This is a longhand and fully referenced version of a talk that I have recorded for virtual Birdfair.  Do watch or have a read and let me know what you think.


At the turn of the millennium, my wife and I went to see the incredible Namaqualand daisies in South Africa.   We’d timed our trip to coincide with the moment when the vast dry area transforms into a sea of orange.  It was magical and was the pinnacle of what had been a botanical pilgrimage.  Having visited friends in Cape Town, we explored the fynbos, taken in the flowers of the Western Cape and the Cederbergs and dropped into Nieuwoudtville which markets itself as the bulb capital of the world.  We even had time to visit Hermanus to see the southern right whales.  It was without doubt the most spectacular holiday I have ever had.

We were the archetypal wildlife tourists as our prime motive was to view wildlife (although we did, if I am honest, sample a bit of wine by visiting some of the famous South Africa vineyards). 

In fact, I spent much of my twenties and early thirties travelling to see wildlife – photographing the tulips and orchids of Crete, twitching birds in Israel with my Dad during the spring migration, researching butterflies in the Comores, training in tropical biology in Uganda, and over three summers leading fee-paying tourists to monitor wildlife in Lake Hovsgol National Park in Mongolia.

I feel very fortunate to have travelled so extensively and without doubt it deepened my love of wildlife and helped shape my views about nature conservation.

Yet, in 2004, I decided that because of concerns about climate change I would no longer fly abroad for holidays.  I felt that my carbon footprint through travelling with work was enough.  This was my decision and mine alone.  I have never used this to guilt-trip anyone into not flying. 

Late last year, the RSPB decided it needed to develop a policy on eco/wildlife tourism.  This had come up especially in the context of advertising wildlife holidays in our Nature’s Home magazine. 

We had been taking active steps to reduce the overall carbon footprint of our charity over the past fifteen years – setting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions especially from business travel and electricity supplies.  This led us to make a range of investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy for example installing a wind turbine at the Lodge

We felt that it was entirely appropriate for us to be taking these actions as we had been founding members of Stop Climate Chaos (now The Climate Coalition) and had been calling on governments across the UK to set and meet legally-binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  We had to practice what we preached.

Up until this point, the RSPB had a holding position which sought to balance the conservation benefits with the obvious carbon costs of long-haul wildlife tourism.  This is an an important if complex area and late last year we felt it would be right to do a review of the evidence of impacts to help us formulate future policy.

Yet, soon after we commissioned this review, the Covid-19 pandemic struck and overnight the bottom went out of the tourism market.  No-one was travelling to watch wildlife or do anything else and many tour companies were and remain in real trouble. 

Quite quickly it became apparent that as well as the terrible consequences for those employed in the tourism industry, there were serious conservation implications of this collapse in travel.  Protected areas were no longer taking park fees to help their management.  Conservation organisations that were reliant on tourism revenue were suddenly in real trouble and anecdotal evidence started to grow that with fewer eyes and ears on the ground, illegal poaching was on the increase.

If anything, the promotion of international wildlife tourism has become an even more wicked problem than it was before the pandemic.

In this talk, I want to present the headlines from our review of the evidence of the impacts of wildlife tourism and then offer some thoughts about what it means for governments, tour operators and us as customers. 

The RSPB has not yet reached its own conclusions on this subject and I share these views to contribute to what I know has been a very active debate at Birdfair over the past few years.

A fully referenced and long-hand version of this talk appears on my blog.

Wildlife tourism in context

I am going to focus primarily on wildlife tourism ie tourism which has the main aim of viewing wildlife in its wild state.  It is a subset of ecotourism which in turn is a subset of the global travel industry which, pre pandemic, was the largest sector in the world economy contributing 9% of the world’s GDP and 1 in 12 jobs. 

Wildlife tourism is probably the fastest growing sector of tourism fuelling nearly a thousand wildlife-focused tour operators and travel companies (the travel site lists over 950 wildlife-focused tour operators and travel companies, and this excludes most of the larger UK bird tour companies so is likely to be far from comprehensive). 

This growth has been fuelled by growing affluence and environmentalism in the developed world and by the low and (relative to income) declining cost of air travel, among many other factors.

