Monday, December 1, 2014

The 2014 World Parks Congress: Some Lessons Learned about Tourism and Protected Areas

I recently participated in the World Parks Congress held in Sydney Australia, 12-19 November. Organized every 10-11 years (last in Durbin South Africa in 2003), the Congress is sponsored by IUCN to convene managers, scientists, community development specialists and artists in an 8 day dialogue about the role of protected areas such as national parks, wilderness, national forests and community conserved areas in preserving the world’s remaining biodiversity and natural heritage. The 6000 participants engaged in hundreds of sessions, had their choice of what must have been thousands of individual presentations, engaged in renewing friendships and strengthening their common passion.

Tourism and visitors are a vital part of the natural heritage scene—indeed many of the world’s 200,000 plus protected areas were set aside for visitors to enjoy and appreciate the earth’s natural beauty—not only in gaining a better appreciation of natural heritage, but also their role in providing for and protecting human life. In this respect, protected areas are not an optional thing that societies do, but one that is essential to ensuring the future of the human species on this little place we call earth. In participating in a number of tourism related sessions and others dealing with the theme of “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” and “Inspiring a New Generation” I learned several lessons, not all of them positive.

Lesson 1. Young people are key to conserving natural heritage.

Nelson Mandela had advised the World Parks Congress in 2003 to engage young people in conserving parks, wildlife, water and the environment. A major stream of the 2014 Parks Congress focused on this charge. Indeed, the whole idea of sustainability is to leave options for those living in the future, and youth represent the near term future—but they need guidance and the wisdom experience provides. There are many ways to engage people in conservation and protected areas, but visiting them is probably the most effective way of engaging nature, viewing it, learning from it, appreciating its importance and eventually conserving it. This means more visits to protected areas, and the challenge not only for educators but managers as well is to provide opportunities for high quality experiences. To do this, we need managerial, informational and physical infrastructure. Competent managers are needed to ensure impacts from visitation do not lead to unacceptable degradation; information is needed to interpret and communicate the wonders of our natural heritage and how our life depends on it; and physical infrastructure is needed to sensitively access protected areas.

Lesson 2. Relationships between people and parks are changing; they are dynamic and that leads to some uncertainty.

Maintaining the relevancy of protected areas to society will remain a challenge because the meanings that society’s attach to them are always in a state of change. During the 2003 World Parks Congress, there was considerable discussion about the utilitarian benefits of protected areas, the ecosystem-based services that nature provides, in the language that was used. The emphasis in the 2014 conference built upon this arguing that protected areas just didn’t provide services but our natural heritage is essential to continuing human life on this planet. Protected areas have traditionally been seen as places in which to recreate, in the U.S., national parks, for example, were often viewed as “nature’s playgrounds.” While recreation will remain an important relationship, society is changing, valuing other benefits and meanings as well, such as places where “normal” people can learn about life and living on a small planet. The changing character of these relationships is not really predictable leading to the inevitable conclusion that managing agencies need to remain adaptive, employ sensing mechanisms to identify change, and creative in seeing new ways to connect to the people they serve.

Lesson 3. Communities must have ownership in conservation and protected areas.

At my first World Parks Congress, in 1992, there was considerable conflict between the indigenous and aboriginal peoples, primarily from the south, and activists of the north. The former tended to see protected areas as a cost to them, as when they were being gazetted, their access to resources needed for livelihoods was limited. In 2003, this conflict had changed to tension, principally as indigenous people argued that (1) they had for a long time practiced conservation, and (2) need to be engaged in conventional, versus traditional, authority designations of protected areas occuring on or near their ancestral lands. In 2014, indigenous and aboriginal peoples were fully supportive of protected areas in which they had not just been consulted with, but engaged in gazetting and management. The lesson for me is that people need this sense of ownership in the protected area to fully support it and work with managing agencies. This sense of ownership, which Paul Lachapelle and I wrote about nearly a decade ago, is critical to effective management, and yet we know little about how to build it, maintain it, and use it to further conservation goals. Of course, for many indigenous people, their sense of ownership is based on legal rights of access and use. Communities is where tourism development often happens. Communities that are not happy about protected areas or have little ownership in their management will find it difficult to develop high quality visitor opportunities.

Lesson 4. Capacity to manage protected areas is limited leading to ineffective management.

The World Parks Congress in 2014 finally began addressing building the capacity to manage protected areas effectively. According to the 2014 edition of the Protected Planet report (published by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Center) only an estimated 29% of the world’s designated protected areas are effectively managed, a figure less than what I had expected. Building managerial competency is an important dimension of effective stewardship, which I have written about in previous blogs here (particularly most recently on Sept. 27, 2014). There was a crosscutting theme on Capacity Development at the Congress in which I participated. Among the competencies I have long argued that are needed are not just technical skills, but leadership and critical thinking, the types of dimensions to management that Peter Senge often writes about. In this respect, I focus principally on middle management, because in organizations that is the critical level at which policy is translated to action, and because ranger level capacity development is already the focus of much capacity development activity. And there are few opportunities for managers to develop those skills---for example the International Seminar on Protected Area Management (see my blog of Aug. 8, 2013). We need many such seminars to build capacity—why not have such seminars on every continent every year, and multiple copies of them? And, we need tertiary and continuing education programs as well, particularly in tourism and visitation management as this is where much of the problematic 
challenges arise.

Lesson 5. There is great demand among managers for information about managing tourism and visitation, but this demand receives little recognition from NGOs.

And speaking of competencies, tourism is likely the largest commercial use of protected areas, and many managers struggle with managing visitation and supervising concessions. And while many NGOs and government agencies see tourism as a way to finance management and turn to the private sector to provide opportunities, there is little information that synthesizes what we know. The Best Practice Guidelines on tourism in protected areas are among the most demanded Guidelines that IUCN publishes and yet many participants to the World Parks Congress were disappointed that tourism and visitor management were not included in the agenda as a major stream or crosscutting theme. Tourism and visitation are the means to better engage youth and others in conservation; living conservation and seeing what our natural heritage offers and how it supports human life is how we can effectively gain political support for conservation. But such engagement requires management, as I noted in Lesson 1 above. Turning tourism over to the private sector as a conduit for experiences may be appropriate in some situations, but that tourism still needs management and supervision. Managing tourism and visitation is not simple, as managers of such parks as Kruger National Park in South Africa, Yosemite in the US or Taishan in China can attest.

So, these are some lessons I learned from the Congress. Of course, there are many others that I observed, but in terms of managing tourism and visitation, this is what we need to address.