COVID-19 – Impact on biodiversity conservation and ecotourism

COVID-19 – Impact on biodiversity conservation and ecotourism

In the last several months, international travel has almost come to a grinding halt. Many airlines are grounded and facing the prospect of bankruptcy, while hotels and lodges aren’t economically viable without bookings. What does this mean for the future of ecotourism in Africa?

According to figures by the World Economic Forum, tourism accounts for 10% of global GDP and employs upward of 50 million people. Tourism, and by association ecotourism, is an exceptionally important sector throughout many parts of Africa. Global wildlife tourism, or ecotourism, accounts for approximately 3.9% of this figure with a value of US$343.6 billion. To put that into perspective, that is equivalent to the entire annual GDP for South Africa. According to figures by the World Travel and Tourism Council, approximately $48.8 billion is spent in Africa, which helps to employ around 3.6 million people across the continent. Realistically, Africa could easily double or triple this figure. 

Funding for numerous conservation projects and the protection and maintenance of reserves comes directly from tourism revenue streams. High-end safari lodges and hunting concessions have sprung up across many parts of Africa during the past two decades. These operations are spread across South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania with growing sectors in Mozambique, Malawi and Uganda. They employ thousands of full-time and casual employees from game guides, mechanics and maintenance workers to chefs, waitrons, administrators and hospitality staff. 

Apart from paying wages and salaries, revenue generated through visiting tourists is channelled into conservation programmes, employing research scientists, veterinarians, and conservationists. Private hunting concessions have ensured that thousands of hectares of land has been kept in its natural state, thereby protecting plants and thousands of small animals. Local communities often benefit from tourism levies and the selling of curios and other locally-produced or manufactured products. There is a strong initiative to employ people from local communities during initial development through onsite training and education. This can lead to further full-time employment after the project enters the operational stage. 

The current SARS Covid-19 outbreak may have a detrimental impact on this sector with thousands of people, many supporting extended family members, potentially being made redundant in the weeks and months to come. The World Health Organization has stated that the pandemic may linger indefinitely and global travel may remain extremely limited for the remainder of 2021. Even with an effective vaccine or eradication of the virus, industries may take a few years to fully recover, especially those facing foreclosure. In addition, current establishments forced to retrench or furlough staff may face difficulties enticing employees back, many of whom may have sought alternative employment or migrated to towns for better prospects.

Another major concern against the backdrop of unemployment is the high rate of poaching in recent years. Increased unemployment may exasperate poaching for meat as well as wildlife product trade. It could be argued that decreased shipping will lessen the demand for contraband products like rhino horn and pangolin scales. This is unlikely, as trade is continuing, but almost certainly with less monitoring due to human isolation protocols being carried out during Covid-19.  

It is too early to speculate on the eventual outcome and the impact of a ‘lag period’ whereby the industry stabilises back to pre-2020 figures, and if the industry will stabilise… Global tourism could fall substantially even after borders reopen and airlines start operating again. Across the globe, recession and unemployment figures are reaching record levels, and disposable incomes are being slashed. Many people are having to rely on savings or cash out on policies to pay their bills and purchase food – millions of dollars that would otherwise have purchased plane tickets, booked hotels and lodges, paid for game drives and curios. Exactly to what degree this will impact ecotourism will depend on how long travel restrictions remain in place, and how much disposable income people will be willing to spend on tourism post-Covid-19.

Another factor to consider is the value of domestic versus international tourism. Economic woes in many African countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, may not bode favourably for domestic tourism and many countries will rely heavily on foreign exchange to boost local economies.

In upcoming issues, Biodiversity & Environment Africa will interview industry experts and economists for feedback on the impact Covid-19 has had on the continent’s ecotourism, hunting and hospitality sectors. We will also be investigating the resilience and long-term outlook of ecotourism and what this means for local communities, conservation and the preservation of natural habitats. 

Article and photos by: Warren Schmid


Warren holds a Master of Science degree in Ecological Sciences awarded by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He has three decades of experience in ecology, conservation science, invasion biology and herpetology. He has worked as a journalist, magazine editor, and lecturer, and has presented talks, seminars, and lectures.


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