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Banking on protected areas to promote a green recovery

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The rollout of vaccines globally, particularly as this effort picks up momentum, is spreading hope that countries will soon have control over the devastating health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries still, though, have a long path to travel for economic recovery. The pandemic has led to a deep global recession in which much economic activity has declined, including in the hard-hit tourism sector.  In tourism-dependent economies in Africa and the Caribbean, for example, GDP is projected to shrink by 12 percent.

The economic toll is occurring at a time when biodiversity is imperiled, globally. The 2020 Living Planet Index reported a 68 percent average decline in birds, amphibians, mammals, fish, and reptiles since 1970; one-third of the world’s terrestrial, and two-thirds of its marine, protected areas are under threat from human impact. Protected areas are not only key to any global effort to conserve biodiversity, they are also crucial to address climate change and achieve sustainable development goals.  Currently, 17 percent of land and 8 percent of the marine environment, world over, is protected. The proposed target for 2030 – to be negotiated at the CBD COP-15 in Kunming, China in the coming months -- is to expand this coverage to at least 30 percent, part of an effort to address the threat to biodiversity.

These intersecting calamities – a pandemic in a time of biodiversity loss – call for a response which speaks to both crises, addressing economic losses and promoting recovery through actions which simultaneously support biodiversity conservation. Can countries, however, afford to bring even larger areas under protection and focus on biodiversity conservation when the need for economic recovery is so pressing, fiscal spaces tight, and many development challenges persist?  

Our recently launched report - Banking on Protected Areas – makes the case that this is indeed possible. Sustainable and inclusive protected-area tourism can contribute a country’s recovery from the economic fallout of the pandemic, address longstanding development challenges, and conserve biodiversity.  The report assessed the economic impact of protected area tourism on the local economy in five protected areas in Brazil, Fiji, Nepal, and Zambia.  Its findings are striking.

Protected area tourism creates significant job opportunities

The report finds that jobs are created directly through tourism activities and indirectly by stimulating the local economies.  In Zambia, tourism in protected areas generated jobs for 14 and 30 percent of the working age populations around the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa Parks, respectively. In Nepal, tourism-related jobs around Chitwan National Park are held by 3 percent of the working age population, while in Brazil’s coastal region this figure is 12 percent. Similarly, tourism in Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands created 8,304 jobs, employing 13 percent of the local population in the Mamanucas and adjoining coastal areas. The study accounts for jobs such as hotel employees, tour operators, and restaurant workers, and those employed as a result of the increased demand for goods and services catalyzed by tourism in sectors such as retail, services, and in some instances agriculture, livestock, and fishing.

Benefits of protected area tourism are broad, and help the poor

The study finds income multipliers from tourism ranging from 1.53 to 1.83 in all the country case studies, implying that each additional unit of money entering the local economy through tourist spending changes local household incomes by significantly more than one. This finding suggests that local market linkages are strong and amplify tourist spending. Tourism benefits households directly involved in the tourism sector and those indirectly linked with the sector.  Households benefit indirectly through production and income linkages - when tourism operators hire local people and buy local goods, and when households spend wages or businesses spend profits earned through the tourism sector.  Poor households also benefit.  In fact, as a share of the population, tourism appears to benefit the poor more in all but one country.


Public investment in protected areas pays off, generates high economic returns

The study shows that for every dollar governments invest in protected areas and in promoting tourism, the economic rate of return is at least six times the original investment.  Importantly, this shows that protected areas are not financial sinks but rather engines of growth. It also reveals the potential of these protected areas to promote economic recovery and support sustainable development.


Significant job opportunities, high income multipliers, and high returns on public investments are three key ingredients of any economic recovery strategy.   With the added outcome of biodiversity conservation, promoting sustainable protected area tourism qualifies as a green recovery.

So, what should governments do? How can they act on this information? While the findings of the study cannot be applied to all protected areas, they offer lessons from diverse settings from which policies can be tailored. Central to all efforts, however, is the need to protect the asset, promote tourism and diversify its offering, and share benefits with local communities fairly. Within each category there are multiple policy recommendations, including increasing public investment in protected areas, enhancing the capacity of protected area managers, developing concession policies to promote private sector participation, and formalizing benefit sharing arrangements with local communities.


We hope that with the evidence presented in the report, countries will place these tremendous natural assets proactively into their development plans and strategies and harness the potential of protected areas to promote a green and inclusive recovery. 


Karin Kemper

Global Director, Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice, World Bank

Urvashi Narain

Lead Economist; Environment, Natural Resources, and Blue Economy

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