Nature is Not Closed: When we travel again, nature will be our destination.

By : Katharine Millonzi

Times Square is eerily empty, but every patch of park, backyard and hiking trail near my home in upstate New York is occupied. While this ‘return to nature’ might seem like a short term coping mechanism for quarantine induced cabin fever, it’s also an emergent opportunity for a new era of nature-based tourism.

The almost complete shutdown of tourism and hospitality means global losses that are sobering: projections are up to 75 million jobs and $2.1 trillion in revenue lost globally. As a hospitality and tourism consultant, I feel the pinch personally. Clients and friends alike have lost their jobs, their restaurants, their hope. While the magnitude of upheaval is hard to live with, it also reveals a path forward in these dark, confusing times. Pausing the flywheels of travel and tourism has showcased the possibility of more healthy and sustainable forms of travel and recreation, ones that collaborate with nature rather than extract from it. Pre-corona, nature and wellness travel numbers were soaring; now, closer-to-home, smaller-scale, nature-oriented trips will dominate travel.

Activities and accommodations in nature make us happier and healthier, and not only because they make keeping recommended distance from other humans easy. Studies show that being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to rest and replenish, and that people who spend two hours a week in green spaces are substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being. Emerging linkages between obesity, air quality levels and coronavirus disease further add to the science that spells out why ecotourism vacations will be medically and psychologically sound choices going forward.

Whereas the vacation rental industry has had mixed impact on rural economies and often fails to connect travelers to their surroundings, agritourism does just that, by celebrating diverse ecosystems and unique regional identities, while also supporting rural livelihoods and job creation. Beyond eco-therapeutic perks, nature and agritourism outline a blueprint for a regional, rural economic development resiliency.

This is not news to agritourism operators. These hosts, who extend on-farm hospitality, are well-poised to supply highly sought-after post lockdown respite. Agritourism helps American farmers and ranchers generate diversified revenue from recreational or educational activities, such as farm tours, field dinners, or horseback riding, and new generation farmers increasingly explore agritourism as a strategy to remain competitive. The sector is ripe for investment and expansion. If more and more tourism and hospitality companies center such nature-based providers in their business models, perhaps segments of the industry could bounce back more quickly after the next crisis.

Simply, the most salient argument for nature is how it makes us feel. In 2014, I interviewed over 100 sustainable tourism stakeholders in the Northeast; what began as business research grew into a sociological study of what connects us. When asked why people sought out farms and nature as their destination, both hosts and guests alike had the same answer: to reconnect. Coronavirus has spotlighted the delicate web of our interdependencies, affirmed our need for belonging, and increased our cries for community. Nature offers the antidotes we know we need; we just need more, and more equitable, ways to access them. The role of sustainable tourism is to build these bridges, enliven our senses, and create connections in this rapidly changing reality.

Will agritourism destinations overtake Disney World and the Las Vegas strip? Maybe not. But as we scramble for a blueprint to rebuild an industry that is a top three employer in thirty two states, we would do well to look to the farms, to the ranches and to the forests for some long term fixes.

Katharine Millonzi advises travel, hospitality and tourism ventures. She is a TEDx speaker, a trained gastronome and a sustainability expert who designs cultural experiences around food and nature.

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