Comment: Europe needs more national parks to compete for ecotourism

Public-private partnerships can help continent compete with US and China, says Bruno Despujol, partner at consultancy Oliver Wyman

This summer the European Union opened borders to vaccinated tourists with an aim to revive the continent’s struggling tourism industry.

But as travellers seek to escape the rigors of Covid-19, they may be looking for something Europe is not particularly known for when it comes to tourism — the great outdoors.

For several years, ecotourism has been growing faster than other segments of the market. While Europe has lovely beaches, picturesque mountains, and bucolic settings, most international travellers visit its cosmopolitan cities to shop, tour museums, sample the cuisine, and take in famous landmarks.

But given the anticipated growth in ecotourism — up 250% between 2018 and 2030, reaching 32% of the global tourism market — Europe may increasingly find itself at a disadvantage competing for tourist dollars.

Why is ecotourism so big? As people are becoming more concerned about the environment and aware of disappearing aspects of nature, they are seeking opportunities to go on safari, visit dude ranches or go scuba-diving near endangered coral reefs. Fears of the spread of Covid-19 and a desire to avoid crowds have only amplified the desire to pursue outdoor activity and explore nature.

Where ecotourism represents about 20% of the market today, it will grow to more than 30% in less than a decade. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the trend, as well as a contributor to it, are national parks.

In 2018, when nature-based tourism totalled some $881 billion out of a $5.7 trillion tourism market, nearly half was spent on trips to national parks in various countries. Sure, Europe has national parks, but they almost all uniformly lack the hospitality options, outdoor activities and other amenities common in national parks in the United States.

Everyone knows Yosemite and Yellowstone

When it comes to national parks, the US is the standout leader with six of the 10 most-frequented parks on the planet and some 84 million acres of park land. Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone offer a variety of accommodations, from camping to cabins to luxury hotels. There are organised activities like horseback riding, whitewater rafting, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and wildlife tours as well as shopping opportunities for indigenous arts and crafts.

Europe only has one park in the top 10 — the Lake District in northwest England. While that park has many of the amenities of US parks, it falls short on activities and structured tours available in US parks.

In general, European parkland has been set aside to preserve nature and natural environments, so most parks are left in their natural state. While that may be desirable from a conservationist’s perspective, it tends to discourage tourists who seek more comfort and structure.

Besides the Lake District, other European national parks include Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, Cevennes National Park in France, Gargano National Park in Italy, and Sarek National Park in Sweden. There are many others, but even the best-known falls far short of the almost universal recognition of Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.

For the US, the national parks are a money-making proposition. While the federal government spends more than $4 billion in taxpayer money annually to maintain and promote the park system, the parks generate almost five times that number in direct tourist spending. The total contribution to the local economy for national parks is more than 10 times the taxpayer’s investment.

Public-private partnerships

That’s in part the result of partnerships with the private sector to provide some of the amenities and activities in a mature concessionary model.

This summer, US parks are almost too successful, with long lines of cars at entrances and crowds that make it hard to remember whether you’re out in nature or in Times Square.

Still, countries besides the US are starting to recognize the potential economic engine national parks represent.

In China, for instance, a programme to create 10 national parks which began in 2013 moved forward, even during the pandemic. While conservation, particularly of certain endangered wildlife, is part of the motivation, the Chinese government has not overlooked the potential return on investment from tourists. China has already become home to the most popular national park in the world — Guilin Jiang — which attracts close to 20 million visitors annually.

China’s investment in parks and tourism looks to produce a good return. Based on current growth patterns, China is poised to replace France as the world’s number one tourist destination by 2030.

The US won’t lose any ground, remaining at number three. On the horizon, Saudi Arabia is investing in a national park strategy to help boost tourism, recently developing four royal reserves.

Playing catch-up

So where does that leave Europe? Behind, to say the least.

To compete effectively, European nations will need to develop parks that rival current standouts like Alaska’s Glacier Bay and South Africa’s Kruger or Guilin Jiang, Yellowstone and Yosemite.

That will mean fostering partnerships with the hospitality sector similar to those US parks have created — or what Chinese parks are in the process of creating. It will require spending money to promote European parks at home and to international tourists.

The idea to develop parks comes at an opportune time. The European Union has set aside almost $1 trillion for post-Covid recovery, and a programme to build upon existing national park offerings could provide something the 27 countries could get behind.

It worked for Franklin Roosevelt when he wanted to generate consensus around his New Deal recovery program.

Oliver Wyman’s Guillaume Thibault also contributed to this article. Bruno Despujol are to speak at this week’s Evora Forum 

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