Today’s Solutions: February 08, 2023

Alaska is world-renowned in specific tourism sectors—namely those related to rail, ship, and cruise lines. However, there is a thrumming ecotourism industry that has been overlooked: birdwatching.

Back in 2019, the US was home to 12.82 million birdwatchers. In 2020 this number jumped to approximately 15.23 million reports Statista. Not only is this great news for birders, who, as a result of this pastime get many physical and mental health benefits, but also for the environment.

In Alaska, which according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is home to almost 500 bird species, the influx of birdwatchers every year means a strong incentive for habitat conservation.

While economic gain and environmental protection are often at odds with one another, a new study by researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and Audubon Alaska demonstrates how keeping Alaska’s singular and irreplaceable habitats intact leads to well-distributed economic opportunities.

While independent tourists on cruise ships or trains do generate a lot of income for the state, these guests tend to stay for short times and are concentrated in certain areas.

The study reveals that almost 300,000 birdwatchers came to Alaska in 2016, spending a total of around $378 million. Birdwatching tourists are more likely to stay for longer, go to more remote locations than their cruise ship counterparts, and spend more, all while being respectful of the surrounding nature as it is crucial to keep habitats intact if they want to catch a glimpse of the elusive birds they seek. 

This means that the revenue benefits rural communities that wouldn’t often see tourism from other industries and that governing bodies have serious financial incentives to protect wildlife.

“The study gives us a glimpse of how diverse our state’s tourism is and can be in the future, as well as how intertwined our communities are with visitors in the shared experience of marveling at the wonder of birds,” says Natalie Dawson, formerly of Audubon Alaska, who initiated the research.

With birders on the rise, the state will be hosting even more birdwatching expeditions and focusing on more bird-centered tourism. As Audubon Alaska’s intermix executive director and director of conservation David Krause say in a press release from UAF, the study uncovers “an exciting place of opportunity that protects irreplaceable and fragile ecosystems while supporting jobs.”

Source study: PLOS ONE—Small sight—Big might: Economic impact of bird tourism shows opportunities for rural communities and biodiversity conservation

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