The covid-19 pandemic took an unprecedented toll across all sectors of the global tourism industry. Yet, during this difficult period, nature-based tourism proved to be one of the most resilient tourism segments. The pandemic turned relatively new and obscure tourism products such as glamping into global trends. Many National, State, and even urban parks experienced record visitation in 2020 and 2021, and many people discovered eco-tourism in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.

However, nature-based tourism relies on ecosystems that are degrading rapidly and shifting to less desirable states. Ecosystem tipping points occur when small, gradual changes in human pressures or environmental conditions bring about large and abrupt changes to an ecosystem. The textbook example of tipping point comes from the 19th century, when overhunting of sea otters removed predators of sea urchins, who are the main consumers of kelp. Without healthy sea otter populations, sea urchin populations grew unchecked, and ate all of the kelp. A small change—the harvest of sea otters—led to transformation of the ecosystem from kelp forest to sea urchin barren.

The ecosystem tipping points of the 21st century are occurring much closer to home, but their causes, and potential solutions, are not as straightforward. The Indian River Lagoon has transformed from a seagrass dominated ecosystem, to a muck dominated ecosystem. The loss of seagrass has been catastrophic for the manatee population, who rely on seagrass as the main source of food. There are signs of similar tipping points being reached in Florida Bay with large seagrass die-off events followed by recovery in recent years.

Similar changes to ecosystems are taking place all over the state. The water in many of our springs has become too turbid for glass bottom boats, and the turbidity is blocking the sunlight that aquatic vegetation needs to survive. Coral reefs that had been decimated by poor water quality and high-water temperatures now also face an epidemic of stony coral tissue loss disease. Harmful algae blooms have become commonplace in the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Okeechobee, and other waterways.

This panel brings together thought leaders in tourism and resource management from government, NGOs, and the private sector to share their experience with nature-based tourism during the covid-19 pandemic, and their perspective for the future of nature-based tourism in the state.

Return to the Coastal Vision Page