Tourism and Conservation: Rethinking the Paradigm

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Economic Growth and Trade | Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development

Can sustainable tourism really drive economic growth and promote conservation at the same time? Matthew Humke shares his perspective based on 20 years of experience around the world.

Due to its sheer size and potential, sustainable tourism — travel that attempts to benefit a destination’s economy, environment, and society — has become an essential element of nearly any economic development strategy in emerging economies around the world.

You’ve probably seen the stats: Worldwide, travel and tourism contribute 10.2 percent of GDP, are third in global exports (trailing only fuel and chemicals), create one in 10 jobs, and have outpaced the global economy in terms of growth for the sixth consecutive year in 2016.

But that’s primarily in mainstream destinations like Western Europe and North America, right?

Wrong. 2015 marked the first time in modern history that middle- and low-income countries received more visitors than the developed world — a whopping 550 million people going on safaris in Africa, exploring the Amazon in dugout canoes, and visiting ancient shrines in Asia.

But how much money are they really spending? In 2015, tourists spent $486 billion dollars in emerging economies — about three times the amount of official development assistance that year. Still not impressed? How about the fact that tourism is the number one source of foreign exchange in 83 percent of emerging economies.

In other words, if you’re doing economic development work in emerging economies and not seriously considering tourism as a part of your strategy, you’re missing the dugout canoe.

Yet while sustainable tourism, as a niche market, grows three times faster than the tourism industry overall, the unrelenting expansion of mass tourism’s all-inclusive resorts and ever-larger cruise ships continues to threaten the world’s fragile ecosystems, particularly in the coastal and marine destinations favored by sand and sun seekers. The result has been a loss of coastal mangrove and reef habitats, competition for fresh water and scarce resources, and social problems such as rising real estate prices and the displacement of fishing and farming communities.

The origins of sustainable tourism

It’s no secret that ecotourism, which in turn evolved into sustainable tourism, was born out of the conservation movement. International NGOs like Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy poured considerable resources into the ecotourism boom of the ’80s and ’90s. The concept was sexy and the opportunities seemed limitless.

But that interest and investment began to ebb about a decade ago — most likely due in part to the lack of success stories or replicable models illustrating how tourism could reduce biodiversity threats, not just contribute to them. These early challenges are likely due to an underestimation of the complexity and demands of a service-driven industry like tourism, and the inability of governments, development agencies, and NGOs to empower indigenous groups and community tourism micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) with the unique skill sets it takes to meet the expectations of international travelers.


billion dollars were spent by tourists in emerging economies in 2015


percent of GDP worldwide comes from travel and tourism


percent of businesses are micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises

Sustainable tourism 2.0

Have we learned from those noble yet unsuccessful attempts to link tourism, poverty alleviation, and biodiversity conservation? Is there a chance to turn the (cruise) ship around?

Income diversification as a conservation strategy: Introducing higher incomes from resource preservation rather than resource extraction. Source: Produced for Tourism Conservation Models, published under USAID MAREA.

You bet. First, sustainable tourism businesses need to run in the black in order to contribute to triple-bottom-line results like environmental protection and cultural preservation. That means in-depth market analysis and business planning, strong connectivity to industry partners like tour operators, innovative products and marketing, and world-class customer service developed through specialized training programs.

Second, we need to be more strategic in how we design sustainable tourism projects and create direct linkages between tourism job creation and biodiversity threat reduction. As part of the USAID Management of Aquatic Resources and Economic Alternatives (MAREA) project, my work with organizations like Solimar International and Chemonics International included documenting and disseminating replicable case studies that showcase tourism-based biodiversity threat reduction models that included identifying and training sea turtle poachers to transition to better-paying jobs as naturalist guides, developing and branding souvenirs like handbags made out of the same plastic bags littering beaches, and promoting best practices with tourists and codes of conduct with tour operators.

Plastic bags, often consumed by sea turtles whose primary diet is jellyfish, collected and converted into a revenue-generating tourism souvenir. Photo credit: WIDECAST

Third, we need to take both a bottom-up and a top-down approach. MSMEs account for over 90 percent of all businesses and 60 to 70 percent of total employment worldwide (numbers that are even higher in emerging economies). Clearly, we need to engage local tourism enterprises to have an impact. Yet we certainly can’t forget about the big guys either.

The World Wildlife Fund’s Global Marine Programme estimates that coastal development, primarily development driven by mass tourism, is second only to unsustainable fishing as the primary threat to the world’s coastal and marine ecosystems. Through internationally recognized certification bodies like the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, major players in the industry (including Royal Caribbean Cruises, Airbnb and TUI Travel Group) are adopting environmentally sustainable policies to better manage water, waste, and electricity and reduce their overall footprint. And today, we are seeing such green certification programs not only for hotels, but also for parks, beaches, tour operators, guides, golf courses, marinas, and most recently, vacation homes.

If you’re doing economic development work in emerging economies and not seriously considering tourism as a part of your strategy, you’re missing the dugout canoe.

Finally, we must divert more of the 10.2 percent of global GDP that tourism generates into local efforts to conserve the natural and cultural resources upon which the industry depends. In Belize, a $3.75 departure tax goes directly to the Protected Area Conservation Trust, a Belizean fund dedicated to the conservation of the Mesoamerican reef and rainforest. It is a small price to pay, yet since its inception in 1997, the tax has pumped nearly $17 million into protecting the country’s natural resources and maintaining its position as a world-class tourism destination.

What’s next?

With all these great trends and opportunities, what’s the best thing we have going for us? The answer is market demand.

I could throw out a lot of statistics to prove my point, but unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the fact that — from millennials to baby boomers — people are choosing their travel destinations and service providers more wisely. No longer is that little card in the bathroom about hanging up your towels enough. Travelers seek out tour operators and hotels that proudly offer carbon-neutral itineraries, authentic exchange with local communities that improves everyone’s day, and experiences that deliver those triple bottom line results.

As Luigi Cabrini, director for sustainable development at the U.N. World Tourism Organization nicely summarized, “The tourism sector is embracing responsible tourism not as an option, but as a condition for its continuous growth.”

About Matthew Humke

Matthew Humke has worked for 20 years in Latin America, Africa, and Asia for organizations like Rare and Solimar International developing sustainable tourism as a tool for economic development and biodiversity conservation. The tourism enterprises Matthew has helped to establish, such as La Ruta Moskitia in Honduras, have generated more than $5 million for local…