Amid pandemic travel bans, some islands see boom in local tourism
When the COVID-19 pandemic made indoor gatherings unsafe, getting outdoors became more important than ever. With the appropriate precautions, hiking, kayaking, birding, and other exploration of the natural world offer a COVID-friendly escape from the mind-numbing isolation of shelter-in-place orders, travel restrictions, and rules against large group activities. For many islanders, they also provide an important source of financial relief.
As examined recently in the Washington Post, many island states have escaped a health disaster but have suffered an economic one. Their geographical isolation allowed them to quickly close their borders, preventing or containing outbreaks of the virus. On the other hand, the economies of many islands relied heavily on international tourism, which was devastated by travel restrictions. While the world adjusted to this new reality early last year, Seacology recognized that small-scale ecotourism serving – and employing – local people could help struggling islanders. Of the 19 projects we launched in 2020, eight supported locally focused ecotourism. Interest in some of our previous ecotourism projects was also rekindled.
The people of the Cook Islands, a country which so far has no recorded cases of the virus, are embracing this new paradigm. While travel across the country’s borders remains highly restricted, Cook Islanders are free to move around among the islands and take advantage of the myriad ecotourism opportunities available to them. A 2001 Seacology project, which funded a boardwalk and viewing platform on the shore of picturesque Lake Tiriara, has enjoyed renewed popularity. The platform was recently featured in a travel piece in the Cook Islands News exploring the scenic destinations and sacred cultural sites on the island of Mangaia.
The Philippines has also been relatively successful in fighting the pandemic, with lower infection and death rates than several of its neighbors. There, Seacology’s local partners recently completed work on a long boardwalk bordering a new, nearly 1,000-acre mangrove reserve on Busuanga Island. The construction project provided work for members of the community, and others are getting training to serve as nature guides. A socially distanced inauguration ceremony marked the trail’s opening in October. The facility is now open for local visitors to take in the stunning scenery and observe the area’s abundant wildlife.
Even where ecotourism is still difficult, Seacology continues to invest in the post-COVID future. The Dominican Republic, with its popular all-inclusive resorts and nightclubs, was particularly hard-hit by international lockdowns. Seacology launched two new ecotourism-focused projects there in 2020, on the outskirts of the capital at Boca Chica, and at El Tablón in the country’s north. While the number of visitors to existing projects sites like El Limón Lagoon and Montecristi Province has been sharply curtailed by the pandemic, our work to train nature guides, build infrastructure, and install signage has continued.
As we prepare to launch a nationwide mangrove conservation program in the DR, these types of local ecotourism projects will support our goals of a sustainable recovery. Stay tuned for the official launch of this major initiative this spring.