A big heard of wild elephants is frequently present in a national park during the COVID-19 closure. Credit: DNP

EDITORIAL: New norm(al) of our nature based tourism

The government is taking an opportunity from COVID-19 to turn long spoiling nature based tourism in national parks into the so-called new norm(al) of nature experience through an introduction of the “carrying capacity” concept

As the last phase of COVID-19 restriction relaxation will take effect tomorrow on, one of the most challenging activities to deal with is nature based tourism, which in the past saw crowded visitors flock to appreciate nature attractions nationwide, before they were closed off just like other crowd-gathering venues to prevent the spread of the virus.

But as the rules have been eased in the last phase of the relaxation, these nature attractions will be reopened again to welcome visitors.

Their reopening would be different this time, however, as the places would see the number of their visitors capped in the first place to ensure that they would not be too crowded to cope with, epidemiologically.

But from an ecological aspect, the capping of the number of visitors in nature attractions nationwide, mostly located in the government’s responsible park areas, also means the concept of “carrying capacity” (CC) is going to be introduced to the country’s park management in a large scale for the first time.

Natural resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa seems to be assertive on the idea, insisting on his policy in the final call that nature based tourism would from now on not be the same.

“Limiting the number of visitors is critical to park management and tourism in the national parks and it could stumble on technical complications. But we would not go back to where we once were,” declared Mr. Varawut during the wrap-up of the nature based tourism plans for national parks nationwide this week.

As an experienced diver himself, Mr Varawut acknowledged well how nature attractions in many seaside areas and on islands had been spoiled during the crowded visits before COVID-19.

As the places were closed off following the outbreak of the virus, the stark scenes of the returns of rare wild animals became clear in sight.

So, the carrying capacity concept picked a momentum and was seriously translated into his new park management policy. He called it, “the new norm”.

Simply put, the CC concept principally involves limits on the number of visitors that ecosystems of the places can support without degrading, or in other ward, the maximum number of visitors that can be allowed in one place based on capacity of its ecosystems to sustain.

This new policy has offered a ray of hopes that from now on our national parks as well as other naturally sensitive areas would be better protected by limited utilisation and disturbance particularly from mass tourism.

For too long, Thailand has allowed such the exploitation to take place in exchange of revenues from tourism, said to have accounted for upto 12% of the GDP growth.

According to the available data from the Tourism Department, the sector contributed upto Bt3 trillion a few years ago, with the number of visitors being estimated at 30-plus millions.

The number of visitors at iconic national parks had also been soaring over time, from 11 millions in 2013 to 18.7 millions during the same period, with foreign visitors accounting for almost one-third, or around 6 millions.

The same department reported that up to 138 tourism attractions had been identified since the late 2000s as heavily degraded, and in need of urgent rehabilitation; 50 of which were nature attractions.

So, limiting the number of visitors so that the ecosystems there can cope with seems to be the right policy and on the right track.

The evil, if any, would be in implementation as the CC concept cannot be vaguely dealt with, but must be based on thorough studies and assessments, especially in regard to the health of the ecosystems of the places, which is most vital.

So, applying the CC concept cannot only be a lip service, but concerned agencies must prove that they are serious enough by adhering to science and developing necessary systems to support the idea, or otherwise, we would never achieve the sustainable tourism and the sustainability of our ecosystems.

COVID-19 has demonstrated what went wrong and what can be corrected. Post COVID-19, in deed, is perfectly the right time to act and show the results.