As people look to live and travel more consciously, the demand for nature-based tourism is on the up. This increased awareness in responsible travel means people are not only considering where they are going, how they get there and the impact this will have on the environment, but also the ways in which they can engage with an area’s natural attractions for new and rewarding experiences.
What is nature tourism?
Nature tourism is an all-encompassing umbrella term combining natural attractions – such as wildlife watching, stargazing and outdoor activities - with conservation, sustainability and eco-tourism.
It’s also somewhat self-fulfilling from an economic point of view: as more people travel to experience an area’s landscapes and wildlife, the greater the incentive on the part of local communities and tourism organisations to secure the future of those attractions, thereby increasing the chance of continued growth in tourism.
"Nature-based tourism is often described as one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry," says Adriana Rivas of Mashpi Lodge in the Ecuadorian Andes.
In fact, according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), wildlife tourism alone accounts for 7% of world tourism, with an estimated 12 million trips annually and growing at a rate of roughly 10% each year.
In addition, a 2017 report by the World Bank Group states that “tourism accounts for an estimated 26% of ocean-based economic activity” including diving, snorkelling, sailing and wildlife watching.
Nature tourism in action
The hospitality sector is trying to keep pace with this surge in demand in a variety of ways, be it by adopting policies on sustainability and responsible travel – such as the recent animal welfare standards introduced by Booking.com – or coming up with innovative ways of weaving nature into their offerings to guests.
The Grant Arms Hotel in Scotland’s Cairngorm National Park cites itself as the ‘UK’s Wildlife Hotel’ with regular talks and birdwatching tours all part of the experience. Meanwhile, at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland, glass igloos enable guests to sleep out under the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis.
Benjamin Costello, Director of Biotope UK, a nature-focused architecture firm working with the hospitality industry, says "A key part of a connected experience between people and nature is to ensure that the place in which they stay adheres to eco principles. More and more of our clients in this sector are looking at how to better connect their projects with the very elements that are bringing their customers to them."
Nature tourism is also turning the table on the traditional model of accommodation, as Pic du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees demonstrates. Seeing an opportunity to diversify, it offers basic, mountain-top stargazing stays close to its working telescope and research facility.
Meeting the demands of nature tourists
Accommodation providers wishing to meet the demand of nature tourists also have to be willing to supply the necessary tools to help guests engage with the very sights they’ve come to see.
Mashpi Lodge provides accommodation immersed in nature at every level with trails, activities and educational workshops. "Guests have access to a world of information during their field outings,” explains Rivas.
“There are special talks conducted by the Lodge’s resident nature guides and Mashpi’s research staff, allowing guests to truly understand the forest in the company of experts. The hope is that they’ll become ambassadors for conservation efforts."
There is, of course, a spectrum. Not every hotel has a natural attraction on its doorstep or the means to set up a scientific research centre in its grounds.
But there are achievable ways of ensuring guests can connect with their surroundings from providing equipment - be it binoculars, species guides, a telescope or simply setting up a feeding station for wildlife big and small - to organising talks with local organisations.
Engaging at a local level
Teaming up with knowledgeable, local experts, be it a specialist organisation or relevant tour operator, is a simple way of showing genuine interest in meeting the needs of nature tourists.
“Hotels are, by their very nature, significant built assets that allow large numbers of people to connect with the locations they are placed,” says Biotope’s Costello. “Should hotels maximise their usage to connect with learning centres, communities and even nature reserves then the positive outcomes for all would be vast indeed.”
Back in Ecuador, Rivas is of the same mind. “We continue garnering interest and participation at the local and international level, always with an eye on how we can inspire more people to become involved.”
- Nature tourism combines the principles of responsible travel with natural attractions and activities
- Nature tourism is increasing at a rate of roughly 10% per year
- Increasingly, travellers want to experience and engage with a destination’s natural attractions, something accommodation providers can help to facilitate in big and small ways
- Pairing with an organisation expert in the local flora and/or fauna is a great way to offer more to guests be it through advice, talks or tours