“Campaigners seek to reintroduce Eurasian lynx into parts of Britain” ran a headline in the Guardian early this week. Amidst this season’s swelter of Brexit, terror and Trump, a story about reintroducing long forgotten feline predators to the English countryside did not raise much of a sweat. Just another summer story – the kind that gets churned out when no one is paying much attention.
However, it is exactly the sort of story that anyone interested in the tourism industry’s future should pay attention to. Where words like ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’ rarely get the blood racing, it suggests there might be more chance were so-called responsible tourism to focus instead on the likes of ‘wild’ and ‘free’.
The story is about a process known as ‘rewilding’, which at its simplest means allowing and assisting parts of the world to return to as natural and wild a state as possible.
It might seem counterintuitive that a growing global population should be able to give back vast tracts of land to nature. Yet as we increasingly move to the city, we are living in ever closer proximity with one another, and rises in agricultural efficiency mean we grow more food in less space. It turns out the best thing we can do with much of the land this releases is just to let it run free.
Why? Because it make economic and environmental sense. Nature provides a huge range of essential services to our societies – food, fuel, medicine, pollinating plants, storing carbon and stabilizing the climate, cleaning our air and water, controlling floods and erosion, detoxifying pollutants and disposing of wastes. Furthermore, it does all this for free. For free, but not without worth – a recent EU study estimates the actual value of these ecosystem services to be around 5-7 trillion dollars a year.
On top of these, responsible nature tourism can add a whole raft of extra benefits. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park was said to drive an increase in spending in the local area by $35m a year, simply because tourists wanted to come and see wolves. Likewise it is estimated that the return of beavers to UK waterways could boost tourism in the South West by £1.5m a year; while the ‘market’ to see ospreys in Scotland is estimated at £3.5m. “We are a nation of wildlife lovers who don’t have much wildlife to look at,” says Chris Sandom, an adviser to Rewilding Britain and co-founder of the consultancy Wild Business. “Rewilding offers huge tourism potential.”
Already, the first pioneering European rewilding tourism business are reaping the rewards. To see what making the most of these new opportunities might look like, check out Alladale in the Scottish highlands, Knepp in Southern England, or Faia Brava in Portugal.
Tourism businesses can get involved in many other ways. For example, you could switch from jaded CSR and carbon offsetting schemes into supporting inspirational rewilding initiatives. If you are going to restore forests and wetlands as a way of mitigating your carbon emissions and fulfilling your obligations under COP21, why not do it in a way that helps bring a beautiful species or two back from the brink and perhaps enables your guests and the local community to have their spirits restored while enjoying them too?
A wild future for tourism
For decades we have built this industry by developing destinations to suit tourism’s needs. We are now starting – from Thailand to Tunisia, Berlin to Barcelona – to witness the backlash that occurs when this process goes too far. Rewilding offers our industry nothing less than a chance to restore our relationship with the world.
“Above all, rewilding offers a positive environmentalism,” writes George Monbiot in Feral, the book that offers the best introduction to the topic. “Environmentalists have long known what they are against; now we can explain what we are for. It introduces hope where hope seemed absent. It offers us a chance to replace our silent spring with a raucous summer.”
What rewilding offers environmentalism, it offers tourism as well. Like environmentalists, responsible and sustainable tourism advocates have long known what we were up against. Now we also can explain what we are for.
We are for really wild winter holidays… and raucous summer ones too.