Beyond ecotourism

Eight years left to save nature

Script from the Beyond Ecotourism webinar (June 2022), followed by answers to questions posed by participants:

Ecotourism, a movement from the '70s and '80s encouraged those in the nature tourism sector - and tourists - to be mindful of our impacts on nature...

...and it sparked a wider conversation across all sectors of tourism which led to the responsible tourism movement.

Now we need something radically different and we need it quickly, and here's why...


Ecotourism began with the idea that wildlife tours should not destroy the wildlife that tourists had paid come to come and see.

Its famous mantra was leave only footprints, take only photographs.

Now we must do much more than leave no trace. We must urgently restore and regenerate nature, and help make the case to local authorities for stronger protection of nature.

In policy terms nature has lacked a north star – a simple goal equivalent to net zero for carbon. Later this year the new global biodiversity goals will be announced, and they will be to arrest the declines in nature by 2030. The UK Government has made a legally binding commitment to do so.

One of the ways to do this will be to ensure 30% of all land and sea has some formal level of protection for nature by 2030. National Parks or reserves are one high level of protection, but there are many other types.

Nearly 100 countries have pledged 30 by 30, if you want to see whether governments where you operate have then you will find a list here.

Why is protecting nature so important?

Everything we are, know or do comes from nature.

  • We need healthy nature and ecosystems for the clean air we breathe and the water we drink.
  • 66% of our crops and 33% of all food relies on insects as pollinators.
  • Many of our new antibiotics are found in nature.
Every year, forests and woodlands, healthy grasslands, peat bogs, plankton, sea grass and more absorb 50-60% of man-made carbon emissions.

The Paris climate goals (to stay below 2 degrees warming) and budgets assume that nature remains intact – as it is now – to absorb (or sequester) carbon.

If we continue to lose nature then we cannot avoid the severest impacts of climate change. We have eight years left to hit targets to remain below 2 degrees warming, which means that we have eight years left to arrest the long-term declines in nature caused by human beings.

No business can have an effective climate strategy without a nature strategy, and vice versa. The future for business, as Al Gore told me at COP26, is nature + climate.

We think of tourism and nature too narrowly

Close your eyes and picture tourism and nature...

My guess is that you see wide open spaces, wildlife and people with cameras.

Many of us have associated tourism’s impacts on nature with the nature that we can see, meaning wildlife tourism – which is a niche within a niche.

We’ve missed the bigger picture and the fact that every type of tourism impacts on nature and has the opportunity to protect and restore it...

To explain why let’s take a step back and look more widely at why nature is declining so fast.

The five biggest impacts on nature are:

  1. Land use change
    • This means healthy natural environments being converted for other uses in more degraded forms. We concrete over wild places to create tourism facilities, but another important example is intensive food production.
    • Humans occupy 1% of the planet’s surface, crops 12%, livestock grazing 28%. When we eat beef and dairy on vacation - or at home - we create pressure to convert healthy natural habitats into intensive agriculture. A tourist’s steak in New York brings down a tree and an Orangutan in Indonesia.
  2. Over exploitation
    • Tourism requires roads, footpaths, hotels and resort facilities. The construction materials for these are often made from natural resources. Tourism can utilise them at rates beyond which they can replenish, and this is called over exploitation.
  3. Pollution
    • Light and noise pollution, as well as solid waste pollution, impacts birds and insects in cities and urban areas as well as in wild ones. Plastic discarded from a hotel in city center ends up in our rivers or on a coral reef.
  4. Non-native invasive species
    • On walking and hiking vacations and boat trips - as well as on wildlife vacations - we can unwittingly transport non- native species that out compete local species.
  5. Finally, climate change
    • All types of tourism contribute to climate change, which has a major impact on nature and vice versa.
So, every single vacation of any type – all of your trips and every itinerary – impacts on nature, not just wildlife tourism.

