If you thought the collapse of global tourism was great for the planet, you'd be wrong. Sort of. The environmental impact of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism is much more complex.


Coral reefs around Raja Ampat in Indonesia are healthier, but poachers have taken advantage of the lack of tourists. Photo: iStock

While overtourism is a problem and there are many examples of wildlife reclaiming their natural habitats since tourism shut down, conservation and travel experts say the situation is more nuanced. It's not as simple as saying fewer tourists is good for the environment.

Traveller canvassed the opinions of eight conservationists, tour operators and travel experts to explore the impacts on the ground (or in the water) and what the tourism industry's future holds. But first, let's take a step back to understand how we got here.

The golden age of travel can be traced back to aviation taking off with the arrival of the Boeing 747 in the 1970s. The jumbo jet, which Qantas has recently retired, made the world smaller by enabling people to travel further and at less cost. Decades later, the internet and low-cost airlines turbo-charged our ability to research and book holidays to far-flung destinations.

Fifty years ago, there were 166 million international tourist arrivals worldwide, according to the World Tourism Organisation. Those numbers have grown exponentially and last year there were 1.5 billion arrivals, making tourism one of the biggest drivers of global economic growth.

But along the way, overtourism became a critical problem. Too many of us were travelling, putting pressure on governments to build infrastructure to cater for more people. It created a huge burden on fragile ecosystems and damaged natural environments.

Questions have long been asked about where this would end up. How much tourism is too much? What would be the circuit-breaker? No one thought the answer was a crippling pandemic.

Since COVID-19 ground tourism to a halt, there have been numerous reports of nature seemingly rebounding. Turtles laying eggs in Koh Samui in Thailand. Shoals of fish and clear water in Venice. Coyotes spotted near the Golden Gate Bridge.

But Christy Williams, Asia Pacific director for World Wide Fund for Nature, says this doesn't paint the full picture.

"While it can be uplifting to see record numbers of sea turtles laying eggs on tourist-free beaches in Thailand, it is clear that nature is actually under even greater threat than before in many places."

The devastating loss of jobs for millions of people employed in tourism worldwide, particularly in developing countries, means a lack of financial support for sustainable tourism.

Tourists disappearing from popular hotspots gives opportunists a chance to pounce. Ms Williams cites reports of poachers hunting jaguars in Latin America, illegal logging in Cambodia, and fishermen "taking advantage of a perceived drop in enforcement in Indonesian waters".

Stuart McDonald, founder of the south-east Asia-focused Travelfish website, recounts a recent conversation with a friend who went diving in Koh Tao, Thailand.

"He expected to see loads more fish, but the opposite was the case. According to him, because the volume of divers has dropped right off, dive boats are not visiting sites nearly as much and their absence has emboldened fishermen who are returning to areas that are officially off limits to them—and fishing the hell out of it while they can."

David Luekens, founder of Thai Island Times, says there's been some "unusual marine life sightings" in Thailand recently, with black tip reef sharks seen swimming close to Koh Samui and pink bottlenose dolphins swimming in the river near Krabi. But he believes the reality is more complicated than celebrating these isolated cases.

"I love wildlife so I'm always happy to see it doing well. However, I do think that a lot of articles have focused too much on that angle, essentially saying 'Look! Nature is returning! Turns out the COVID crisis is a good thing!' I also care deeply about human beings and I want their livelihoods to return."

Caroline Mills runs a small island resort near Hoi An in Vietnam and says the lack of tourists has not led to the area being cleaner.

"Vietnam's litter problem is homegrown so trash is still a big problem everywhere. Tourist beaches are not getting cleaned as frequently, because that's all still a bit of a show."

She said with fishing remaining such a major industry and a more lax approach to cleaning rivers and beaches, nearby coral reefs "are worse off without the tourists".

Yet Ms Mills doesn't see tourism returning to the same heights as before.

"Look at all the grounded planes, the airlines begging for bailouts. Even if COVID was eliminated completely, the cost of travel is going to be too high, especially if you consider job losses and the economies of countries," she said. "And though I'd like to see travel change to become more sustainable as a result of COVID, where is the money going to come from to fund those changes?"

Dr Mark Erdmann, Conservation International's vice president of marine programs in Asia-Pacific, says the environmental impacts of COVID-19 are mixed. Coral reefs around Raja Ampat in Indonesia are healthier and sharks, mantas and turtles have returned in greater numbers than usual since the noisy tourist boats disappeared.

But the collapse in tourism meant entrance fees funding marine park enforcement dried up and poachers were quick to take advantage.

"Within a few weeks of lockdown, we were receiving many reports of illegal fishing on protected sites and even some incidents of destructive fishing like shark-finning and bomb fishing," Mr Erdmann said.

Raja Ampat, one of the world's most pristine locations, has hardly suffered from mass tourism by global standards. But Mr Erdmann said "it rapidly developed from a truly 'pioneer' destination to an increasingly mainstream one where crowding on previously empty dive sites was really becoming an issue".

"We want guests whose visit contributes to the local economy substantively while also helping fund conservation and management – particularly those that understand the importance of this contribution and recognise that healthy tourism is as much about giving back as it is about taking away memories," he said.

Bertie Lawson runs Sampan Travel agency in Myanmar. He says while less emissions and noise pollution is undoubtedly good for the environment, "responsible tourism can actually act as a force for good".

"But an alteration towards sustainability is a choice," Mr Lawson said. "The opportunity for change is there – now it needs to be embraced, it needs to be run with, it needs to be willed into reality."

Griffith University professor of sustainable tourism Susanne Becken agrees this crisis presents an opportunity to re-imagine what tourism could be.


A closed luxury resort on the island of Koh Phangan, Thailand. Photo: AP

"If governments actually genuinely rethink how they manage tourism, then the outcome would be hopefully that tourism is less extractive but contributes more purposefully to the local economies [and] environmental protection," she said.

Until now, many countries have relied on a high volume of tourists to provide jobs, drive growth and turn a profit.

"That was never going to work forever. Especially when you sell paradise," Professor Becken said.

In the end, she wonders whether this year's extraordinary health crisis could mark "the end of cheap and dirty travel".

"What the pandemic has shown is that we can have local holidays that are equally amazing, refreshing [and] rewarding - something that I think we have forgotten at a time of ever-decreasing airfares and the lure of the far at the expense of the close."