Can tourism save the tiger?
Can tourism save the tiger? Photo: corbett-national-park.com

“Can you have your cake and eat it to?” is a question environmentalists would like to answer positively. Now they can, at least in the case of the value generated by nature reserves.

Tourist visits to protected areas around the world are worth $600 billion a year. Cut the costs and you are still left with about $250 billion a year in consumer surplus. The numbers were published in PLOS Biology by an international collaboration, which included members from the United Nations Environment Program.

The idea was to put a value on the well-established “nature-based recreation and tourism” industry. And that value appears to be big enough—at least much bigger than the $10 billion thought to be spent on safeguarding protected areas. Now the demands for governments to step up investment in conservation efforts can be said to be evidence-based.

The scientists behind the study seem to have gone to great lengths to arrive at their figures, which have been difficult to acquire with any reliability because protected areas are scattered around the world and information on visit rates has been limited. To make their task easier, they leveraged countries’ commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets, an international agreement, and arrived at a statistical model to estimate the economic significance of protected areas depending on the socioeconomic conditions they operated within.

In all, they were able to account for 556 protected areas (all terrestrial and above 10 hectare in size) in 51 countries, with 2,663 annual visitor-records in 1998-2007. The median value was 20,333 visits/year.

They left out some 40,000 areas because they were too small for their analysis to be applicable. Also, as with all statistical estimates, there is uncertainty in the results they have produced. The authors of the paper write: “Uncertainty in our modeled visit rates and the wide variation in published estimates of expenditure and consumer surplus mean that they could be out by a factor of two or more.”

Estimated number of annual visits to protected areas by country.
Estimated number of annual visits to protected areas by country. Data: Balmford A, Green JMH, Anderson M, Beresford J, Huang C, Naidoo R, et al. (2015) Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas. PLoS Biol 13(2): e1002074. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002074

This means they may be wrong by a factor of 10 or 100. Reassuringly, they add, “The comparison with calculations that visits to North American Protected Areas alone have an economic impact of $350–550 billion per year and that direct expenditure on all travel and tourism worldwide runs at $2,000 billion per year suggests our figures are of the correct order of magnitude, and that the value of Protected Area visitation runs into hundreds of billions of dollars annually.”

During their analyses, the scientists estimated that the world’s terrestrial protected areas received about 8 billion visits annually, of which 3.8 billion were made in Europe and 3.3 billion in North America.

The rapid growth in global population has put enormous constraints on terrestrial resources, which is best illustrated by the swift reduction of the Amazon rainforest.

Relevance to India

A profit of $250 billion per year means that countries could make a good economic case to stop encroaching on their protected areas, which tend to be early victims of their growth ambitions.

The argument pertains especially to India’s Ministry of Environment & Forests, which has been engaged since June 2014 in signing off on certificates of approval to coal-fired power plants and pesticide factories at the rate of “15 to 30 minutes per file“, and rendering decisions on disenfranchising tribal villagers from their own land practically non-consultative.

Such lands are protected areas, too, and those who manage them could benefit from the idea that they could contribute economically just as much as they do ecologically. And with the social activist Anna Hazare having announced a nationwide agitation on the controversial Land Acquisition ordinance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could do well to entertain this idea.

Average annual tourist visits to protected areas in India, 1998-2007. Data: Balmford A, Green JMH, Anderson M, Beresford J, Huang C, Naidoo R, et al. (2015) Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas. PLoS Biol 13(2): e1002074. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002074
Data: Balmford A, Green JMH, Anderson M, Beresford J, Huang C, Naidoo R, et al. (2015) Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas. PLoS Biol 13(2): e1002074. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002074

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