Lockdown-weary Europeans have sought out nature in record-breaking numbers this year, putting sudden and substantial pressure on national parks and other natural areas across the continent, according to a report by the New York Times.
“You could see this increase in irresponsible behavior, and in a lot of parks it felt like this was out of control,” said Nikoleta Jones, a principal research associate at the University of Cambridge and an author of a recent study of the pandemic’s effect on protected areas in Europe. “The resources they had were not enough. It was just so much more than what they had experienced in the past.”
A telling episode occurred in Germany in November, not long after the country had gone into a partial lockdown. Three young adults went on a day trip to the Bavarian Forest National Park, 60,000 acres of woodlands, bogs and boulder fields about an hour’s drive from their home in Straubing. As they neared the end of their hike, a young man in the group realized that he had left behind his smartphone. The sun was low on the horizon, but they all turned around to look for it — and ended up lost in the dark, and very cold.
“It was a marked trail, but they were disoriented and they did not have the right clothing,” said Teresa Schreib, the park’s manager of regional development and tourism. The local police and mountain rescue service mounted a search and found the hikers just before midnight, a local news outlet reported. They were taken to a hospital for hypothermia.
The incident was typical, Schreib said, of what the park’s employees had seen since the pandemic hit: a new crowd of people — many of them young city dwellers — visiting for the first time, and often unprepared and uninformed. It was, she said, a challenge to manage all of these new visitors, some of whom were aggressive toward rangers and other guests, while also allowing for social distancing and protecting the health of the park’s small staff.
If the trend of nature-seeking tourism persists after the pandemic — and there’s evidence that it will — then experts say the continent’s protected areas will require a significant increase in investment to deal with a surge in nature-based tourism that could bring jobs and income into Europe’s rural areas, which have been steadily emptying out for more than half a century. The trick will be accommodating all of those visitors sustainably — and finding a way to finance the work.