Reduced tourism numbers may have meant a drop in CO2 emissions, but local travel carries environmental risks too, particularly for the biodiversity of national parks.
It was inevitable that international travel would be limited when Britain first went into lockdown in March of last year. In the summer of 2020, ‘staycations’ were up 500%; families had traded their all-inclusive week in Corfu for a less exotic trip to Cornwall. Even as the possibility of travel abroad reemerges, the risks and uncertainty involved will still deter many.
In light of this, Britons may utilise the beauty of their 15 national parks to escape to, with lockdown lifted. From the Lake District to the Brecon Beacons, national parks have been a feature of the UK landscape since 1951. The regions aim to preserve nature and heritage against property developers, whilst providing the public with a glimpse of the picturesque scenery that their country has to offer.
Tourists are not wrong to take advantage of the parks. Their existence is crucial to exhibit the beauty of the environment. Yet, the worry remains that, if 2020 saw record numbers of visitors flock to these places, 2021 may see a correlation between swelling tourist numbers and lamentable damage to the habitats that these areas strive to protect.
Using the USA as an example, sightseers have congregated around the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls since air travel was invented. Areas of national beauty are appreciated, but at the same time spoilt by litter, air pollution, and noise. Rangers at Yellowstone label tourists as the real “wild animals” due to their swamping of local car parks, road rage, and debris that they spew all over the local ecosystems. More than 300m people visited American national parks in 2015 and this number has only grown since.
Britain’s parks accommodate significantly fewer visitors every year, totalling 13.71m in 2019 over all 15 locations. Although this figure is far less than numbers recorded in the USA, it is tallied pre-COVID. This summer, the appeal of the parks will only lure more sightseers in if many international destinations are placed on the Government’s so-called “red list”. Tourism to British parks has a very realistic potential to follow the same upwards trajectory as the USA. This could leave British national parks vulnerable to the environmental issues seen in places such as Yellowstone.
Preserving national parks is of global interest too. Foreign and domestic forests aid in carbon sequestration. Trees drain carbon dioxide from the air by acting as natural sinks. Tourists harming these designated basins with pollution only creates a further imbalance of carbon in the air. Consequently, Britain should not be the only country that takes into account the effects of staycations this year.
The Government must make the protection of national parks’ biodiversity a priority. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 30 by 30 pledge commits to protecting 30% of the UK’s landmass by 2030 in efforts to enhance biodiversity. Westminster has also promised £40m for creating green jobs in these areas in the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution.
However, these policies may face difficulty this summer. Any limitations on sightseer numbers could result in the hospitality sectors of the rural towns surrounding the parks to perish, and the pandemic has already cost the Government a great deal of money. The industry has suffered significantly from lockdowns and any spike in tourism could greatly benefit the local communities.
Perhaps as the threat to national parks is an international issue, there should be cross-border solutions to ensure their protection globally. For instance, 14.7% of Earth’s landmass is protected by a national park status, however less than a fifth of countries have actually committed to their duties of preserving biodiversity in these places. There must be an international response to prevent countries neglecting their nature reserves as they create balance for the rest of the world.
The Foundation for Environmental Education’s creation of the Blue Flag Beach Award provides countries with an incentive to keep their beaches clean. The achievement grants coastlines prestige for preserving the environmental integrity of their waters. Perhaps, a similar scheme could run to preserve the biodiversity of national parks. Countries could be given an internationally recognised ‘Green Trophy’ certificate for maintaining their parks.
National parks are there to be enjoyed, not squandered. However, the world must start treating them with respect to ensure their continuation and contribution to hindering climate change.
Emily Wilson studies Politics and International Relations at the University of Manchester.