Responsible tourism on wilderness vacations

In February 2021, the UK government-commissioned Dasgupta Review was published, with the blunt recommendation that to prevent loss of lives and livelihoods, the world needs to urgently rethink its economic policies and associated destruction of nature. While the biodiversity crisis and climate crisis are obviously linked, the biodiversity crisis is perhaps even more dangerous to humanity, as it underpins all life on earth. Yet so far it is not gathering anywhere near as many headlines.

Responsible Travel has committed to becoming ‘nature positive’ by 2030. That’s to say, we are going to significantly increase the number of vacations we sell that put nature first, directly and indirectly benefitting biodiversity.

Whether it’s unscrupulous mining companies, incompetent, uninterested or corrupt governments, or climate change, many of the planet’s last remaining wilderness areas are under threat. It has never been more urgent to protect them and inspire people to become interested in conservation.

One weapon in that fight can be demonstrating the financial value of tourism in wilderness areas where biodiversity tends to be at its strongest. Another is to illuminate and support the role that Indigenous people have always played in protecting the lands they inhabit, often at risk of their own lives. Even at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, activists stressed that their voices were still not being heard by governments.

There is concern that even the term ‘wilderness’ is unhelpful and needs a rethink, because it conjures up an image of land entirely free of human presence when in fact many wilderness areas have actually been shaped by human behaviour.

Wildlife & environment in wilderness areas

The recall of the wild

Rewilding is the process of restoring wilderness areas, the flora and fauna within them, and the natural processes that sustain them. One example is the process of reintroducing beavers to parts of the UK, such as Dorset and the South Downs. Hunted to extinction in the 16th century, the beaver is considered a keystone species because its presence can have a significant impact on an ecosystem, such as by reducing downstream flooding, and by creating enormously biodiverse wetlands. Also, they’re really cute to watch.

Globally, both the G7 and the European Union have committed to protecting and conserving 30 percent of the planet in recognition of the importance of biodiversity to humanity’s own survival. But it’s vital that the right areas are protected – those that are biologically significant, not just politically convenient.

In order to deliver on this ambitious target, far more terrestrial and marine areas are going to have to be rewilded – and given that this process is not always without controversy, that will require cooperation with local communities. For instance, wolves are another keystone species, but any reintroduction project would necessitate years of engagement with residents, landowners, farmers, and is still far from guaranteed to be successful.

Tourism: a sustainable alternative

Responsible tourism can have a significant role to play in rewilding efforts. Like it or not, when choices are made about how land and sea are used – whether for nature, development, leisure or industry – money talks loudly. If a case can be made that protection and conservation of the planet’s wilderness areas will attract tourism and the economic effects it brings, then that can have an impact.

Obviously, we’re under no illusions that small group winter vacations in Lapland will be able to compete on a financial basis with the mining industry. But they can show local people, campaigners and politicians that there is an alternative to businesses that leave only environmental destruction in their wake.

As part of our drive to become a nature positive company, putting vacations that benefit nature first, we’re working with our partners to help them reduce the impacts of their vacations on nature, and to increasingly promote their trips that support rewilding, habitat restoration and protection of wild places.

Julie Gough, marketing and communications manager at the John Muir Trust, feels there is great scope for tourism businesses to take the initiative ahead of government targets: “Examples of how they could help include introducing a biodiversity indicator against different types of vacations to gauge which are the responsible vacations of the future, investing part of their profits in natural capital or ‘ecosystem services’ associated with the places that people like to visit, thereby protecting those places for people to visit and explore.”

“They can educate their clients in what it means to travel responsibly and promote travel options that are low carbon rather than those that are carbon intensive and very costly to biodiversity and the stability of the climate.”

The Brazilian rainforests are the obvious poster child for the conflict between industrial growth and the need to protect vitally important ecosystems. Rainforests are the ‘lungs of the earth’, storing carbon dioxide, and breathing oxygen out. But deforestation for industries such as logging and farming have got significantly worse in recent years with the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing authoritarian government. It’s estimated that an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is being lost every minute – and we are now well into injury time if we want to meaningfully protect it.