Yet, ecotourism has been variously hailed as a potential solution to many of the world’s environmental problems or criticised as an environmental problem in itself.  Thousands of scientific papers and many books have attempted to assess where along that spectrum of views it falls.  In fact, the number of scientific papers published each year with “ecotourism” as a keyword expanded from zero in 1990 to nearly 1,500 in 2015 (Blumstein et al. 2017).

Assessing the impacts of wildlife or ecotourism is tricky in part because it does not have a standard definition and there is no common currency with which to evaluate the costs and benefits (Malek-Zadeh 1996, Blumstein et al. 2017), and even if this could be developed, there would probably be different, and non-comparable, costs and benefits.

For example, the environmental costs of a long-haul flight can be roughly quantified in terms of carbon expenditure and the costs of offsetting it (recognising that carbon offsets do not nullify all the environmental costs of air travel), but the benefits of exposing people to nature in terms of their mental and physical health, in terms of raising their environmental awareness, and in terms of helping local economies look after the nature they depend on, cannot so easily be measured.

The net impacts cannot therefore be quantified (Higginbottom et al. 2001), despite attempts to do so (Malek-Zadeh 1996). Added to this is the problem of context, with different assessments of the costs and benefits of wildlife tourism reaching very different conclusions in different places.  For example, in a very rare attempt to evaluate the impacts of ecotourism using counterfactuals, Brandt et al. (2019) found that forest loss around centres of ecotourism was higher than that in equivalent forest not near ecotourism centres in India, but lower in China and no different in Nepal and Bhutan.

I think it useful however to be able to think about the types of costs and benefits of wildlife tourism as it is through pooling that information that one can make an informed decision about how to maximise the benefits while minimising the costs.

What are the benefits?

From the literature review we conducted, we have identified four main benefits: those which provide direct financial contribution to conservation, those whose contribution is non-financial, wider socio-economic incentives and increased education and awareness. 

I shall briefly bring these to life with examples before discussing the costs.

First, the direct financial contribution to nature conservation.  Direct financial contributions can occur either through compulsory government charges on tourist operators or tourists or through voluntary contributions made by operators or tourists.  Examples of government interventions include park entry and accommodation fees or  environmental taxes. 

It’s clear that wildlife tourism to protected areas can generate an important source of revenue to protect and enhance such areas (Leung et al. 2018). For example, some countries charge all visitors an environmental levy.  In 2019, New Zealand introduced a system which charges most foreign visitors (whatever the intention of their visit, though most visitors list wildlife as a key attraction) a one-off NZ$35 levy which goes into conservation and sustainable tourism.

Equally, some research stations, such as Danum Valley Field Centre in Borneo, La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica and the Tambopata Research Center in Amazonia, rely heavily on income from accommodation and guiding of wildlife tourists to support their missions. 

In addition, the money spent in local businesses and employment may promote conservation indirectly through socioeconomic processes (which I describe later).

Second, the non-financial contribution to nature conservation.  A growing number of organisations specialise in tours in which tourists assist in conservation-related field research, monitoring or conservation work.  This is pretty much what I did in Mongolia in the 1990s when I worked as part of an interdisciplinary team doing surveys aided by fee-paying tourists.

In addition, to deliberately undertaking activities that assist conservation, wildlife tour operators may contribute indirectly by acting as deterrents to the disturbance or killing of wildlife by people.

For example, cessation of tourism in the Serengeti in 1979 led to a massive increase in poaching, which declined again as wildlife tourism returned (Anderson 2017).  Another example is that wildlife tour visits to see Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda have led to a cessation of poaching and an increase in numbers of gorillas there (Maekawa et al. 2013).

Third, the socio-economic incentives for conservation.  Wildlife tourism (excluding hunting) has recently been estimated to be worth nearly $350bn to the global economy each year, comprising around 4.4% of total global travel and tourism GDP (rising to over 30% in Africa).  It also employs over 20 million people (World Travel and Tourism Council 2019).

Its value therefore greatly exceeds that of the illegal trade in wildlife. In Rwanda for example, gorilla tourism is one of the country’s most important sources of income across all sectors, though its income does not necessarily always benefit local people (Sabuhoro et al. 2017).

