Across the world, national parks allow for the preservation of astounding biodiversity in countless different environments. National Parks on every continent and within every environment are responsible for the preservation of land, animals, and habitats. However, the establishment and management of national parks is not without controversy, and there are policies and actions governments can take to better ensure that our global national parks systems live up to their potential for sustainability and responsibility.
National parks are most often formed when the government identifies an area of land rich in national history, rich in biodiversity, and environmentally important. The first national parks go back 100+ years. In fact, 2016 marks the centennial anniversary of the U.S. National Parks Service — American national parks account for more than 400 distinct areas covering over 84 million acres in all 50 states. Everywhere from South Africa to Peru to Vietnam uses national parks systems. The value in these is perhaps best summed up by South Africa’s national parks website: the parks “[represent] the indigenous fauna, flora, landscapes and associated cultural heritage of the country.”
While generally beloved and regarded as a positive part of the Travel & Tourism industry — to say nothing of each nation’s distinct environmental representation — national parks are not without controversy. Before we can look closely at how T&T can use national parks for sustainability and preservation, it’s important to understand the primary arguments against national parks.
Detractors claim that national parks attract tourists who then prey on the very environments that are supposed to be protected. Tourism causes development, cities, and trash to encroach on wilderness areas. Other claims centre on the systematic nature of national parks prioritising wildlife over human beings. A good example of this is in East Africa, where the Maasai people were moved, without consultation or compensation, to ensure that Kenya and Tanzania’s national parks were “people-free”. Despite positive developments in recent years, the Maasai tribes are still pushed into areas that make it difficult for them to carry on their traditional pastoralist lifestyle.
It’s difficult to weigh the human cost against the positive impact of government protection. There is no easy answer to this pressing issue on land rights. There are, however, other areas that clearly show how a national park system can benefit the wildlife, nature, and the country as a whole. Let’s look at the impact of national park systems around the world, as well as the relationship T&T plays with these systems.
On the whole, worldwide national parks have furnished us with models for sustainable tourism development, and provided a blueprint that others can follow. One such area is destination stewardship, through which national park keepers manage nature conservation with the needs of local people and tourists alike. A great example of this balance is present in South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which was also the country’s first World Heritage Site. The park, which consists of 332,000 hectares, “contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, 700 year old fishing traditions, most of South Africa’s remaining swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuarine system, 526 bird species and 25 000 year-old vegetated coastal dunes — among the highest in the world”. Diving and snorkeling are popular pastimes at iSimangaliso, along with horseback riding and kayak trips. There are overnight accommodations within the park as well. iSimangaliso manages to strike the delicate balance between fantastic tourism and impeccable care of the environment it encompasses.
Another positive aspect of national parks exists in transboundary parks, which follow Nature’s design instead of that of human maps. These parks cross national borders, encompassing singular ecosystems or environments. There are a number of these cross-border protected areas in Europe, including Neusiedler See-Seewinkel & Fertö-Hanság, which straddles Austria and Hungary. Described as a “fascinating biological melting pot”, the park has a diversity of habitats, as well as the distinction of representing one of the most important stepping stones for birds migrating between Northern Europe and Africa. Then there’s Podyjí-Thayatal Transboundary Parks, a nature reserve made possible by the fall of the Iron Curtain between the Czech Republic and Austria. Only recently the parks have kicked off a “nature without borders” initiative that focused on the movement of wildlife within the reserve.
Where else do national parks excel? They are great at bringing together multiple stakeholders — landowners, conservationists, local governments, and so forth. This can be seen in action in Cairngorms National Park of Scotland, where the National Park is not owned by the state but brings together hundreds of independent landowners. As per the park’s website, “We work with partners, business, landowners and communities to develop long term plans for the Park, in order to achieve our collective aims.” These collective aims are established and tracked by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, which compiles the Cairngorms National Park Partnership Plan. This manages how the park will be handled in coming years. The Authority frequently consults with both local residents and the Scottish government on issues affecting the park. The Authority also holds working groups and forums based upon specialists that have specialised knowledge that helps with the planning and maintenance of the park, and which includes outdoor access, land management, economy, and other strategy groups.
National parks also show us the best of what nations can do when it comes to innovations in conservation and land management. The U.K. National Park System introduced stellar transportation management solutions at South Downs National Park. Pending projects will enable visitors to explore the park with low-impact bike trails and hiking paths — projects perfectly aligned to the Sustainable Development Goal #13 which focuses on climate change. Likewise, the U.S. National Park Service implemented INSTEP as a way for each national park to identify and address areas of transportation, design, and construction that can be undertaken with an eye toward long-term sustainability.
Both of these programs show how even small changes can lead a park much closer to a sustainable approach to both park development, and the park’s T&T infrastructure. Perhaps most remarkable, however, is what the Swiss Parks Network has accomplished within just a decade. A Destination Category Finalist in the WTTC’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, the Network has created no less than 19 new parks since 2008, “all of which have been designated to protect some of the country’s best landscapes and to promote sustainable tourism within”. These parks, notably, were not the result of government planning, but of initiatives by local residents working together on projects that would prove the viability of creating a park. The park system has evolved with the 21st century, creating an app that highlights offers, discounts, and itineraries. There is a definite emphasis on the “Swiss Parks” brand, while also maintaining a focus on what makes each park unique. The Swiss parks are a tremendous source of community pride, and a shining example of the potential in national parks.
Taken on the whole, the national parks show a wide range of the latest sustainable development practices that are recommended within the Travel and Tourism industry. Many of the national park case studies showcase the Sustainable Development Goals in action — they create a living example of how environmental conservation work can vary across countries, continents, and cultures. The best of the world’s national parks are making efforts to create a resilient system that limits impact on native populations, while protecting existing ecosystems in tandem with responsible tourism.
Which national parks do you think are driving sustainable tourism? Do you have a favourite that you have visited?