Breana Quesnel, co-founder of our partner Spirit of the West Adventures, sees similar pressures on wild places in Canada: “There are many different demands on the spaces we enjoy, from industrial extractive activities such as logging, mining, power generation and fish farming. Tourism absolutely plays a role in conservation of these areas and in showing government sustainable, non-extractive uses of the land.”

“Many communities in British Columbia have had to transition away from resources extractive industries like logging and they are now embracing tourism, which provides meaningful well-paying jobs while the forests remain intact, providing for communities in so many ongoing ways.”

Just stressing the importance of protecting wilderness areas may not be enough. Environmentalists have been trying to raise the alarm since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring back in 1962, but sadly there are still significant numbers of influential politicians from the USA to Australia to Brazil that continue to miss the message. Or their donors would prefer they cover their ears. As Breana says above, there needs to be a sustainable, financial meaningful alternative that those in power can be pointed towards – such as wilderness tourism.
What you can do:

Look for vacations that are nature-positive, or at least try to mitigate their impacts. These might include trips where you have an opportunity to spend some time volunteering, such as in habitat restoration, or where you meet Indigenous groups to learn about their conservation work. Many of our partners financially contribute to conservation projects every time they sell a vacation too. Responsible wildlife-watching in wilderness areas means putting the animals’ wellbeing ahead of our own desire to get close to them. Traveling as part of an organised tour with an expert guide keeps you safe, and it keeps the animals safe too. Your guides should ensure that groups keep their distance, and that interactions minimise disturbance and stress for the wildlife. Understand the issues around rewilding, and why the reintroduction of predators such as wolves to rural areas may not be as appealing to local communities as it is to wildlife tourists.

Carmel Hendry, product manager at our partner Explore Worldwide, explains how they are looking at nature-first solutions for their vacations in wilderness areas: “At a basic level, we have an animal protection policy which has been accredited by the Born Free Foundation and responsible animal tourism consultancy Animondial. Any wildlife experiences on our trips have been vetted in line with this. We’re creating a database of these experiences that Animondial can then take to other travel companies and hopefully inspire others to improve as well.”

Overtourism & ‘dirty’ tourism

The Covid-19 pandemic saw international borders closed for months. People tired of being cooped up at home understandably started looking around their own countries for escapes into wild places. Unfortunately, not all of them were familiar with codes of conduct. In many wilderness areas there have been reports of camping where it’s prohibited, use of disposable barbecues that risk causing fires, and the scourge of discarded litter.

Dane Stewart, from our partner Tistel Wildlife Guiding, leads trips in Scotland and Norway: “What I call ‘dirty camping’ has become more of an issue recently. It’s good that more people are camping, of course, but too often it’s not being done right. I’ve seen people drop litter, then when they see me they pick it up. So on my trips I’m also actively helping people to learn how to camp properly.”

As well as its highest mountain, Ben Nevis is one of Scotland’s most beloved but over-visited destinations. “The key issues we see from increased visitor pressures are greater levels of litter on the footpath and the summit (including some less pleasant than others), erosion to sections of the path and the hillside, and inappropriate starting of fires in the glen,” says Julie Gough, from the John Muir Trust.

“The first essential part of getting people to care for a landscape is for them to experience it. However, with that right comes responsibility. While we carry out essential litter sweeps and path maintenance, we also see education as a vital part of this. This year, we have been excited to have 10 local youngsters take part in our Junior Ranger programme, where they learn essential skills of land management and being outdoors. We also had seasonal rangers this year supporting our permanent staff in speaking with visitors and educating them in how best to enjoy the landscape responsibly.”