Environmental justice and inclusivity

While the best ecotourism has always been mindful of local communities, the final reason for the re-invention of ecotourism is around the newer agendas for environmental justice and inclusivity.

Environmental justice means addressing the unfair impacts of the destruction of nature on poor and marginalised communities. They need to benefit most from our vacations.

Tourism is often experienced, and indeed marketed, as an exclusive activity. By inclusivity we mean that all tourists feel welcomed and valued, AND that communities that are marginalised or excluded from it are given opportunities.


I want to share my excitement about the potential of tourism, compared to other industries, for helping to save nature at this point.

Yes, we have impacts on nature across our industry to address – fixing this is Step 1.

Step 2 is regenerating and restoring nature. Here we can be giants. The money we generate for local communities in natural areas, sometimes where there are few economic alternatives, can literally tip the balance in favour of conservation.

For many local communities, especially those in poverty there is a simple equation; does protecting nature make economic sense compared to other uses?

Very quickly we will see significant incomes for local communities from carbon credits and biodiversity credits supplementing tourism incomes.

This will be a game changer and further strengthen the case for the restoration of nature. Some areas where tourism on its own cannot make a winning argument then tourism + carbon credits + biodiversity credits may do.

Examples of great work

A few examples of good work by way of illustration:

  • The Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers has wood panels on the walls that are made of old windowsills or joints. The floors are made from recycled rubber and concrete, with 62.5% of the aggregate being replaced by recycled materials. Ceiling panels are made of PET bottles and ventilation shafts are covered in discarded sails from sailing. Circularity – keeping products and material in use – reduces the over consumption of nature.
  • Saruni Basecamp in Kenya, one of our Responsible Travel partners (and on whose Board I sit) has helped protect over 420,000 hectares of land in the Masai Mara for wildlife, local people and carbon sequestration by partnering with and leasing land from the Maasai community.
  • We have a yoga retreat in Portugal on Responsible Travel that plants thousands of trees and shrubs to encourage bees, insects and birds, and clears low level bush vegetation to allow large trees to thrive – which also protects the forest and nearby village from flooding and forest fires. Protecting nature can be an important part of climate adaption strategies.
  • In Brazil one of the eco-lodges that we use in the Amazon, the world’s largest store of irrecoverable carbon, is providing economic alternatives to logging, palm oil and intensive agriculture. However, lawlessness makes conservation in parts of Brazil very challenging.
Please let me ( know of your work; we are building a map of them for Responsible Travel and case histories for the UK Government.

The key takeaways

  • Nature and climate go hand in hand – we need strategies for both.
  • Every single one of our tours impacts nature and we need to address impacts in 5 key areas (land use change, over exploitation, pollution, non-native invasive species and climate change).
  • We can be giants for nature restoration and getting to 30 by 30.
  • We must be more inclusive, fair and just in respect of tourists and local communities.

Please let's re-double our efforts. We don’t need to be perfect, but we all need to start by doing something.


Questions asked by participants of the Beyond Ecotourism webinar on 29 June 2022.

Q: The biggest worry for tourism has to be the flights our clients take to reach our destinations.

A: Yes, the carbon emissions from flights contributes to global warming, which is one of the five biggest reasons for the loss of nature (and of course has many other serious consequences)

There are two sides to reducing the impacts of climate change. The first is to significantly reduce the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere. The second is to restore nature to absorb (or sequester) carbon.

As Responsible Travel we believe we must fly less, by taking longer vacations and also switching out some trips with flights for those closer to home or by rail. See our short film on how to reduce carbon.

We don’t support the idea that the responsibility for fly less falls entirely to individuals, but that Governments must regulate aviation. We have proposed The Green Flying Duty to both reduce demand for aviation and increase funding for the transition to renewable energy.

When do we fly, we believe our travel should be protecting and restoring nature to absorb carbon - nature positive travel. Watch our short film on how to do this.

Q: You talked about the commitment by over 100 countries to reduce carbon emissions by a certain amount by 2030 but what happens if they don't actually do it? Are there sanctions they will face?

