A Global Perspective on Trends in Nature-Based Tourism
Reports of rapid growth in nature-based tourism and recreation add significant weight to the economic case for biodiversity conservation but seem to contradict widely voiced concerns that people are becoming increasingly isolated from nature. This apparent paradox has been highlighted by a recent study showing that on a per capita basis, visits to natural areas in the United States and Japan have declined over the last two decades. These results have been cited as evidence of "a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation" — but how widespread is this phenomenon? We address this question by looking at temporal trends in visitor numbers at 280 protected areas (PAs) from 20 countries. This more geographically representative dataset shows that while PA visitation (whether measured as total or per capita visit numbers) is indeed declining in the United States and Japan, it is generally increasing elsewhere. Total visit numbers are growing in 15 of the 20 countries for which we could get data, with the median national rate of change unrelated to the national rate of population growth but negatively associated with wealth. Reasons for this reversal of growth in the richest countries are difficult to pin down with existing data, but the pattern is mirrored by trends in international tourist arrivals as a whole and so may not necessarily be caused by disaffection with nature. Irrespective of the explanation, it is clear that despite important downturns in some countries, nature-related tourism is far from declining everywhere, and may still have considerable potential both to generate funds for conservation and to shape people's attitudes to the environment.
Nature-based tourism is frequently described as one of the fastest growing sectors of the world's largest industry, and a very important justification for conservation. However, a recent, high profile report has interpreted declining visit rates to US and Japanese national parks as evidence of a pervasive shift away from nature tourism. Here we use the largest database so far compiled on trends in visits to Protected Areas around the world to resolve this apparent paradox. We find that, while visit rates—measured in two different ways—are indeed declining in some wealthy countries, in roughly three-quarters of the nations where data are available, visits to Protected Areas are increasing. Internationally, rates of growth in the number of visits to such areas show a clear negative association with per capita income, which interestingly is matched by trends in foreign arrivals as a whole. Our results therefore suggest that, despite worrying local downturns, nature-related tourism is far from declining everywhere, and may still have considerable potential to generate funds for conservation and engage people with the environment.
This was published in an open access journal.