By Rachel Nuwer
New York Times news story
A growing number of people around the world are choosing to spend vacations and weekends in nature. But until recently no one had ever tried to quantify just how many visit protected areas each year.
A few countries — like the United States, the United Kingdom and Chile — keep meticulous statistics on park visitations. Most others lack a central database tracking how many people visit forests, seashores and wetlands.
Now, a team of British and American researchers has filled in the gap, providing what they say is the first global estimate of annual visits to protected areas.
They complied data from more than 550 protected areas collected from 1998 to 2007. All of the sites were larger than about 25 acres, and they were located on every continent except Antarctica. Protected marine areas were not included.
Using this data, the team built a computer model that extrapolated visitation rates for more than 94,000 protected areas around the world, taking into account such variables as a site’s remoteness and beauty, the number of people living nearby, and the national income.
According to the team’s calculations, reported in PLoS Biology, protected areas receive roughly eight billion visits each year. More than 80 percent over the last decade took place in North America and Europe.
The researchers point out, however, that protected areas around the world are seeing increasing numbers of domestic tourists, especially in countries like China and India.
The team also estimated how much money people spend annually in protected areas. Their rough estimate: $600 billion.
“That’s not climate regulation, flood control, pollination or any of the many other ecosystem services protected areas generate,” said Andrew Balmford, a conservation scientist at the University of Cambridge. “That’s just nature-related tourism.”
In contrast, he said, we spend less than $10 billion annually on supporting natural sites around the world — a 60 to 1 ratio.
“When asked why protected areas aren’t succeeding in safeguarding their contents, managers will consistently tell you about lack of money and resources,” Dr. Balmford said. “There’s a strong economic argument that it would probably make good sense to invest more in these places.”