These figures do not include hidden financial and social benefits, such as benefits to health.  A recent estimate put the economic value of protected areas derived from the improved mental health of visitors (whether wildlife tourists or not) at a minimum of US$6tn, an order of magnitude greater than the global value of protected area tourism and two to three orders greater than the total global protected area management agency budgets (Buckley et al. 2019).

The potential loss of revenue from wildlife tourism to activities such as poaching is one of the principle reasons why many countries with particularly important wildlife tourism sectors, such as many African countries, expend significant resources to protect their wildlife (World Tourism Organization 2014), for example through the creation of new protected areas (Sindiyo & Pertet 1984, Higginbottom et al. 2001).

This revenue also encourages the establishment of private enterprises that manage land for wildlife tourism, either as profit making businesses of for non-profit activities.  In a survey of 27 private game reserves in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, half reported that if they had not had wildlife tourism available as an alternative commercial option, they would have continued to farm cattle (James & Goodman 2000).

Fourth, the increased awareness of conservation. Tourism operators and governments often state that visitors, as part of their wildlife or nature-based tourism experience, can be educated to increase their conservation awareness and behave in ways that have positive consequences for wildlife (Higginbottom et al. 2001, Borges de Lima & Green 2017), or that the experience itself brings about formative behaviour change. Such behaviour may lead to more responsible behaviour towards wildlife and the natural environment, subsequent involvement in wildlife conservation or research, increased numbers of advocates of conservation who will pass on the message to others, increased political pressure on governments to achieve conservation objectives, and an increased willingness to pay for conservation (Wilson & Tisdell 2003). 

I am sure that many of you watching can vouch for this.  It’s absolutely what happened to me.

What are the costs?

Turning to the costs, its interesting that the published literature is much more extensive on the negative consequences of wildlife tourism.  The three main categories are direct and negative impacts on wildlife, climate change impacts and socio-economic problems posed by tourism.

First, wildlife tourism can have direct and negative consequences on wildlife especially through conversion of habitat for wildlife tourism infrastructure, pollution, disturbance, the introduction of invasive non-native species and even transmission of disease. 

Examples of problems resulting from disturbance include birds changing their behaviour in response to the presence of wildlife tourists, including emperor penguin (Burger & Gochfeld 2007), yellow-eyed penguin (French et al. 2018), boobies (Burger & Gochfeld 1993) and a wide range of other species (Steven et al. 2011).

When it comes to disease transmission, this has been most closely studied in apes, which are genetically susceptible to diseases of humans. Many human diseases, including influenza, measles and pneumonia, have been transmitted to chimpanzees and mountain gorillas, particularly animals habituated to humans (Woodford et al. 2002).  And it is possible that wildlife tourism to Antarctica has led to the transmission of diseases such as influenza and salmonella from humans to penguins (Grimaldi et al. 2015).

Second, climate change impacts.  And, of course, this is what made me change my own behaviour.  Globally, tourism has been estimated to account for up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Lenzen et al. 2018). Many wildlife tours involve long-haul flights and often more extensive in-country travel than other forms of tourism, so may have a disproportionate impact on climate change (Tapper 2006).  Probably the most extreme examples are from the poles – themselves vulnerable to climate change.  The 8,000 visitors travelling to Churchill, Manitoba, to view Polar Bears every year is estimated to contribute 20,892 tonnes of CO2 per season, equivalent to the average annual emissions of 4,200 people (Dawson et al. 2010). 

At the other end of the planet, it has been estimated that the the average tourist trip to Antarctica results in 5.44 tonnes of CO2 emissions per passenger, 70% of them attributable to cruising and 30% to flying; this is slightly above the global mean emission of 4.98 tonnes per person over a whole year (Farreny et al. 2011).

Third, socio-economic problems.  Wildlife tourism is no different from other forms of tourism in that it can generate socioeconomic problems as well as opportunities (Zacarias & Loyola 2017).

Hotspots of wildlife tourism may lead to an increase in the local population to service that industry; for example the human populations of the Galapagos and Serengeti both increased rapidly to cater for wildlife tourism, placing additional pressures on the environments the tourists value (Taylor et al. 2003, Anderson 2017). Over 80% of the resident population of the Galapagos works in tourism, and a majority have arrived in recent years seeking work (Stronza & Durham 2008). This places a potentially dangerous over-reliance of local communities on what is essentially an unpredictable industry, which can be disrupted by are wide range of factors, not least by unpredictable global events such as international terrorism, financial recessions and pandemic diseases (Buckley et al. 2012).

