Countries in Africa can do more to develop tourism in protected areas, which would in turn create jobs in rural places, diversify and grow their economies and improve environmental resilience in the face of growing pressures, a report has said.
Africa’s biodiversity could “transform” the continent’s economy, but at present many governments are scaling back on protection because of limited budgets needed for other pressing public needs, a report produced by conservation organization Space for Giants and the UN Environment Programme said. To preserve their wildlife and wild places, governments should look at protected areas not only as environmental assets but economic ones as well, with the continent’s 8,400 protected areas producing US$48 billion in revenue.
“Africa’s unique diversity of wildlife and habitat has the potential to radically transform the continent’s economy,” said the report. Yet, “at present, few of Africa’s protected areas are meeting their potential as engines for tourism growth and are underfunded by up to ten times the required level.”
According to the paper, nature-based tourism could improve the livelihoods of many people as it generates 40 per cent more full-time employment than agriculture and provides greater opportunities for women than other sectors.
Oliver Poole, Executive Director of Space for Giants, said the organization “strongly believed” that the right type of nature-based tourism done in a sustainable way is a powerful conservation tool.
“That’s because it creates jobs for the local community, and it brings visitors to the national parks, creating money for wildlife services, that often have limited budgets,” he said. “But it also starts building a nature-based tourism sector that pays taxes and builds economies, making them of national importance and therefore more likely to be protected.”
Wildlife is the single biggest revenue for Africa’s tourism, with the United Nations World Tourism Organization stating 80 per cent of annual trips to Africa were for wildlife watching. And as projections point to a doubling of visitors to the continent by 2030 from the current 62 million, the report argues that additional revenue is attainable.
Ethiopia, which boasts nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, wasn’t able to attract more than 50,0000 visitors to each one in 2016. To improve these numbers, the report says the country would need to invest in better infrastructure for national parks and capitalize on its unique features, like being home to 835 bird species—a potential birdwatcher’s paradise rivalling Costa Rica or South Africa.
As the continent grapples with a growing population, poverty, climate change and a booming illegal wildlife trade, the report says important ecological areas could be lost before their value is utilized. Several places in Africa have already developed parks in ways that could threaten their natural capital, while others are planning to extract oil, minerals and other activities.
Doreen Robinson, wildlife expert at UN Environment said it was important for governments to develop partnerships with private, community and non-profit organizations to realize the full capacity of nature-based tourism in Africa and thus ensure wildlife for future generations.
“Private investment and know-how are needed to develop attractive tourism services and products, while good public management must ensure equitable business practices and reinvestment of profits into conservation of wildlife,” she said. “Ultimately this formula grows the economy, protects nature and supports human development.”
The report states only four African countries—Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe—are top nature tourism destinations, each attracting between 2–5 million visitors a year. But there is a lot of room for improvement, particularly in western Africa that has tropical forests and beaches, yet due to poor marketing hasn’t tapped its full tourism potential.
For governments to gain the most of protected areas, they should create national tourism plans for protected areas and integrate them into the economic plans of the country—that way, wild places will finally get the resources they deserve.