In early March, Jeff Sandifort was on top of the world. The Bolivia-based mountain guide, who has lived in South America for 20 years, was leading a client up Ojos del Salado, a 22,615ft peak that’s the tallest active volcano on earth. 

From a summit with views across Chile and Argentina, he gulped in cold, thin air and wondered what he’d find when he climbed back down. The virus was spreading rapidly; travel was slowing across the continent.

“We got home okay,” he recalls, “but then a couple of weeks later all the borders closed.” Flights to Bolivia halted, and tourism stopped entirely. Ojos del Salado would be Sandifort’s last guiding work for many months to come.  

A trekking group among tall mountains
Jeff Sandifort leads treks all over South America © Courtesy Climbing South America

The COVID-19 pandemic has cratered tourist numbers in every corner of the map, exacting a toll on livelihoods from Lesotho to Timor-Leste. If that lasts, some countries could see a 20% spike in unemployment, according to a July report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. It gets worse: For a few small island developing states, such as Maldives, tourism makes up more than half of gross domestic product.

But the fallout goes far beyond spreadsheets and economic forecasts. Should the travel industry fail to recover quickly, there could be lasting consequences for many thousands of families, not to mention for environmental health, vulnerable wildlife, and even traditional cultures.

The toll of lost tourism on lives and livelihoods

The impact in Sandifort’s own community in La Paz, Bolivia, has been staggering. Half of the city’s storefront tour companies have shut for good, he says. Sandifort, who owns the agency Climbing South America, watched the pandemic ripple through a broad-reaching network of mountain guides, trip leaders, drivers, and porters. 

“Tourism is such an informal market, and now you see how many people are really affected by it,” says Sandifort. “People here work each day to survive for the next day.” With tourists gone, they must look elsewhere to earn a living, amid a pandemic that’s drastically slimmed the alternatives.

Aerial view of La Paz, Bolivia
Aerial view of La Paz, Bolivia ©Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock

Ricardo Laso, a mountain guide at Climbing South America, left La Paz entirely. When the borders closed he took work in Bolivia’s gold mines, which sluice poisonous mercury into the country’s water and soil. It’s grueling labor that pays 2,000 Bolivianos a month, less than $300 USD. 

“Tourists aren’t going to come back quickly,” says Laso, who has led groups through the Andes for nearly 20 years. “But I’d rather work with them – mining is really hard, and I earn so little.” 

That frantic scramble for work is happening in tourist destinations on every continent; when South Africa closed the borders in March, safari guide Owen Booysen saw his country transformed. “For the last four months there were no safaris happening,” says Booysen, the lead guide at Chui Safaris in Pretoria. The effects are far-reaching, he explains, since each safari supports many people, from the farmers who sell fresh food in villages to cleaners at national park lodges.  

“They have to make a living some way,” he says. Booysen, who dreamed of becoming a safari guide since he was a child, is now studying to become a fitness instructor.

Owen Booysen_3_courtesy Chui Safaris.jpg
Guide Owen Booysen leads safaris in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia © Courtesy Chui Safaris

Wildlife without tourists

As travelers stayed at home, their social media feeds filled with images of animals who didn’t seem to miss visitors very much. Lions napped on the roads of Kruger National Park. Jackals yowled in Tel Aviv. But while it’s heartening to imagine resurgent wildlife as a silver lining to the crushed tourism industry, Booysen says the reality is more complex. 

“Everything does have an effect in the end,” he says, noting that South Africa’s fenced-in wildlife preserves require intensive management. That management is funded, in large part, by tourism. Without enough cash to maintain the reserves, animals could starve, be targeted by poachers, or come in violent conflict with neighboring communities. 

And incidents of poaching are rising in many places amid the pandemic. Already, casualties range from South African rhinos to a 25-year-old silverback gorilla in Uganda

Diminished tourism could devastate conservation projects ©Mark Read/Lonely Planet

In fact, diminished tourism could devastate conservation projects worldwide, says researcher Ralf Buckley, who studies ecotourism at Griffith University in Australia. The problem is especially grave in poor countries. 

While conservation in rich countries is propped up by government spending, tourism revenue can account for 80% of park agency budgets in developing nations, Buckley notes. That money funds rangers, monitoring, and other essential safeguards. 

When the handicraft markets close

Another casualty of lost tourism is the market for handicrafts, which in some places relies almost entirely on sales to travelers. Now that much of that revenue has evaporated, artisans are feeling the pinch. 

Hanoi is empty,” says Hongky Le, of the city’s workshop-store Zó Project, which supports production of traditional Vietnamese paper produced in ethnic minority communities. “We sell mostly for tourists, but the shops are still closed.” 

Two women make do paper using traditional methods
Dó paper has been made in Vietnam since the 13th century, but a lack of visitors threatens the craft's continued existence © Courtesy Zó Project

There’s not much of a local market for paper, whose labor-intensive production makes it relatively pricey. Le estimates that fewer than 100 people still know how to make the traditional paper; they’re getting older. With no tourist income, the artisans have largely turned to farming, highlighting just how fragile the chain of knowledge can be.  

But paper has been made in Vietnam for centuries, and Le hopes the tradition will weather the pandemic, as well. She just wants tourists to come back so the store can reopen. “The craftsmen are not going to forget in one year or two years,” says Le. 

She shares that optimism with Owen Booysen, the safari guide, who would also love to see tourism return full-force in 2021. If that happens, he’ll be ready.

“There’s a very good saying in South Africa,” he says. “If it’s not raining, prepare the fields for the rain that will come.”

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