Covid-19 is already having a serious impact on people who rely on wildlife tourism as a source of income  (Hockings et al. 2020). What’s more, the economic benefits of wildlife tourism may not be felt by local people and employment in the sector may not always be lucrative; most local people living around lucrative tiger reserves in India end up in menial jobs servicing the tourism industry.  And, Ecotourism might lead to local disempowerment because tourism dollars can create wealth stratification, in which local leaders might receive more benefits than the remaining members of the community in the form of privileges (Zacarias & Loyola 2017).

What should we do?

The wicked problem this talk has been trying to resolve is how do we sustain the economics of wildlife tourism which potentially provides a lifeline for the survival of a species or protected area, while not causing serious associated environmental harm.

The challenge of course is for governments, tour operators and individuals to take action to maximise the benefits while mitigating the costs. 

The good news is there already a range of tour operators contributing directly to conservation.  For example, Heritage Expeditions is BirdLife International Species Champion for Spoon-billed Sandpiper and it provides transport and logistics for researchers and personnel on nature reserves, makes financial contributions as a company and encourages clients to support conservation work.

And there are also a range of standards out there such as the Travel Operators for Tigers India Wildlife Association (TOFTigers Initiative) which is the trading arm of a UK-based charity, the Nature Stewardship Alliance which aims to encourage sustainable tourism with a particular focus on Tiger conservation.

Their “Pug Mark” certification standard is recognised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).  This was established in October 2008, as an initiative led by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The GSTC developed a set of sustainable tourism standards and performance indicators. that have different performance indicators for hotels, for tour operators, for destinations and governments, for certification bodies and for travellers.  

All of these standards though are clearly voluntary.  There is no global regulation for standards at wildlife attractions, and wildlife tourism is rarely specifically regulated at national levels.

We all hope that the world grips the Covid-19 pandemic and that people will be free, if they wish, to travel again perhaps to see some of the great wildlife wonders of the world.  When this happens, we hope that this travel gives back to conservation more than it costs the environment.

The RSPB is going to look hard at the findings of our review to help guide our future engagement with wildlife tour companies.

I would welcome any thoughts from you to help us guide the next stages in our exploration of this issue.

For now, enjoy the rest of Birdfair, stay safe and stay well.

*The grainy images are photos of already grainy photos that I took while on holiday in Namaqualand in 2000. 



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  • Thanks Martin, for an interesting talk and post on this thorny subject - it is great to see the RSPB applying rigorous thinking to a topic which is often reduced to emotive opinion.

    You cite a couple of examples of tour operator-led initiatives to raise and maintain ecotourism standards (TOFTigers in India, for example) - but there are many, many more. As a former editor of Wanderlust magazine, I have worked with many (mostly independent) tour operators who were acutely aware of the fragility of the habitats they were operating in and who go above and beyond to both minimise their impact and positively contribute to the places and economies they represent. These smaller, specialist operators tend to have deep (often personal) ties to regions, employ local people and are genuinely invested in their wellbeing. Prior to coronavirus, a growing number of these operators were signing up to the ‘Tourism Declares Climate Emergency’ movement:,

    Although larger travel businesses and airlines are starting to take their responsibilities seriously (the Duke of Sussex-fronted Travalyst initiative is an interesting example), as travel businesses scale up, these ties and concerns are often lost.

    Balancing the upsides and downsides of wildlife tourism is, as you say, hugely challenging - and there are no widely accepted standards for good practice. However, there certainly are many tour operators who are doing their utmost to act responsibly and indeed use tourism as a force for positive change. Not all gorilla treks / Antarctic cruises / Borneo birdwatching trips are equal.

    I’d encourage the RSPB to think about a framework that encourages members and supporters to choose operators who can demonstrate their positive actions against the criteria you outline, and offer them guidance around managing their carbon emissions and best practice in sustainable tourism. In the absence of existing standards, the RSPB has a real chance to lead on this issue, and to help supporters make informed, nuanced decisions about how to travel, rather than coming out with a blanket yes / no to wildlife tourism.