“Why do we have to pay so much more than the locals to get into the park – it isn’t fair!” a friend of mine once commented en route to a Kenyan National Park. The same could have been said for most national parks across the continent, or even worldwide.
In my mind, the logic is simple and transparent: international visitors, for the most part, have the money to pay for a higher-priced ticket whereas nationals and residents, in the majority of cases, may not. But why are these fees necessary? And where does this money go?
Ecotourism is one solution to the pervasive problem that, in developing countries worldwide, little government financing goes towards the operational costs of protected areas. Tighe Geoghegan, a recognized expert in participatory management and protected areas, said that from her experience of working with protected areas in the Caribbean:
“While the political will to establish protected areas may be strong, the will to budget for their management has shown itself to be very weak, in the face of urgent national priorities and continuous fiscal crisis”
Tighe Geoghegan 1998
In the 1990’s Government funding to protected areas globally equated to only about 24% of the estimated US$17 billion required for proper maintenance. The Durban Action Plan, launched in 2004, was an attempt to change this. However there is still a major gap in government finances for protected areas.
There are many potential solutions to this problem, such as private sector financing (e.g. through biodiversity offsetting) and private donations, to fund operational costs of parks where government finances fall short. But ecotourism is commonly viewed as a more sustainable means to make up this shortfall, whilst also involving the local community. But is it that simple?
Local communities are often negatively impacted by protected area creation and management. The eviction and exclusion of local residents in the name of conservation often results in negative perceptions of protected areas, reinforced by increased incidence of human wildlife conflict which further impact upon the well-being of local residents.
Where ecotourism initiatives are in place locals often experience negligible increases in tourism-related livelihoods benefits, further fueling local feelings of resentment. These negative perceptions of the benefits of protected areas are often accompanied by poor enforcement of regulations at the local level. For example, a study by Bennet and Dearden in 2014 discovered managers in Marine Protected Areas in Thailand often allowed local fisherman to fish, even in no-catch areas. Without proper protection, the scope of these protected areas for conserving the very species they were established to protect is jeopardised and, with the inevitable loss of biodiversity that results from a poorly managed protected area, the potential for ecotourism will also diminish.
The problem in many of these cases is the disengagement of the local communities – something that Darwin Initiative Project 19-013 is trying to address. “Research to policy – building capacity for conservation through poverty alleviation” has been working with communities surrounding Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda to ensure that communities receive direct benefit from ecotourism. A number of initiatives have been developed to this end, including increasing the proportion of money international visitors pay to visit the park’s renowned population of critically endangered mountain gorillas, and ensuring more jobs are filled by local groups. The project has made a particular effort to focus on the fairer distribution of jobs to include more marginalised groups and a more equitable gender balance.
Another project, 14-046 “Sustainable tourism supporting species conservation in the Srepok Wilderness, Cambodia”, dealt with similar issues. The project was focused on Srepok Wilderness Area (SWA) of Mondulkiri Protected Forest which, like all protected areas in Cambodia, receives little government financing. Its operational costs are therefore dependent on less predictable and often unsustainable international financing sources. Over-harvesting of wildlife and habitat loss resulted in serious declines in species populations within the park, putting at risk the survival of the park and its ability to sustain the key threatened species within its borders, as well as the human communities reliant upon it. The project worked to establish better designation of protected areas within the SWA and improve the monitoring of poaching and species populations within the park by communities and enforcement agencies, meaning that low-impact but high-profit tourism is now a feasible long-term solution.
Conservation worldwide is chronically underfunded and ecotourism is one approach to address this shortfall. As the Darwin projects discussed above demonstrate, ecotourism interventions that take into account local needs and engage communities in conservation limit exacerbating traditional problems faced by protected areas. If ecotourism is a viable alternative to practices which might lead to over exploitation of natural resources within national parks, then more should be done to make sure communities see this benefit (through initiatives such as Darwin project 20-010, the “Social Assessment of Protected Areas”) and, perhaps more importantly, make this process more transparent for international visitors, on whom ecotourism depends. Then perhaps, rather than asking “why are we paying so much” they’ll be asking “what more can we do?”