A: Over 100 countries have pledged to protect 30% of land and 30% of sea by 2030. At this stage these are only pledges. The Global Biodiversity Framework will be agreed later this year, and we might hope that some will turn their pledges into legally binding commitments. At COP26 Governments were asked to make commitments to deliver net zero by 2050. There are no sanctions on Governments who do not meet this. The UK has made our commitment legally binding.

Q: Any ideas to upscale the Nature Positive Travel movement? Small players that take the lead can/should join forces with big players.

A: I think it starts here with really progressive businesses like ours. We continue to write about and publicise nature positive travel. I’ve made a new film here that we’ll be sharing widely.

For the past three years I’ve been leading some work with UK Environment Ministers, the Council for Sustainable business and Accenture to create the Nature Handbook for Business. It has a tourism chapter, and we are in the process of taking the handbook global with a coalition of 70 NGOs.

This can be a platform for engaging the big players in tourism globally.

Q: How confident are you, from what you have seen, that airlines will take necessary steps to reduce carbon and are you seeing action being taken to improve airport infrastructure?

A: I think the responsibility falls on Government to create the right regulation and incentives for airlines, fuel suppliers, airports, air traffic control and engine manufacturers.

In the short term the quickest solution is to use new lower carbon fuels in existing planes (which tend to remain in service a long time), which means second generation sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

These are made from waste, but new technologies will enable them to be made in labs and they produce significantly less CO2 than kerosene. The UK Government has set a target of 10% of sustainable aviation fuels (which can be mixed with kerosene) but other governments are more ambitious and airports are working to provide the necessary infrastructure. The first transatlantic flight with 100% SAF has been completed.

There a range of longer-term solutions under development, they include electric, hydrogen and hybrids.

I AM confident that we will be able to fly with zero or close to zero emissions in the future but it will NOT happen in time to meet the carbon reduction targets required to meet the Paris goals of limiting global warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees.

So, I come back to my point above – we need to fly less during this transition.

Q: Very insightful. Thank you. In part of the world where I am (Ethiopia), how the 2030 plan be possible without a political will? The other thing is the population pressure?

A: Good news, your President has committed to the 30 by 30 goal - to protect 30% of your land mass by 2030. You can see this and read about all of the countries that are committed.

We cannot protect nature at the expense of local communities, and as you say populations continue to grow in many countries. Responsible tourism is one way to ensure local communities benefit as we protect more land.

However, in some areas the income from tourism is not sufficient to make conservation viable for local people – or tourism is not viable at all.

In some parts of the world local communities are already earning income from carbon and biodiversity credits (funded by big corporations seeking to meet their net zero and biodiversity targets) as well as tourism.

The increased income for local people will make protecting and restoring more land more viable. However, local people need somewhere to live and enough land to grow food.

Some of the new models of conservation are based on local people living in conservation areas, which I think will be essential, and not all land is efficient at producing food – and it’s easier to make the case for conservation here.

Q: Do you think governments such as the UK government will soon start setting requirements around business disclosure of nature impacts and risks (and/or the setting of targets) just as they're doing around carbon/climate?

A: For big business yes, and I’m working to persuade the UK Government to be one the first to do this. The disclose platform will be the TNFD.

Q: Would a simple check list for each type of business be a better way of encouraging positive action?

A: It’s a good idea, although as the issues are different across the world then it’s would need to be adapted locally. Perhaps it’s something we could work on together.

Q: We, in Greece, are obliged to change simple fans to air-conditioning by the end of this year. Any suggestions for getting one government department (climate change) to talk to another (so-called tourism upgrading)!!

A: Oh dear! The environment, and your choice about how keep customers cool, has been sacrificed in the name of progress. I can’t speak for how to work with your government, but what has worked well in the UK is to get one Minister – perhaps your environment minister – to convene a cross Government meeting with others (such as tourism).

Written by Justin Francis