Tourism is the third largest export industry in the world after chemicals and fuels. Travelling brings hope, prosperity and understanding to many people all over the world. In 2017, more than 1.2 billion travellers crossed international borders. By 2030, up to 1.8 billion are expected to travel in a single year. As a result, travel and tourism create jobs for over 320 million people and generate 10.4 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product. But that’s not all: tourism is also one of most talked-about components of an effective wildlife economy.

This World Tourism Day, we look at how to enable this powerful global transformative force to contribute to preserving and enriching the environment, rather than causing its destruction.

Despite the industry’s potential, tourism has also been used unknowingly—at times deliberately—used to facilitate the purchase and trade of illegal wildlife products. Exotic holidays are popular, but so is bringing back souvenirs to remember them. Unfortunately, these souvenirs are often made from illegal animal and plant products. Ivory, turtle and tortoise shell, coral, feathers and many more wildlife products, dead or alive, are popular souvenirs for the millions of tourists who travel abroad each year.

At least 33,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory—that’s roughly one in every 12 elephants. Although most responsible travellers know about the threat facing elephants and would not purchase ivory, dealers have become aware of this and describe their products as “antique”. Similarly, rhino horn is reportedly worth more than gold or platinum on the international black market, which is why trafficking is on the rise.

Demand for the rare has fuelled an international poaching and trafficking crisis that is threatening the survival of some of the world’s most iconic species and travel destinations. The illegal trade in wildlife is the fourth largest criminal activity after drugs, arms and human trafficking, robbing countries of billions of dollars of their precious natural resources.

Nature-based destinations, including Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and others, are starting to limit tourism and increase sustainable tourism practices, due to its adverse environmental impacts. According to the World Bank, nature-based tourism is growing significantly. In 2017, international tourist arrivals in Africa are estimated to have increased by 9 per cent to 63 million visitors, leading to an 8 per cent increase in revenue, representing US$37 billion.

Consequently, tourism stands to be a huge source for both the protection and threat to endangered wildlife and delicate habitats. The industry must come together to mainstream sustainable wildlife tourism and play a larger role through regulation and awareness amongst its customers.

Since recognizing the potential of the travel and tourism sector to create positive change, in 2018 over 100 companies have come together through the World Travel and Tourism Council to sign the Buenos Aires Travel and Tourism Declaration on Illegal Trade in Wildlife, a commitment to take a stand against wildlife trafficking. Signatories to the Declaration have agreed to “adopt or encourage the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy regarding illegal trade in wildlife”. Since many companies and organizations in the travel and tourism industry share common destinations, travellers, and suppliers, adopting a harmonized policy will help amplify the global impact.

Illegal wildlife souvenirs are difficult to identify, and it is virtually impossible to differentiate between them and sustainably sourced products. Nonetheless, as we celebrate World Tourism Day and ahead of World Wildlife Day 2020, we must think about how we can become responsible travellers and thoughtful, informed consumers.

There are several steps one can take in order to avoid supporting the illegal trade of wildlife products. As consumers, we should ask what the products are made of, where they came from and if it is legal to export them; though seasoned travelers know that scams are prevalent wherever there are tourists.

One can support and promote local craftspeople and their traditions by investing in souvenirs handmade by local artisans. If one suspects or sees any selling of wildlife products, it is important to speak up by going to the local police or inform your tour operator or agency. When taking part in wildlife tourism trips, help by making sure that the tour is conducted responsibly and respectfully towards the wild animals and plants you are paying hard earned money to go and see. They are what make many of these places so special.

At this year’s UN General Assembly, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Travel and Tourism Council to cooperate on sustainable tourism, plastics and wildlife conservation.

Get informed by visiting UNEP’s Wild for Life website to learn more about how species are used in illegal wildlife trade.