Rewilding and Tourism:
The Unspoken Allies

The 2020s are about slowing down, and restoring the balance with nature. Read on why the rewilding and tourism alliance could be a win-win-win for nature conservationists, rural communities and tourism professionals.

Thinking about European tourism these days, it may seem that not much is moving forwards. But the reality is that we may actually be in the midst of a dramatic change. There are mind-blowing trends that are inspired by the fascination for restoring nature. And these trends seem to be also affecting the tourism sector.

 

Rewilding and tourism (and its slow forms) are great examples of these trends and they are becoming strong allies. Think of the current restrictions on our travel options. Or our parallel desire to find a safe holiday-getaway.

 

The rewilding movement offers meaningful solutions to these challenges inspired by nature.

 

This post shows how the alliance of rewilding and tourism can become a solution to current and future challenges. Especially challenges related to both tourism and nature conservation.

 

But to get there, it also elaborates on the differences between rewilding and nature conservation.

The Velebit Rewilding area in Croatia. Image by Ante Samarzija / Unsplash

Rewilding and Tourism: Creating Allies for a Sustainable Future

So why rewilding? Basically, rewilding lobbies for restoring the functionality of nature and natural habitats. It does it to conserve and revitalize landscapes through letting nature re-introduce itself. With a little push from us humans.

 

Especially in the European context rewilding strategies acknowledge humans as part of nature. Rewilding ideas are gaining momentum. But as it advocates, it needs a little push from us. It needs more people to hop on board and show interest and demand for new ways of living amongst nature[1].

 

That’s where tourism comes in: Why not restore nature and the ways we consume travel experiences altogether? We need to revise both.

 

Especially when looking for a sustainable future and ways to cope with current travel restrictions. The general travel trend highlights the demand for more quality experiences[2] in nature[3].

 

Thus, we cannot ignore the need for the tourism sector to restore the missing quality in domestic tourism markets. Especially when it comes to nature-based tourism.

 

However, it doesn’t come without challenges. Visitors want to enjoy nature, while nature conservationists struggle protecting it.

 

Managing large crowds of people on too little nature protected areas is difficult[4]. Besides, crowded nature does not bring the quality experiences tourists nowadays seek.

 

Rewilding aims at making nature functional on its own, even when in use by humans[1]. And that includes for example use for holiday-making and tourism.

 

But first, let’s take a closer look at the general mismatch between nature conservation and tourism needs to better understand where rewilding stands.

Nature conservation and Tourism

I recently stumbled upon a controversial question: “From whom do we protect nature? And for whom?”

 

That made me think that the traditional nature conservation effort does not fully align with the needs of recreation. I’m not saying that protecting nature is not important. But it often doesn’t allow visitors of natural areas to meaningfully interact with nature[4].

 

When thinking of why we should conserve nature, the human element to it is a strong argument. We need nature. Nature provides us with higher quality lives and other health benefits.

 

But the protection of certain areas, especially protection from human interactions, limits these benefits.

 

Besides, for visitors, it is easy to believe that protected areas conserve nature on behalf of the visitors. So, it is as if it excludes the visitors from understanding and acting upon nature conservation themselves.

 

And that is what I see as problematic. By living up to this narrative, tourists may as well expect that nature conservation is done for them.

 

Tourists don’t learn how to contribute to conserving nature themselves. They don’t see it as a daily part of their lives at their urban homes.

 

Protected areas do the job for them, while tourists enjoy the nature at their holiday destination.

Tourism – Who’s the Bad Guy?

The detachment of many people with nature contributes to protected area managers trusting tourists even less. So, new restrictions, sometimes even quite disruptive, affect the visitors’ holiday-making experience and activities.

 

And not all tourists obey, which doesn’t help the already fragile relationship between nature conservation and tourism. But it’s too easy to think that tourism is bad. And I agree, tourists often don’t respect nature conservation efforts or even don’t understand it.

 

Even so, I see a strong need to reconcile recreation with nature conservation.

 

Later, I will delve into more specific reasons why. But let’s first see how rewilding compares to nature conservation also in regards of access for visitors.

Rewilding and Nature Conservation

For some areas, rewilding is much more promising than traditional nature conservation such as establishing areas with restricted access.

 

The reason why is; it emphasises the co-existence of functioning ecosystems and people.

Rewilding infographic outlining the main missions of rewilding and what benefits it brings.

That doesn’t mean that rewilding is to completely replace traditional nature conservation.

 

Nature conservation still has its place and is as important as rewilding. But it is about the narratives, the stories we tell and how we communicate about our relations to nature.

 

Rewilding builds on the big term – restoration. The UN sees 2021- 2031 as a decade of restoration.

 

While the UN focuses on restoring nature, I see rewilding bringing this initiative even a step further.

 

Among restoring the functionality of nature, it aims at restoring the human-nature connections.

 

Another difference is that nature restoration usually refers to the idea of restoring something to a previous state. To a certain ‘baseline’ – it has a clear aim in mind.

