PLOS Biology, an open source, peer reviewed biology journal, has published a new study which estimates the world’s protected environment areas generate 8 billion visits every year, 80% of them in Europe and North America. The numbers for the US say ecotourism generates approximately $600 billion annually in direct in-country expenditures and $250 billion each year in consumer surplus.
The point of the study is that protecting natural habitats from ecological damage is not an expense, it is an investment that pays enormous economic dividends for the host countries. This is the sort of economic evidence needed to rebut the claims of those who seek to profit from logging, mining or drilling in protected areas.
8 billion visitors a year is a staggering number. Yet the model used by the study is actually quite conservative since it excludes protected areas smaller than 25 acres, marine protected areas, Antarctic areas, and areas where tourism is discouraged. More than 2.5 billion visitors a year travel to protected areas and national parks in the US and another 1 billion visit national parks in China.
“Our US $600 billion figure for the annual value of protected area tourism is likely to be an underestimate—yet it dwarfs the less than US $10 billion spent annually on safeguarding and managing these areas,” said Dr. Robin Naidoo of World Wildlife Fund, one of the study’s authors, in a press statement. “Through previous research, we know that the existing reserve network probably needs three to four times what is current being spent on it,” Naidoo said.
The study’s authors admit that their statistical models are imprecise but point out that theirs in the first study that has tried to quantify the economic impact of the world’s protected areas. They are among the leaders in providing information about how ecotourism adds to local and national economies. If not cutting down trees or permitting extractive operations on federal lands in the US is responsible for anywhere near the $600 billion figure the study suggests then two conclusion follow:
- Permitting such destructive policies is an act of economic suicide for the US economy.
- Investing more in protected areas will lead to a corresponding increase in economic benefit.
Now for the first time ever, environmentalists and ecotourism proponents have the information they need to counter the arguments of the “Drill, baby, drill.” brigades.