A study published last week in the journal PLOS Biology has found that national parks and nature preserves (protected areas, or PAs, as the study labels them) bring in much more money than governments spend on them for conservation. According to the study, titled “Walk on the Wild Side: Estimating the Global Magnitude of Visits to Protected Areas,” more than 8 billion annual visitors bring in an estimated $600 billion in tourism revenue, while only $10 billion is spent on maintaining the protected areas.
The study authors examined visitor records from 556 parks across 51 countries from 1998 to 2007 to gauge the economic impact of visits. They then used models to extrapolate the numbers for the world’s 94,238 protected sites, omitting Antarctica, ocean preserves, very small sites, and those that don’t welcome tourists. Europe and North America had the most estimated visits (3.8 billion and 3.3 billion per year, respectively).
The study cites other research indicating that North American visits alone amount to at least $350 billion a year. That’s more than 35 times the worldwide total of less than $10 billion spent each year to safeguard protected areas, a number “which is widely regarded as grossly insufficient,” the study authors write. “Even without considering the many other benefits which PAs provide, our estimates of the economic impact and value of PA visitation dwarf current expenditure—highlighting the risks of underinvestment in conservation, and suggesting substantially increased investments in protected area maintenance and expansion would yield substantial returns.”
Outside reported in January that federally protected areas in the United States generate billions of dollars in tourism revenue each year.
Robin Naidoo, the World Wildlife Fund’s senior conservation scientist and a contributor to the study, told CNN that the dollar value still doesn’t determine the total worth of protected areas. “Even with the multibillion dollar value, this is a vast underestimate of the total economic value of these parks, as it does not account for the myriad ecosystem services that they collectively provide,” he said.
According to the study’s estimates, Golden Gate National Recreation Area brings in the most visits in North America (and globally) with 14.4 million each year, and the UK’s Lake District tops Europe with 10.5 million visitors annually.