 

Rewilding, however, leaves the outcome more open. It is based on the idea that through rewilding, nature gets the space to bounce back and finds new ways to function without people interfering too much.

 

So, restoring in rewilding terms means, creating a new ecosystem balance that accounts for humans being a part of it.

 

That’s why rewilding creates exciting opportunities for tourism and designing new recreational experiences within wild nature. Of course, with moderation to economic expansion and growth.

Human-Nature Restoration:
Conserving Through Rewilding

So, if we want to restore nature, we also need to restore the relationship us humans have with it.

 

By restoring this relation, I mean on a societal level. We need to better understand the bigger picture of the traditional nature conservation efforts.

 

I remember a conversation with a researcher working in nature protected areas in Georgia. He maps new areas to become nature protected areas in rural regions.

 

But the local people did not comprehend this. Instead they wondered ‘from whom do they need the protection’.

 

So, it goes back to targeting the right people when communicating about conservation efforts.

 

We write about it in our article on environmental communication and public awareness.

 

People need to better understand what are we trying to conserve, or protect. And we must not forget about the reasons why and how these relate to the communities or visitors.

 

This understanding is then important for the stories we tell. Especially in the context of rewilding and tourism.

 

It helps us to re-define the way we advertise nature destinations. By involving, showing, teaching and explaining what is happening, we get win-win-win situations.

 

People re-learn about the value of nature and as a result contribute to its conservation. This then provides new ways of meaningful recreation experiences in nature.

 

Therefore, I see rewilding as a more pragmatic approach to the more traditional forms of nature conservation.

 

While it gives space for nature to restore its functioning ecosystems, it acknowledges that humans are part of this process.

 

That are tourists and holiday makers, policy-makers, nature conservationists as well as the local communities.

Wild horses roaming in the rewilding area in Oostvaardersplassen.
Wild horses in the rewilding area Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. Photo credit: YvetteNatuurfotografie / Pixabay

Rewilding the Countryside:
New Livelihoods

Usually it is the rural areas that have a high rewilding potential.

 

So, let’s take a look at the local rural communities to see how they could benefit from an alliance of rewilding and tourism.

 

People leaving their rural communities for work in urban areas often leave abandoned and degraded agricultural land behind.

 

Although this offers a tragic sight, nature finds its way in and slowly reclaims these areas back[5].

Wild horse in an abandoned building in the wilderness.

To the local communities that remain living there, it is a sad sight though. Seeing their once vibrant and thriving agricultural communities go is hard to swallow.

 

Wild nature consuming the abandoned landscape could be even more of a sorrowful sight.

 

Besides, with less produce and agricultural activity the communities become worse off. Some of these communities even disappear completely as they cannot support themselves anymore.

Rewilding New Livelihoods

Big feast of traditional Bulgarian food in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains.
Traditional feast in the Rewilding area of the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria. Photo Credit: Stefan Vladimirov / Unsplash

But rewilding has the capacity and potential to transform this doom and gloom. It brings hope and restores the landscapes often into unthinkable forms.

 

In fact, it enables people to capitalise on the nature taking back its territory.

 

With an occasional push from us, rewilding has the capacity to bring more capital to the areas. When helped, it can boost the process of nature restoring itself in more desirable forms.

 

To return the ecosystem in its vibrant form, rewilding re-introduces species that disappeared because of the expansion of agriculture. These species then help restoring the natural balance between predators and other fauna and flora.

 

Still, it takes years. But eventually this whole process of re-naturalisation brings a number of benefits to the communities.

 

It creates nicer landscapes populated by healthy functioning ecosystems. This contributes to better quality of lives in general, making people happier and re-attached to the local landscape and community.

 

Not to forget that we all need healthy ecosystems for the everlasting battle with climate change.

 

So, rewilding not only restores the ecosystems but with it also the sense of belonging and the sense of place attachment.

 

It goes beyond the restorative potential of nature as it restores also the social aspects of the adjacent communities.

 

And that is where the potential for creating new livelihoods stems from. Abandoned agricultural areas that are transformed into thriving natural areas will attract tourists looking for quality experiences in nature.

 

This in turn creates interesting opportunities for new livelihoods and may reverse the trend of urbanisation. When done with values of sustainability in mind, it sets a new path for the futures of the local communities.

Old traditional cottage in the Velebit Rewilding area in Croatia. Photo Credit: Ante Hamersmit / Unsplash

Sustainable Tourism:
Does 2020 Mark its Re-birth?

Tourism can be a powerful kick-starter of restorative change if managed effectively and with the right values in mind. And the time is right.

 

There is hope within the tourism research community that the year 2020 will mark a new era of tourism. Researchers estimate that the entire tourism traffic in 2020 has dropped by 74%. That means the international tourism sector is experiencing around 1 billion fewer arrivals [2] .

 

And when it comes to the traditionally focused key performance indicators of tourism – growth – the forecasts are not promising either. Experts agree that tourism will only start returning to the pre-pandemic levels from 2023[2] .

