Covid-19 and Tourism: Nature regeneration or negative visitor impacts? Reflections sparked by the Living Coast BioCultural Heritage Tourism (BCHT) conference, March 2021

Brighton beach, part of the Brighton and Lewes UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Sarah Ryman.

As a resident of Devon emerging from lockdown I am looking forward with both delight and trepidation to the summer season when we can once again visit our favourite natural places further afield (despite having many beautiful green and blue spaces practically on our doorstep). So personally, I am glad to be able to plan trips to North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (@NDevonBiosphere) again (even if this might mean arriving at the beach by 9am in order to get a space in the car park). But because of the heat maps of visitor pressure we have been creating as part of the BCHT project (@CRPRExeter) to inform tourism decision-making in the Biosphere, the apprehension is also to do with what another tourist season of ‘staycationing’ will bring in terms of visitor numbers and pressure to some of these sites.

So it was fantastic to hear the perspectives of environmental and tourism policy managers and business participants attending the BCHT Brighton and Lewes Downs UNESCO Biosphere Reserve conference on 16-17th March (@BioculturalT @LivingCoastUK @CRPRExeter). These included insights on visitor pressure, sustainable tourism and Covid-19 impacts in England and France.

I found the differences in tourism impacts and visitor pressure in the destinations described really fascinating. For instance, in the two French UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, Marais Audomarois and Iles et Mers d’Iroise, during lockdown, visitor pressure was effectively removed and this has led to some sensitive species dispersing into and recolonising other areas.

In contrast, at popular beaches in North Devon and Brighton (and along the south coast of England), participants highlighted the greater than usual tourism pressures especially in the summer 2020 period, with issues including overcrowding, traffic gridlock and litter (see press articles e.g. in the Guardian March 2021; and in the Argus; Dorset Online; Yahoo News in 2020).

I was also interested to hear about consequences of another pandemic phenomenon which has occurred in tandem off the coast of England (clearly visible from our nearest beach, Exmouth) and also of Brittany, France, with several large cruise ships being stationed there for months on end, due to restrictions on international travel and cancellation of cruises. Although reported to be more of an attraction in Devon (see e.g. Devon Live, 2021), conference participants from the Iles et Mers d’Iroise Biosphere Reserve, Brittany, described increased discomfort expressed by locals around the kind of tourism represented by these huge ships. This may be due to the fact that they are reported to bring few economic benefits to the islands, and the model of tourism they use seems to be at odds with the local culture of tourism based around the natural environments and local culture. In addition, air pollution is an issue for cruise ships in general, which tend to keep their engines running when in port, and are a known source of emissions.

Restrictions on international travel and the emphasis on local trips has also resulted in a change in the type of visitors being reported in some areas, particularly in the Marais Audomarois Biosphere Reserve and in the Brighton and Lewes Downs UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In both of these Biosphere Reserves many more local people have been visiting than from elsewhere.

Conference participants reflected on the fact that these changes have also resulted in a significant increase in local people’s interest in the natural environments in their area; and also in some places an acceleration of already emerging interest in the health and wellbeing benefits of spending time outdoors (see e.g. my recent research on the health and wellbeing benefits of visiting natural environments).

But it isn’t clear what the implications of these changes are. How will this carry over into the future? Will the extensive awareness-raising work planned by, for example National Parks in the UK (reported in the Guardian, March 2021), to inform visitors this year, result in fewer negative impacts and visitors showing more respect for sites? Will there again be a concentration in tourism hotspot sites (e.g. popular beaches) or will visitors spread out more widely this year? Will wildlife recolonisation of new habitats persist? Will local people continue to take more of an interest in their local natural environments, and if so, what positive impacts might come out of this? Will the trend towards an increased emphasis on the links between environment and health and wellbeing continue?

I look forward to being able to enjoy our beautiful wild green and blue spaces at first hand this summer (providing lockdown continues to ease). But I will also be noting with interest how these factors play out and reflecting on how our work can inform future strategic planning for sustainable tourism in the four UNESCO Biosphere Reserves involved in the BCHT project.

[Also posted on the BCHT website.]

BioCultural Heritage Tourism

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