Covid-19 and the Environmental Impacts of Domestic Tourism

Written by Tzu-Ming Liu.

Image credit: Taiwan – Taroko Gorge National Park by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

The outbreak of COVID-19 has significantly affected Taiwanese’ travel destination choices. One of the most significant changes is the recent boom of citizens’ participation in nature-based outdoor recreation. These changes have clear influences on the environment. Some are positive, and some are negative. This impact can be observed in Taroko National Park and Yushan National Park. However, for destinations that have been heavily impacted by tourism, such as Lanyu, the sudden tourist increase makes environmental problems much worse.

Many people visit forest parks and mountainous national parks. It was estimated that around 2.38 million tourists visited the forest parks from July 15 to Dec. 31, 2020, representing a 38 per cent increase from the same period in 2019. The number of tourists visited the Yushan National Park also increased 36 per cent in the second half of 2020 compared with those in the same period in 2019. Many individuals who typically would not be hikers and backpackers attempted long-distance multi-day trails. The number of hikers and backpackers in Nation Parks increased in 2020 compared to 2019 by 17% to 44%. As expected, the number of people surging into sensitive protected areas leave a significant environmental footprint.

A substantial environmental footprint was thus detected following the increased number of visitors in sensitive protected areas. However, it was not just caused by the number of visitors but perhaps majorly also by the hikers’ lack of experience and skills. According to statistics reported by the National Airborne Service Corps (NASC), the NASC flew a total of 58 rescue missions to rescue 18 people suffering from mountaineering accidents in 2019. Moreover, the number of such missions in 2020 jumped to 182, with 117 rescues. Taroko National Park also said it had seen an 80 per cent increase in accidents in 2020 from 2019. In each incident, dozens of searches and rescue crew members were deployed to help the victims. The rescue activities can last several days because search and rescue efforts are usually hampered by steep terrain and changeable mountainous weather. Therefore, the environmental footprint caused by the actions of rescuing hiking incidents is tremendous.

Another incredible environmental footprint caused by those inexperienced and unskilled hikers is forest fires. For example, a forest fire in Yushan National Parks was started by a hiking team while cooking with a portable stove. The 70-hectare fire was extinguished after 12 days of efforts by around a thousand people from various government units. The cost of the forest fire is estimated at over NT$100 million (US$3.58 million). This is not the only case. The recorded forest fires were 62 in the first half of 2021. Human activities cause almost all these incidents. The forest bureau thus urged the public to be careful when cooking and lighting campfires.

There has been a surge in people turning to nature-based tourism, and the trend should put pressure on natural resources. However, the impact on the ecosystem from tourism booming due to COVID-19 is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, an interesting and positive sign has been observed. National parks and national forest recreation areas across the country have reported sightings of rare, even endangered animals in broad daylight just a couple of weeks after mountaineering and trail hiking have been banned. For example, crab-eating mongoose, Formosan Serow, Mikado pheasants, and Swinhoe’s blue pheasant were spotted wandering around hiking trails and visitor centres. The animals mentioned are all listed as protected and thus are seldom found. The animals adapted to low disturbance also causes problems. Roadkill numbers have been higher recently than usual.

The unprecedented surge in visitorsto Lanyu (Pongso no Tao) put a lot of new strain on its natural resources and inhabitants. The garbage crisis is a long-term problem in Lanyu. It is usual to see that hermit crab makes its home in the broken-off end of a bottleneck. The increasing number of visitors has created much more trash on the island during the pandemic and is troubling locals. The landfill is full, and tons of garbage is improperly treated. Furthermore, the refuse causes the usual pollution to the environment and a new threat to local communities. Many used medical masks against coronavirus, categorized as medical waste, were disposed of inappropriately due to lack of waste facilities, capacity and funding. The newly generated medical wastes may bring infectious disease risks to the island. Another problem caused by the tourism boom on Lanyu is that cultural differences between local communities and visitors have led to misunderstandings and greater conflicts. Visitors should not touch the tatala, traditional fishing boats local people use to catch fish, because visitors touching the tatala is taboo. However, visitors touching the tatala is one of the most common mistakes visitors make. Before the pandemic, the islanders periodically hang around the beaches and coastal areas and deter the visitors from touching. Therefore, the problem is manageable. During the pandemic, many islanders people are kept busy serving visitors and away from beaches and coastal areas, and thus attempts to deter visitors from touching the tatala are desperate. We have seen some tatala capsized and even damaged by visitors. These destructions have ignited islanders’ anger, causing aggressive behaviour towards visitors hanging around beaches and coastal areas.

We observe Taiwanese preferences for travel have changed significantly due to Covid-19, but the net impact of COVID-19 on protected areas and natural resources is yet to be determined. According to the issues we have observed so far, we suggest the following strategies to mitigate the environmental footprint caused by tourism during the pandemic. We recommend that national parks and national forest recreation areas use the information of wild animals’ reclaiming their natural habitat during the lockdown to study the use of periodically closing to restore the environment. They also should realize the increased risk of roadkill after lockdown and take prevention measures. As for hiking safety, the hikers should train and prepare themselves before attempting long-distance multi-day trails. The hikers should choose trails that match their skill level. National parks and national forest recreation areas may offer information and classes to help hikers know the risks and learn how to tackle adverse conditions and prevent themselves from making environmental hazards. On the other hand, conflicts between visitors and Tao people are continued to be unresolved. We should find good ways to handle those problems.

Tzu-Ming Liu is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Economics and Natural Resource Management at the Graduate Institute of Marine Affairs, National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan. His research focuses on spatial econometrics, natural resource economics, tourism economics, climate change adaptation, and indigenous traditional environmental knowledge.

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