Is the Covid-19 crisis really a good thing for the environment?

The other day, my 11-year-old daughter asked me if the Covid-19 crisis that the world is currently living through was a positive thing for the environment. Good question. I told her I wasn’t sure.

Like many of the children of her generation, my daughter is very much into protecting the environment and living a more sustainable life.

But then I remembered some good news I’d recently read in the media. News about dolphins swimming in the never-before crystal clear waters of Venice (although there are doubts about this story, read here) and reports of fin whales being spotted off the Cote d’Azur in the south of France. I’d read articles that people in northern India could see the Himalayas for the first time in decades due to less air pollution. I’d seen maps that showed much lower levels of pollution in China first, then Europe and now the US. Maybe the environment was better off…  

News reports aside, from my own travels around the Cayuga Collection hotels as they began to empty and move into “hibernation mode” last month, I certainly saw a lot more wildlife roaming the grounds. As a board member of an NGO called ProParques in Costa Rica, I also received reports from our National Park rangers that the parks are recovering from human interference and that they’re seeing more and more wildlife. Of course, fewer cars on the roads and planes in the sky mean lower global CO2 emissions too. It all sounds pretty good.

Less than a year ago I wrote this blog about “not flying anymore” and what impacts it could have on the environment.

But there is most likely a flipside to all of this.

In a conversation with Dereck Joubert, a fellow member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World program, I asked him how the wildlife situation was looking around his lodges in Kenya, Botswana and South Africa. His response was clear: “Poachers don’t respect any lockdowns – on the contrary, the lack of tourism is making it too easy for them to hunt.” As tourism is on hold for the near future, Dereck and his wife Beverly have repurposed most of their lodge staff to become rangers, tasked with protecting the wild animals. But it’s a tough fight. As far as Dereck is concerned, the situation is so serious that if there’s no tourism for an extended period, by the time visitors eventually return, there might be no more Big Five left to spot. 

Learn more about Dereck and Beverly’s work at: https://greatplainsconservation.com/

Thinking about my own experience over the past 20+ years in Costa Rica, it’s clear that tourism has played its part in the protection of wildlife and forests here too. Many poachers have become guides and even more ex loggers and gold diggers provide services to tourists. As a result, the amount of wildlife that can be observed all across the country has significantly increased in the past years.

Your stay benefits communities, wildlife, & forests
Seeing a sloth on your vacation to Costa Rica is almost guaranteed. OK, it helps that they are not really all that fast…

When I first worked in Nicaragua circa 2000, there were almost no wild animals to be seen. Most of them ended up on local dinner tables. That has also changed in the past years, thanks to the positive impact of tourism. My fear now is that things will go right back to how they once were. Most people who worked in tourism until March now find themselves unexpectedly unemployed and struggling. It’s only a matter of time before they look to animals, trees, and plants for basic income. We could lose 30 years of conservation efforts almost overnight, and with that, a great many other advances.

Experience
When I asked the employees of our lodge in Nicaragua what Iguana tastes like, they said – of course – like chicken.

Just think about single-use plastics. We were so excited to hear that what we’d been practicing for 10 years was finally becoming the norm in our industry and across the world. But now, in the name of hygiene, everything is back to single-use. A friend of mine in Canada told me the other day that she was not allowed to use her reusable cloth bags in a supermarket and had to instead use single-use plastic ones. And the reasoning? Danger of contaminating others with the virus…

Bamboo Straws
Will all the pledges from last year by the big hotel and restaurant chains to eliminate single-use plastics be upheld after the Covid crisis?

We understand and support the fight against Covid-19, just like we support the measures by our democratic governments to restrict our rights to freely move around. But just as those civil liberties should only be restricted for a limited amount of time, so the resurgence of single-use plastics should also be temporary and only if absolutely necessary. This crisis should not give oil and plastic companies the right to go full out and recover their losses from previous years.

For now, at the Cayuga Collection, our main concern isn’t whether the environment is better or worse off. There are pros and cons. What’s playing on our minds is the impact on the local communities in the rural areas that have been most affected by the sudden obliteration of tourism activity. Amazon isn’t hiring in the towns we’re talking about, and those who live there are out of options.

