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Understanding How the Pandemic Transformed Our Relationship with Nature

Updated: Feb 6

Guiding Principle 11: Diversify Source Markets. In addition to international visitation, encourage robust domestic tourism, which may be more resilient in the face of crises and raise citizens' perceived value of their own natural and cultural heritage.

When times got tough in lockdown, there was one place that millions of people turned to: the great outdoors. In England, almost half of all adults began spending an increased amount of time outdoors during Covid, while 6 out of 10 Americans said they appreciated nature more after the pandemic. And because of pandemic restrictions, most people experienced this new, or renewed, love of nature close to home.

There is a downside to our adoration of the natural world, though. Areas with extraordinary views (particularly those worthy of a selfie or Instagram snap) are becoming overloaded with visitors. Horseshoe Bend, just outside of Grand Canyon National Park, has been swamped with visitors in recent years, with a few thousand admirers per year escalating to millions. This is leading to problems, including traffic jams, the erosion of the landscape, and too many people crammed into too small a space. Moreover, it’s making many people wonder just how long our beloved landscapes can sustain such a barrage of tourists. Overtourism is an increasing problem in many destinations, and domestic tourism is another facet that needs to be considered in destination management.

Encouraging domestic tourism does have its benefits though, including a decrease in carbon emissions from flights not taken as well as differing spending patterns for accommodation, dining, and shopping compared to overseas visitors, diversifying markets further. Many domestic tourists are self-catering visitors (those staying in an AirBnB, cabin, local hotel, or campground, etc.), spending more with local merchants for groceries and supplies than guests in hotels with pre-established supply chains that may or may not be local. Backpackers and campers spend less per day than affluent resort tourists, but they often stay longer and leave more money in and around the communities bordering the parks.

And for our national parks, the shift allowed for a more resilient and dispersed post-pandemic pattern. US National Park Service Director Chuck Sams in a 2022 visitor report stated, “We’re excited to see our efforts [since the pandemic] to increase visitation to parks in the off-season and in parks that are less well-known paying off. Many parks with record visitation in 2022 are on what we would call “the road less traveled.” This subtle shift in park visitation is good for visitors, good for protecting parks, and good for local communities whose economies benefit from tourism dollars.”

This change in our relationship with nature in our own backyards created several important and beneficial shifts in our travel habits. Young travelers within these segments are an investment in the future because by imprinting a love of nature on the next generation, a desire to protect it is imprinted as well. Travel memories etched in youth create the appetite for return visits later in life, with their families and their own incomes.

Getting out amongst nature also provided a much-needed wellness boost. The human body responds to being outside, with increases in joy, creativity, and calm all improving general mindsets. There’s a reason why many mental health centers and rehabs are set amongst beautiful nature, like the healing power of British Columbia. The simple act of heading off for a hike or sitting down in a grassy park can actively make you feel better, which is something we desperately needed during the pandemic. In Canada, doctors have even begun prescribing free passes to national parks to treat patients. The idea is that by encouraging people to head outside to areas of outstanding beauty, both physical and mental health can be drastically improved without the need for medication.

After the pandemic, we need nature more than ever. But each and every one of us has a responsibility to take care of the lands around us and prevent the loss of beautiful scenery. When heading out to soak up the natural healing powers of the outside world, consider taking the road less traveled and help protect overwhelmed sites from future harm.

Every month, the Future of Tourism Coalition highlights inspiring stories that bring our shared vision for tourism to life. Have a story to share? Submit yours today.

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