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The Silver Lining to Staying Home This Past Year? The Planet Got a Chance to Heal

The past year has been tough, but there's definitely been a bright side to spending so much time at home.

Written by
Erika Schwerdfeger

Profit isn't the only thing a thriving tourism industry generates in some of the world’s most popular travel destinations. The environmental costs incurred by tourism can be incredibly damaging, with habitat degradation, pollution, and overexploitation of natural resources being just a few side effects. 

While it might not seem like there are that many good things to come out of the global pandemic (aside from nap dresses, a new love of baked feta pasta, and the chance to stream everything Netflix has to offer), all this time spent at home has been great for the environment and wildlife.

In the United States, greenhouse gas emissions dropped more than 10 percent in 2020. Worldwide, they fell by 6.4 percent. As for wildlife, we can't say biodiversity exploded and landscapes rebounded overnight. But there have been many advantages to decreased human activity.

In the early days of lockdown, a slew of photographs depicting everything from wild boars wandering the streets of Haifa to nonchalant sheep and goats roaming highway-side in Istanbul. Photos of animals taking to newly-deserted streets worldwide—whether coaxed by confidence or curiosity—enticed viewers around the world eager for uplifting news. 

Not-so-wild wildlife wasn’t the only striking sight of early quarantine, either. In Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, photos of blue skies unobscured by smog became something of a silver lining to residents accustomed to toxic levels of pollutants in the air. Steep declines in vehicle emissions and pollution-generating processes, like factory and construction activity, were all contributors to air qualities fresher than the metropolis had habitually seen in decades. Bangkok, Beijing, and other cities reported similar trends amid strict lockdowns. 

In Venice, which normally sees between 20 and 30 million visitors annually, the formerly murky water of the city’s famed canals ran clear for the first time in years, as water traffic dropped dramatically. And although the viral photos you may have seen of dolphins in the canals have since been debunked as falsely attributed (they were actually in Sardinia, Italy), cormorants diving into the water to catch fish are no longer a sight unknown. 

Complaints about the “tourism monoculture” that plagues many popular destinations had reached a high in Venice before 2020. Now, many Venetian locals and city leaders are hoping to seize the opportunity to revamp policies surrounding travel and tourism in the area, aiming to make it less taxing on the local environment and less overwhelming to residents.

Halfway across the world, many residents of the Hawaiian islands have expressed the same sentiment, and have already taken measures aimed at addressing tourism-induced stressors on the islands’ natural landscapes. Such stressors range from litter scattered around the popular Diamond Head State Monument on Oahu, to the loss of biodiversity in Hawaiian rainforests and marine ecosystems. 

With Hawaii documenting jaw-dropping rates of visitors every year, the unforeseen respite afforded by the pandemic has allowed some island dwellers—including conservation groups and government officials—to commence projects that rethink the prioritization of tourist dollars. Visitation price hikes, reservation systems, and changes to transportation infrastructure around heavily touristed sites are some of the efforts that Hawaii’s Division of State Parks is contemplating, or has already enacted. 

Newly-imposed visitor limits and reservation requirements at Kauai’s Hāʻena State Park, as well as entry and parking fees for non-Hawaii residents visiting Waiʻānapana State Park on Maui, are measures designed to reduce visitor footprint on any given day. That also lessens the impact on local communities, who are often at the mercy of tourist-driven traffic and price increases. 

While we won't know the outcomes of these projects until visitation levels rise once more, some areas have already seen revitalizing effects. Albania’s Narta Lagoon has seen an influx of thousands of pink flamingos, whose migratory paths take them along the country’s Adriatic coast. Park authorities say the flock’s numbers had increased by nearly a third within a period of just four months last spring.

North of Narta Lagoon, a growing crop of Dalmatian pelicans has been observed forming mating pairs and nesting, in what conservationists hope will prove a boon to the growth of this vulnerable species. See? Spending time at home isn't so bad after all.