Ecotourism can help rural areas to deliver sustainable growth

An exemplary programme of UK wildlife conservation holidays, designed by Wild Days to support the work of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB and Suffolk Coastal and Waveney district councils, proves that there is a sustainable model for successful ecotourism in the UK.

What’s more, this pioneering partnership project with a local authority demonstrates that ecotourism, as part of a broad economic regeneration project, has potential to promote rural tourism growth and truly engage visitors to the area – especially during off-peak periods. It is the first project of its kind.

Last year, Wild Days’ hands-on wildlife conservation and research holidays made a positive contribution to conservation in Suffolk and I believe this approach can now be scaled-up across a national network of organisations.

The role of tourism in supporting rural growth is currently being examined by the environment, food and rural affairs select committee. Ecotourism should be an integral part of the solution.

Development of high quality ecotourism in the UK is long overdue; the need is greater than ever and conditions are ripe right now. Ecotourism in Britain is ready to move from niche to mainstream and in the process make a real difference to our environment.

Suffolk Coastal and Waveney district councils opted to work with Wild Days Conservation as specialist providers rather than attempting to develop the wildlife volunteer holidays themselves, making use of the good relations the AONB had with conservation organisations on the ground – especially the RSPB and National Trust.

The Wild Days Conservation approach is to make holiday experiences that match the standards of quality tourist experiences including: comfortable accommodation, a focus on good local food, and inspiring opportunities to experience wildlife first hand and contribute to the research.

While ‘working holidays’ have existed in the UK for many years, they have been the preserve of conservation organisations whose primary purpose is not tourists or tourism development. Wild Days’ origins lie in the international volunteering market: strongly driven by private enterprise that has been attracting increasing numbers of people to travel outside the UK for exactly this kind of experience.

Clearly, the opportunities in the UK are different from overseas but they can be very attractive and are currently underexploited. At a time when rural tourism is declining and the funding sources traditionally relied on by conservation organisations are under threat, the development of positive ecotourism could be of great value.

There are opportunities then, but there are challenges too, and these go some way to explaining why the concept is not well developed yet.

The challenges

  • The conservation and wildlife organisations that could have developed positive ecotourism tend to be local or regional or operate internally in a regional way e.g. Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, RSPB etc. Tourism, however, necessarily relies on communicating with people from elsewhere in the country or overseas. For example, Dorset Wildlife Trust needs to be attracting people from Yorkshire and vice versa. But they’re not currently set up to do that.
  • Ecotourism aims to make a real difference. This requires holiday providers with specialist conservation knowledge or skills. To date, only conservation organisations have carried out conservation work but they don’t have a focus on tourism marketing. Attempts to work closer and on a commercial basis with tourism organisations have shown wide cultural differences not easily bridged.
  • The market is not well developed and the product is unknown, creating a further hurdle to developing a UK positive ecotourism offer.

Despite these issues, the experience in Suffolk has been positive and provides a blueprint for a wider rollout, which would have a direct impact on supporting the growth of rural tourism.

Key considerations

A partnership between the ecotourism provider and wildlife conservation organisations that is focused on the mutual benefits is paramount. Local authority-linked initiatives such as AONB partnerships with rural economic and general tourism development interests could be a more effective alternative to strictly conservation organisations.

There is also an opportunity to create a UK wildlife conservation holiday brand that works across a network: an organisation or range of organisations with a national scale. National and international marketing would be the responsibility of the overarching brand, with common standards agreed and applied with all local and regional relationships. This could, for example, be a role for the National Association of AONBs, National Parks or other protected areas and/or a federation of regionally focused conservation organisations.

Investment in building a network and brand of this scale should be matched with developing national and international marketing of UK positive ecotourism. Programme, brand and marketing development are all areas that would benefit from initial funding intervention to build critical momentum.

Andy Jefferies

Andy Jefferies

Founder, Wild Days

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