Connect
Here is the story of what we had to do with our staff at our hotels and lodges in late March 2020.

The impact on these rural communities and their people will be devastating and have severe social consequences. Many who achieved middle-class status through their tourism income might just fall back into poverty. All that has been achieved in terms of environmental education will be hard to sustain. It’s difficult to think about climate change, recycling and cleaning up beaches when you are hungry and don’t know how to pay your bills.

Tatiana started with Cayuga at Arenas del Mar in Manuel Antonio and then moved to Senda in Monteverde in a management position.

So, in response to my daughter’s question, there may well be some short term environmental gains, but if this crisis continues for any length of time, our planet and its people will suffer and all the advances in sustainable practices may well evaporate in the blink of an eye.

This is why we should all continue to become more sustainable in everything we do after things are back to the “new normal”. You can count on Cayuga for doing its part on the responsible tourism side of things in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. I would love to hear your thoughts on this blog in the comment section below or write to me directly to hans@cayugaonline.com.

24 Responses

  1. Great bloq. Spot on. There is always going to be an impact to the environment for any activity we do. We need to focus on the positive income that tourism has on the environment and more importantly on the communities that are benefitted from the tourism activity. And should there be no tourism then the negative or more survival mode impact on the environment and protected areas from these same communities. There is a limit what Park Rangers can do. The best way to protect our National Parks is to create economic benefits for the adjoining communities and let them realize the importance that protecting the park and its wildlife has.

    You cant blame poachers if they are hunting in protected lands to feed their family. However if you can convert these poachers to become Nature and wildlife guides then they wont have a need to poach.

  2. I believe the crisis is good for one thing for sure- introspection and a re-imagining of how we should live and how we should do tourism. However, like you described so clearly- the longer it drags on, the more that we lose- wildlife, best practices, etc. So I think the opportunity is to learn our lesson and then get back to more sustainable living. Shannon Stowell, CEO- Adventure Travel Trade Association

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Shannon. We look forward to this recovery together. Best to you and your team.

  3. Very thoughtful perspectives, Hans, thank you for sharing them. Most conservationists have come to realize and embrace the importance of ecotourism for the world’s most amazing places, and also their people. These are difficult and frustrating times indeed — your essay reminds us that opportunity for global travel has become absolutely essential now if we are to maintain local support of large-scale biodiversity protection. Please endure, and keep letting us know how we can help.

    1. Thank you John. Great to hear from you. I hope you are all ok up in Ithaca at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Come back soon.

  4. This blog was an absolute pleasure to read. Cayuga has such a strong understanding of the complexities of things. So so grateful to know you guys are sticking to your values even during challenging times. From personal observations In florida, it also appeared that the natural world was doing better. Less light pollution, less litter, more wildlife. As you did, I did pick up on the increase of single use plastic production/consumption. Which in the name of safety and health is important, but nonetheless wasteful. This blog post also brought up another point that I wouldn’t have thought about… how are impoverished communities who depend on tourism going to fare? Will they turn to the environment for sustenance and deplete their local resources? Turning to the environnement for sustenance is not alway synonym with unsustainable though. As for wildlife trade/poaching I wonder if covid 19 has decreased the demand in the wild pet trade (legal and illegal) as more and more people are realizing the connection between the virus and wildlife trade. Thank you for getting my wheels turning, Hans looking fwd to brainstorming creative solutions with you.
    – Victoria

    1. Thanks Victoria. I wish you could be with us here in Central America as planned. But we have to postpone. Glad I got you thinking. Good points in your response. This is an ongoing discussion. Stay safe and see you soon.

  5. There is no doubt that Covid-19 is making many people think about their future and how they consume and live their lives, including how they travel and what impact this may have on the planet.

    Just prior to Covid-19 much of the travel trade’s agenda was focused on climate change, the carbon offsetting debate and deplastification.

