The UK’s red list is risking an environmental “catastrophe” in South Africa and other sub-Saharan countries, travel industry figures have warned.
Conservation and tourism experts have cautioned the collapse of tourism to the region could create a vicious cycle of economic decline and environmental destruction.
While the UK government argues its “traffic light” travel restrictions protect public health in Britain by reducing the risk of new Covid variants being imported, critics warn those cast into poverty in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of the suspension of tourism may instead turn to the illegal wildlife trade to earn a living.
Colin Bell, a conservation expert, wildlife author and co-founder of a wilderness safari company that operates in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, said the impact of the red list would spread from unemployment, to poaching and to other wildlife crime and general unrest.
“The red list is a failure on every single level. On climate change, on your development goals, [and] on poverty,” he said. “Our biggest market has gone to zero. It’s a killer.”
South Africa was placed on the UK’s travel ban list in December of last year after the identification of a “variant of concern”; the so-called Beta variant.
Before the pandemic, official statistics from the South African government showed Britain was the biggest market for the country’s tourism industry, with roughly half of the 450,000 travellers who make the trip from the UK each year doing so for a holiday.
Once in South Africa, figures showed UK holidaymakers spend an average of £1,600 per person. This year “close to zero” British tourists have travelled to the country, in which one in six people depend on tourism to feed their families.
The Independent’s Stop the Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign, which was launched last year, seeks an international effort to clamp down on poaching and the illegal trade of wild animals, which remains one of the greatest threats to biodiversity in the future.
The campaign has in the past reported the stories of individuals such as former poachers, who were forced into the illegal trade by poverty and the need to feed their families.
South Africa’s national parks receive little government funding and almost three quarters of the parks’ budgets in 2019 came from tourism revenue.
Nature-based tourism contributed around 10 per cent of the gross domestic products of South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania according to The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
The 20 national parks overseen by the national parks agency (SANParks) cover an area similar to the Netherlands and are custodians of much of the African continent’s biodiversity. WWF South Africa’s CEO, Morné du Plessis, told The Atlantic magazine earlier this month that conservation funding was entering “a valley of despair.”
“Tourism is the only sustainable way to manage the parks”, Mr Bell added. “In South Africa’s national parks, they’re [reducing] salaries and maintenance. Without salaries and maintenance, it’s a downward spiral.”
Monika Iuel, the chair of South Africa's Inbound Tourism Recovery Group, questioned why the UK was preventing its fully vaccinated citizens from travelling – unlike the United States.
“The real catastrophe is the human story”, she said. “Tourism is a fantastic industry due to its low barriers to entry. Small- and medium-sized enterprises have been impacted harshly [by the red list]. Around the greater Kruger National Park, tourism was pretty much the only employer – one job in tourism fed 10 people.”
There is also a risk that financially-hit landowners transfer the use of their land from natural wilderness to a more carbon-intensive or extractive practice like cattle grazing. Ms Iuel added: “we’ve spent so much time illustrating to communities and private landowners the value of [eco]tourism, and there’s a massive risk long term of people with land deciding it’s too risky and going into agriculture or something else.”
Ms Iuel conceded that South Africa was entering a “third wave” of Covid, with 7,500 new cases and 56 deaths recorded on Sunday 13 June, but emphasised that new cases were mostly in urban counties, that the country’s vaccination programme is revving up and insisted fully vaccinated tourists on safari face relatively little risk.
The G7, which Britain hosted in Cornwall last week, issued an ambitious communiqué pledging to “support and drive the protection, conservation and restoration of ecosystems critical to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and tackle climate change”.
Lindy Rousseau, from Singita, a luxury lodge and villa operator that has properties across South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda (all now on the UK’s red list), told The Independent that the company has been “severely impacted due to many countries closing borders and grounding flights” and has been forced to reduce staff salaries as a result.
Singita operates a range of community and wildlife conservation initiatives in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and elsewhere on the continent, such as Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. In peak season, a suite at the Lebombo Lodge in Kruger National Park costs £1,900 ($2,700) per person per night.
Ms Rousseau said: “Our community and conservation initiatives at our properties in all four African countries are vital to the wellbeing of our neighbouring communities and ecosystems. Our conservation model is dependent on hospitality revenue and donations. This is proving to be very difficult for us at the moment.”
“Africa’s wildlife is gravely at risk if ecotourism stops funding conservation work. If tourism collapses, the ripple effect could threaten to wipe out decades of proactive conservation work on the continent.”
Ms Iuel also warned that Britain’s diplomatic relations with sub-Saharan African states risked a hit if it continued to prevent its citizens from travelling.
“Global Britain is under threat, if the UK wants to become a global player post-Brexit, then you need to start opening up otherwise others will get the first mover advantage”, she said.
In Kenya, which was added to the UK red list on 9 April, one travel industry veteran described the result as a “catastrophe”. Paul Goldstein, who is the co-owner of Kicheche Camps on the Masai Mara, said “The tourist dollar supports millions of people and even more animals. The figures do not add up. The science does not add up. Without income, wildlife areas are not viable”.
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultants The PC Agency, has criticised the traffic light system, describing it as a “serious failing of government”.
“The UK government is very much led by public thinking and opinion polls. The public want borders more tightly controlled because the government has put fear into them about the impact of variants,” he wrote in a blog.
“There urgently needs to be more research on the Beta variant by the British government, which has clearly not had very much impact on the UK. The government should be taking another look at why South Africa is on the red list, because it should be on the amber list.”
A spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Transport said: “Our traffic light system cautiously balances the reopening of international travel with managing Covid-19 transmission risk and the risk of imported variants.
“As the public would expect, we are acting vigilantly and cautiously to protect public health, the hard-fought efforts of the British public and our vaccination programme.”
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