This article first appeared in Our Planet and is reprinted with the kind permission of the United Nations Environment Programme.
No fewer than 1.6 billion people — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — depend on forests for their livelihoods. Forests are also critical to maintaining biodiversity, mitigating climate change and enabling key ecosystem functions that regulate the biosphere. And, as the UN resolution declaring 2011 the International Year of Forests recognized, managing forests sustainably can contribute significantly to sustainable development, poverty eradication and meeting the Millennium Development Goals. And yet about 45 per cent of the world’s forests have already been cleared.
Building a sustainable tourism economy around visiting forests is a powerful way of witnessing and leveraging their contributions If that sounds a little trivial compared to the planetary stakes of conserving the world’s remaining forests then consider these economic facts.
The global timber trade is worth over US$150 billion a year. That money often creates short-term, perverse incentives — especially in developing nations — to fell forests even though in the long run countries are far stronger economically when they manage them sustainably.
The value of forests is far higher than the value of the timber trade. The total value of the ecosystem services they provide — such as carbon capture, water filtration, soil fertility and pest management — is estimated at US$4.7 trillion annually. Forests contain over half of the planet’s biodiversity, on which around 40% of the world’s economy — particularly agriculture, forestry and pharmaceuticals — directly depends. The value of forests, like the value of survival, can’t be measured in money: but if we compare them to human economic activity, they couldn’t be ”worth” less than 20% of Gross World Product, or at least US$15 trillion — two orders of magnitude higher than their timber.
Now consider the value of travel and tourism, one of the world’s largest and fastest growing industries. It generates about US$6 trillion worldwide — over 9% of Gross World Product — and employs 235 million people. It is especially important for the economies of developing countries, which house most of the world’s most biodiverse forests. From 1990 to 2006, international tourism revenues in developing countries quintupled, from US$43 billion to US$222 billion. Travel and tourism globally has continued to grow robustly through the economic downturn: by 2021, it is forecast to generate over 13% of GWP or US$9.2 trillion, employing one in ten of the world’s workers.
Ecotourism is estimated to be growing three times faster among leisure travelers than the overall industry: it of course encompasses forest-based tourism — including travel to lodges that own protected areas or to forestbased communities that run tourism operations, situated near or within national parks and biosphere reserves. Though a fraction of the total market, the potential economic value of forests as tourist destinations could clearly exceed their market value as timber stocks, and would be exploited much less destructively and more profitably. The power of tourism can generate massive investments in conservation that carry a high rate of return. Tourism market values are much more commensurate with a broader view of what forests are “worth” (many trillions of dollars) Tapping those values can preserve forests’ biodiversity, ecosystems services and other invaluable assets. USAID’s Forestry Team found that nature-based tourism contributes to forest protection “through heightened awareness of biological resources and the generation of alternative income-producing opportunities.”
Of course, largescale tourism can also decimate ecosystems, from coral reefs to rainforests: so it’s critically important that it, like forestry, is managed sustainably. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification has a huge, positive impact on forest management. So far 334 million acres of forestland — about 1% of the Earth’s land area, roughly twice the size Texas — are under FSC responsible management (just under half of those acres are certified by the Rainforest Alliance). FSC is growing rapidly, and its sustainable practices are deeply and rapidly influencing industry practice — including selective harvesting of lower volumes of wood, replanting, providing wide conservation areas, preserving sensitive ecosystems, protecting the habitat of endangered species and maintaining carbon sequestration to reduce carbon emissions. It is the gold standard for environmentally and socially responsible forestry, helping communities earn a living by maintaining healthy, productive forests.
Given the value of the tourism sector, and the rapid growth of ecotourism, an analogous system for sustainable tourism could be a powerful tool in providing communities with an additional way to make a good living by keeping their forests standing. Tourism is relatively labor-intensive and can help reduce poverty and increase economic equality for women, who make up 46% of the tourism workforce, higher than the global average. Tourism jobs offer relatively high wages and have a jobcreating multiplier effect. A new study by the Center for Responsible Travel, for example, found that workers in ecolodges in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula — which National Geographic calls “the most biologically intense” place on earth, but is also one the country’s poorest regions — earn twice as much ($710 a month) as workers in a range of other fields. In Nicaragua, where tourism focuses prominently on the natural environment, the Rainforest Alliance estimates that every job in tourism creates an additional local job in another sector, with a higher wage than the national average.
For all these reasons, Rainforest Alliance promotes sustainable tourism along with sustainable forestry and agriculture. It helps tourist businesses get up to speed by providing them with training and technical assistance, and verifies compliance with sustainability requirements, so they can achieve sound accredited certifications. We supported the launch of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), which advances universal principles and criteria, connecting diverse businesses, governments, UN bodies, research and academic institutions, social and environmental NGOs and certification programs around the world. And we launched the website SustainableTrip.Org, aggregating businesses that are verified by independent, third-party sustainable tourism certification programs on a searchable database where travellers can find sustainable forest destinations.
Sustainable tourism certification is still in its relatively early days, but it has already demonstrated a potential to tap the power of market forces and the need for sustainable development to create powerful incentives for conserving forests.