de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Birding Blues. LMD. September 2009. Page 143. Volume 16, Issue 2. ISSN 1391-135X.
A clarification on how the nature market is vast, but the market for specialist tours is relatively small.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne clarifies the size of the nature based tourism pie
Anybody not paying close attention to my pronouncements on the size of the pie for nature based tourism could be forgiven for thinking that I am full of contradictions. On the one hand I stress that the market pool of birdwatchers alone in the UK is huge. Its even bigger when more loosely, the wider pool of nature and outdoor enthusiasts are considered. I have argued that the potential audience in the Western European markets with an interest in nature is huge. But yet at the same time I argue that the audience for a specialist tour operator handling bird watching tours is small. Not surprisingly people are confused. Well, make up your mind Gehan. Is bird watching big or is it small?
Let me first explain why it is big and then go on to explain why it is small. Take the United Kingdom for example. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has over one million members. The readership of the RSPB magazine is estimated at one and a half million people. Ian Wallace, a regular columnist in Bird Watching magazine wrote a book in 2004 titled ‘Beguiled by Birds’, which has some very interesting facts and figures. In his chapter on ‘The diversity of modern Birdwatchers’, he wrote that an estimated 5.5 million Britons are reported to watch birds occasionally.
Spring Watch was a weekly, televison nature program presented by famous birder Bill Oddie together with presenters Kate Humble and Simon King. In 2006, one of the Spring Watch broadcasts clashed with football mad England playing one of their qualifying matches in the World Cup. The audience dropped by 250,000. Nevertheless, 3.7 million people still tuned in to watch Spring Watch. So clearly there is an enormous audience in the UK with an appetite for nature.
In the Netherlands, the local branch of the WWF and the Dutch bird conservation organization Vogelbescherming have nearly a million members each. It is easier to gain a quantitative measure in the UK and Netherlands because they have had organisations which have engaged in ambitious campaigns for members. But I suspect the appetite for nature is similar across much of Western Europe judging by the nature based content in magazines sold on the high street. Furthermore, some of the high street magazines are dedicated nature magazines. Across the pond in the USA, a similar pattern is seen. There are a vast number of Audubon Clubs catering to birdwatchers. It is estimated that 65 million Americans have some degree of interest in watching birds, although the majority of this statistic are unlikely to qualify as serious bird watchers. But clearly in the developed economies of the West, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts are a big market.
For anyone running an eco lodge in Asia or Africa, there is clearly a huge audience which can be tapped. There is a large market out there of people with an interest in nature who will be prepared to spend a few days in an eco lodge or hotel set in or close to a beautiful wilderness setting and rich in wildlife.
But then having painted a picture of enormous number of birdwatchers, why would I argue that a bird watching tour company has a limited market? The answer lies in the fact although birdwatchers number in the millions in Europe, birdwatchers who take dedicated bird watching holidays is less than one percent of this figure. Ian Wallace in his book estimated that only around 10,000 Britons took dedicated bird watching holidays. Understanding this is not difficult. When people are earning well enough to afford a dedicated bird watching holidays, they are likely to have a partner and or children. It is very unlikely that the whole family is going to enjoy a dedicated bird watching holiday. As a result they are more likely to opt for a general holiday with a mix of culture, nature, beach, etc thrown in with a few nights at a national park for the birder in the family to see some birds and other wildlife. A very good example of this phenomenon is myself. There is no doubt that I am a serious birder who would enjoy a dedicated bird watching holiday. But I doubt whether I would ever take a 14 day birding tour as my wife and children would hate it. Even when the children are grown up, I still would not be able to do it because my wife would not like it. Plan B would be to go on safari to Africa which can be enjoyed by all because of the big game whilst I tick off a few more African birds I have not seen.
So the bottom line is that for a destination like Sri Lanka and for its hoteliers, the birdwatchers alone are a significant audience and the total nature tourism market is enormous. Tanzania makes USD 2 billion a year from wildlife tourism. However, if you are running dedicated birding holidays, the potential audience is quite small. Sri Lankan companies which use a specialist subsidiary to manufacture the publicity and stories to act as a feeder for the larger market which can be funnelled into its hotels can make use of the expertise required for the small market to harvest the big market. Sometimes you have to focus on the trees to see the wood.