    Currently the media is full of positives and negatives on the environment from Covid-19 – cleaner air in some places versus smoke filled skies from forest fires in others. Wild animals walking European streets on lock down in Europe versus increased hunting and poaching in Africa. Whatever the benefits Covid-19 may or may not be having on the environment we must grasp this opportunity to educate and change behaviour in the long-term.

    Covid-19 has brought wildlife poaching and biodiversity loss issues into focus for a wider audience and if we want to make long-lasting change we must seize the opportunity to change our relationship with nature.

    All countries need to commit to funding nature-based solutions to climate-change and biodiversity loss and begin investing accordingly. We need to protect, restore and leverage the world’s forests, wetlands, grasslands and oceans and involve and support rural communities and their cultural values so they can benefit from sustainable tourism, the production of non-timber forest products and develop non-destructive or extractive marine activities.

    Covid-19 is making people all over the world take responsibility for their own actions. If we could extend this individual and collective responsibility to create a bold and immediate response to climate emergency then we may just have a shot at saving the planet!

    Finally a statistic to put things into perspective. Currently only about 3% of charitable giving in the US annually goes to environmental causes. As an industry we need to do more to help link climate change, human health and well-being with ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation if we’re to gain a bigger piece of the philanthropy pie and help protect and conserve the places we love!

    – Neil

    1. Thanks for your comments Neil. Keep on reminding us that there is a life after Corona and that we need to tackle the things that have a big influence on us then. Climate change is certainly one of them. We will be in touch to work on tourism contributions together. Stay safe.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful piece Hans, appreciate another perspective. The question for me is not necessarily the short-term gains made for the environment in the short-term, it is more about the the sustainability of any kind of behavior shift that this emergency might cause. I’m sure we can undo any of the “gains” in a very short amount of time when things are back to “normal”, so i definitely echo with the sentiment that what we really need are sustainable and lasting market/policy/human behavior changes and not just temporary emergency decrees. Thanks Cayuga for being part of the lasting sustainable solution.

  7. Hans and Cayuga friends: 6 weeks ago I read a phrase that has motivated me during this crisis, “Through not around!”. Costa Rica, Cayuga and it´s hotels are well positioned to get through this rapidly. God bless you!

    1. Thank you Sergio for all your help and support during this crisis. Yes. We will get through this together.

  8. I like to think positively… crisis leasxto changes deep changes that are much needed. I surely how that these feelings of isolation and incarceration stY in the minds of all of those confined… lkike animals . We must not go back to where we were before… this is a unique opportunity to question and to value the riches that our plsnet has offered for centuries and that we as humans full of greed and vice have taken. We must not return to normal.. we must return energized and ready for deep sognoficant changes… we have learned to live with the basics- and that has so much intrinsic value.
    The protection of our mother earth… the humbling down of humanity.. the fact that we are all crrated equal and life can slip out of our hands n in a split second. None of that can be taken slightly anymore.
    New sustainable respectful practices of coexistence must be the new normal. Nothing else… if these 40 plus days have not shaken us to the core – I cannot think what else can.

  9. Hans these are lovely thoughts and does help you think what is going to be the impact like.
    Personally, I feel, if nothing else, the crisis has given everyone a glimpse of a cleaner world and how it would look like if certain practices were stopped. I live in Delhi and the Air pollution has certainly dropped. Night Skies are clear and every evening is beautiful in a city where we were wearing masks in the winter due to pollution. It will all boil down to policy making. The policy makers need to use this a perfect use case of what environment conservation can do and start drafting policies before the tourism picks up again slowly. For regions, that have seen dolphins and clear Himalayas, they wouldn’t want to loose this opportunity which may never come again

    1. Thank you Paras for your perspective from India. Lots of challenges here but also lots of opportunities.

  10. Hey, I enjoyed the read. I think you should contribute to the #TourismFromZero initiative. You should check out their cause at the tourismfromzero.org. It is important that we gather information from tourism providers at this time and find out solutions and good practices so everyone can adapt as fast as possible.

    1. Thank you Dominique. This is the time to show the world the value of tourism in conservation. Tourism done right is a true force for good. Thanks for your continued support. Hope to see you in Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Panama real soon.

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