverse species and healthy animal populations to thrive.
In this regard, we held a listening session with tourism business leaders in Africa who expressed anxiety on the inevitable inability to honor payment of land leases to local communities in several conservancies where they operate.
Inability to make these payments will lead to communities unduly encroaching into wildlife spaces and running the risk of being uncomfortably close to animals that harbor diseases, like COVID-19, that can jump to humans.
As an organization, we intend to work alongside other like-minded institutions to advocate for tourism and wildlife reforms the world over.
We realize that the conversation needs to transcend beyond our circles in order to garner the much-needed attention it deserves. We are committed to ensuring a better future for this sector and the communities we support.
We must act now to protect and position nature-based tourism as one of the solutions to global public health security by increasing investments toward wildlife-based tourism, and to dependent nature-based enterprises to safeguard community livelihoods and to conserve nature for posterity.
Visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for news, job opportunities, and funding insights.