Slow Tourism:
Closer to the Communities

When looking at how tourism and rewilding could become allies, slow tourism gives it just a bit more focus. The UNWTO predicts a rise in ‘slow tourism and travel’ and nature-based tourism[2]. All that is promising to bring more meaningful, quality tourism experiences[3].

 

Already in the pre-pandemic era, slow tourism experiences started gaining on popularity. But who would have thought that slow tourism would become the new normal? Well at least with the current times and travel restrictions.

Travleing slow, enjoying a picknic bench in the Dutch recreational nature area.
Dutch coastal wild area. Photo Credit: Iris / Unsplash

Slowing down makes people re-appreciate the quality experiences of their ‘backyards’. This makes it a great opportunity to transform local destinations in favor of the local crowds. All that, so people have less impact on the environment through their travels.

 

When travelers restore the appreciation for the local, they also learn to better understand. They learn about the issues of their communities from them. But they also restore their attachment to these issues and help tackle them. This is another restorative step not only in terms of ecological restoration. It is a giant leap towards the actual principles of the three pillars of sustainability;

 

PEOPLE – PLANET – PROFIT

 

The visitors travel through their local communities. They support local livelihoods by directly engaging with them. All the while making meaningful travel experiences that may support solutions to the socio-ecological collapse of the rural areas.

 

Local communities can enjoy the direct benefits of rewilding. There will be new-jobs in the area linked to the ecological transformation, research and tourism.

 

The landscape and nature will restore itself to its functional forms, hosting variety of wildlife species. Megafauna, but also small, forgotten species will find their way back and revitalize the abandoned areas.

Rewilding and Tourism

And that is why rewilding has a massive potential for tourism and vice versa. They are allies that especially these days turn into solutions to tackle the coming crises.

 

As slow tourists from not afar re-learn about the possibilities of their lands, new initiatives that support ecological restoration might arise.

 

Rewilding initiatives in Scotland, for instance, have mobilised the majority of its nation and are in the process of convincing the government to become the World’s First Rewilding Nation of the world.

 

Although international tourism in Scotland is currently on hiatus, local people keep re-discovering the hidden gems of their ‘own backyards’. New initiatives are welcoming domestic tourists and inspire them to re-learn what has been forgotten and restore what has been in decline[6].

Rewilding and Tourism Future is Exciting

Imagine that we no longer have to travel to Africa to go on a safari. We could transform our backyard into a network of connected nodes of biodiversity. Giving space to nature to find its way means that species that human activity pushed to extinction would have the room to bounce back.

 

Green Safari Land Rover in the Dutch wilderness.

With a little help, we could soon start encountering exciting wildlife in our backyards. The Europe’s big 5[7]; brown bear, wolf, wolverine, lynx and bison, could roam our backyards offering unique experiences to visitors. All the while maintaining safe interactions through the designed nature corridors.

 

Not only would that mean that vibrant nature bounces back, but it would also have immense benefits for our wellbeing. Both mentally and physically and as locals and visitors.

 

There are number of studies confirming that presence of nature and wildlife simply puts us where we belong – to the happy state of equilibrium. And that quite literally also when it comes to ecology and natural wildlife habitats. This could further give space to forming new re-creating and rehabilitating forms of tourism.

 

With the re-definition of how we travel, our backyard – our communities would feel the immense benefits too. This deepened relation to the local, creates opportunities for regional development.

 

New jobs would be created through ecological design to the experience industry where tourism belongs. People would return to the once abandoned rural areas and restore the vibrant communities of the past to eventually even host visitors from afar to admire their lands.

References and further reading:

[1] Paul Jepson & Cain Blythe, 2020. Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery. 176 pp., Icon Books Ltd, Cambridge, UK. ISBN 978-1-785786273 (pbk), GBP 8.99. Oryx, 55(2), 320-320. doi:10.1017/S0030605320001441

[2] Unwto.org. 2021. Barometer | UNWTO. [online] Available at: <https://www.unwto.org/taxonomy/term/347>.

[3] Galvani, A., Lew, A.A., Perez, M.S., 2020. COVID-19 is expanding global consciousness and the sustainability of travel and tourism. Tour. Geogr. 0, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616688.2020.1760924

[4] Wolf, Isabelle D.; Croft, David B.; Green, Ronda J. 2019. “Nature Conservation and Nature-Based Tourism: A Paradox?” Environments 6, no. 9: 104. https://doi.org/10.3390/environments6090104

[5] Ruiz-Real, J.L., Uribe-Toril, J., de Pablo Valenciano, J., Gázquez-Abad, J.C., 2020. Rural tourism and development: Evolution in Scientific Literature and Trends. J. Hosp. Tour. Res. 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1177/1096348020926538

[6] The Scottish Rewilding Alliance, 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR2sPQHUt_4>.

[7] IUCN. 2021. Europe’s Big Five selected!. [online] Available at: <https://www.iucn.org/content/europes-big-five-selected>.