What is nature positive tourism?

Responsible Travel has committed to becoming nature positive by 2030. We believe that nature positive tourism will play a vital role in addressing the global biodiversity crisis – and the subsequent impacts that the ongoing, dramatic loss of our wild spaces is having on our climate. But what is nature positive tourism? And why do we believe it’s the next necessary step for all tourism businesses, not just eco tours or wildlife safaris? Our CEO and Co-Founder Justin Francis explains:

Image of a biodiverse jungle

Why should we care about biodiversity?

Biodiversity is in crisis. Since 1970, the world’s wildlife populations have plummeted by two-thirds. We are losing habitats, wild spaces and natural resources at a staggering rate, with dire consequences for our climate, food security and health.

What is nature positive tourism?

Quite simply, nature positive holidays are those which directly contribute to, and advance, the protection of habitats and wildlife, and support the re-wilding of the planet’s natural spaces. Responsible Travel has committed to becoming nature positive by 2030, meaning all holidays available on our site will not only not do any harm to wildlife and habitats, but actively leave them with more protection and support.

So, you’re just talking about safaris and wildlife holidays?

No, we’re talking about all forms of tourism, from city breaks to cycling trips, beach breaks to safaris. Just 7% of holidays we take focus on wildlife and nature positive tourism needs to be much more wide reaching. All tourism is reliant on nature – from the clean water you drink to the climate and views you enjoy - and nature is impacted by all types of tourism. We need to start changing the way we think about nature on our holidays, and the impact we are having.

How is tourism driving biodiversity loss?

There are five key threats to nature worldwide and all are endemic within the tourism industry.

Land use change
From mangrove forests cleared to make way for luxury beach resorts to swathes of Amazon rainforest cleared for intensive meat production - so we can eat a steak on holiday – tourism has a long track record of degrading previously nature-rich land.

Pollution
In 2021, a report commissioned by local residents in Amsterdam showed cruise ships idling their engines in port was equivalent to 31,000 extra trucks driving a lap of the city each day. Pollution isn’t limited to the air however. Sewage and waste water from coastal hotels damage delicate off-shore coral reefs and noise and light-pollution from hotel complexes and marinas can disturb the reproduction cycles of native wildlife.

Climate change
It has been estimated that left unchecked, aviation could account for over a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Currently, if it was a country, aviation would be the 7th largest emitter of CO2 in the world, just behind Germany. Tourism has a hefty carbon footprint – and is playing a significant role in the ongoing climate crisis. As climate changes, so do the environments in which wildlife thrive; water becomes too deep or too warm for corals to survive, while flooding or heatwaves make food sources scarce.

Over-exploitation
When tourism takes too much - whether it is water from already over-stretched aquifers, to demand for energy – the results can be catastrophic. Roads are built through delicate ecosystems, coral reefs are damaged when too many people are snorkelling or diving around them or wildlife – whales, dolphins or nesting birds for example - becomes stressed when we try to get too close for that perfect photograph.

The invasion of non-native species
Not only tourists travel on holiday. Non-invasive species are estimated to cost the UK economy over £2bn each year. Species such as the Quagga Mussel or Japanese Knotweed, which have hitched a ride in the ballast water of cruise ships, on the soles of boots or on the hulls of boats, decimate ecosystems and push more fragile native species to extinction. Studies have shown that the incidence of non-native species is higher in areas with high levels of tourism.


Image of a bleached coral reef with some life

How does nature loss impact climate change?

The biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are inextricably interlinked. Without addressing the former we won’t be able to mitigate the latter. Our forests, oceans, peat bogs, grasslands and healthy soils sequester (absorb) carbon from our atmosphere, when these disappear we undermine nature’s ability to respond to and regulate greenhouse gases and intensify the effects of climate change.

Nature sequesters about 50% of man-made carbon emissions each year. That nature is kept intact is a key the presumption of the climate models and budget being used to meet the Paris Agreement. Without preserving nature, we will not meet our climate goals.

Degrading our wild spaces leaves us vulnerable too. Let’s use the example of mangrove forests again. When we clear them to create cruise ship ports, or luxury beach resorts we not only lose their power to absorb carbon, but we leave our coastline at risk of storm surges and erosion. Without nature to provide a buffer we face the full force of these extreme events.

What is the 30 by 30 campaign?

With recognition of the severity of the biodiversity crisis and the direct impact it has on climate change, 30 by 30 is a global campaign to protect 30% of the planet’s natural spaces by 2030, both on land and at sea. So far, 91 global leaders and the G7 leaders have made the pledge to halt and reverse the catastrophic loss of nature worldwide. In some areas that will require a comprehensive programme of rewildling – turning previously degraded land back into a rich habitat for wildlife and plants – and in others more stringent regulations such as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), National Parks and other conservation initiatives - to prevent degradation happening in the first place.

How can responsible tourism help us protect and re-wild our natural spaces?

Responsible, nature-based tourism has a vital role to play in helping us achieve the 30 by 30 goals. Whether we like it or not, most decisions around how land is used – for agriculture, industry, logging or nature – are financial. In order for nature to win out we must be able to show its value in economic terms. This is where responsible tourism can help. Responsible, nature-based tourism brings employment opportunities for local people, and economic incentives and commercial benefits to setting aside or rewildling land for nature. If we can increase responsible nature-based tourism we can increase the amount of land we can save.

But, I thought we needed to stop flying?

We all need to fly less, but we also recognise the power responsible tourism has to lift communities out of poverty and to help reverse the biodiversity crisis. Globally, climate scientists are not recommending that we stop flying altogether, but that we limit the future demand for flights to an increase of no more than 25% of 2019 levels. We go one step further. We recommend you fly less now, stay for longer, and when you do fly choose a responsible holiday so you are actively benefiting local people and wildlife. To help you do this, from January 2022 we won’t be offering any holidays which include an internal jet flight of less than one hour alongside a range of other measures to curb the carbon emissions from our holidays.

What is Responsible Travel doing?

In July 2020, Responsible Travel became the first travel company globally to commit to becoming nature positive by 2030. To do it, we’ll be working closely with all our suppliers and tour operator partners to assess the impacts each and every holiday is having on nature. And as part of the process we’ll also be looking at how we can increase our support for endangered species, and for rewildling projects.

What can I do?

Look for holidays which have committed to becoming nature positive. You’re already in the right place for that and the movement is growing. You can also ask questions – about whether you’re paying national park fees and if they go directly to conservation projects or whether your tour operator supports rewilding initiatives. On each of the holidays on our website we tell you how that specific trip is supporting nature and wildlife – so you can make an informed, nature positive holiday choice.


Written by Justin Francis