What you can do:

If you can, travel at less busy times of year. Not only does this mean less pressure on often limited infrastructure in wilderness areas, it also means a more pleasant experience for you. Before traveling, familiarise yourself with codes of conduct about visiting natural areas, especially the principles of Leave No Trace to keep your impact to a minimum. Where you want to visit a popular area and can’t avoid peak dates, ask your vacation company how they reduce their impact such as by seeking out less well-known walking routes, or reducing the number of vehicles they use.

People & culture on wilderness vacations

Restoring respect

Possession Island lies off the coast of northern Queensland in Australia. It was named by Captain Cook in 1770, when he claimed Eastern Australia for Britain. Except of course he didn’t ‘claim it’. He nicked it. And nearly 250 years later, the Kaurareg, an Indigenous Australian group, claimed their native title rights over the island, repossessing what Cook had no right to in the first place.

Colonists have a long and shameful history of dispossessing Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands in wilderness areas, often by trickery, and forcefully assimilating them into cultures alien to their own. These acts have been called crimes against humanity, and when you think of how many people have died through disease, starvation and brutality, or as a result of mental illness caused by the effective eradication of one’s history, cultural and language, it’s hard to argue.

We’ve seen examples of it from the Trail of Tears in the USA to the residential schools scandal in Canada to Indigenous children being forcibly removed from their families in Australia – the Stolen Generations that some call genocide. And while in those countries there has been recognition of these crimes, and painful processes of recognition and reconciliation embarked upon, still we see present-day crimes against Indigenous peoples in countries such as Brazil going on in broad daylight. Illicit mining and logging are encouraged in Indigenous rainforest territories, and the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro (him again), has called for tribal communities to be ‘integrated’.

This concept can actually be a hindrance to effective conservation of the wilderness because it ignores those who have sustainably lived in, hunted, grazed and managed these areas for thousands of years. Who better to safeguard their future than those who have looked after them throughout history?

Reconciliation & conservation

Forty percent of the planet’s protected areas and remaining intact ecosystems are either managed or occupied by Indigenous peoples. Many of these communities have belief systems deeply rooted in the natural world: land, air, water, plants and animals. They are obvious partners for conservation projects, yet all too often in the past they have cast aside or uprooted.

Rethinking this approach can link conservation with growing recognition that there needs to be reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Allowing the communities who know these areas best to have decision-making capabilities in how they are maintained will not only show their knowledge is respected, but is also far more likely to be successful than dropping in people with plenty of theories but no prior link to the land.

Sparking conversations

“Pot latching is a kind of feast day to commemorate important events like births, marriages and deaths.” Carmel Hendry, product manager at our partner Explore Worldwide, is giving an example of how guides introduce Indigenous culture on their small group wilderness vacations in Canada.

“The community leader will either give away or destroy his important belongings. It’s about destroying wealth. The ceremonies were banned until about the 1950s, as they weren’t in line with Christian values. The authorities instead wanted assimilation into Western culture. So the pot latching was carried on in secret. We think it’s really important to help our groups gain some understanding of First Nations history and spark conversations, and it’s something we’re becoming a lot more proactive about.”

Responsible tourism in wilderness areas can help conservation efforts by recognising the presence and significance of Indigenous peoples and bringing their voices into the debate. That could be by hiring guides from these communities, creating travel itineraries that purposefully incorporate Indigenous sites such as walks, cultural centers and ceremonial structures while also respecting their sanctity.

What you can do:

Don’t assume that the wilderness you’re planning to visit will be totally uninhabited. Where there are people living there, have respect for their beliefs and traditions, as well as how they use the land. Look for vacations that bring you into contact with Indigenous communities. Whether it’s visiting a cultural center, hikes led by village elders or an introduction to medicinal plants, this kind of experience gives you deeper insights into the wilderness. It also means these communities have a valuable source of income. Learn about the UN’s Environmental Human Rights Defenders policy, why these groups matter, the dangers they face, and how you can support them.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Eelco Bohtlingk] [Tourism: a sustainable alternative: Saad Chaudhry] [Conservation vacation: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington] [Reconciliation & conservation: David Stanley]