Madagascar reopens national parks shuttered by COVID-19

  • On Sept. 5, Madagascar began reopening all its national parks. They’d been closed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The pandemic has been devastating for local economies, which depend heavily on tourism.
  • Madagascar authorities also announced further easing of restrictions throughout much of the island nation and the resumption of limited international flights.

ANALAMAZAOTRA NATIONAL PARK, Madagascar — Hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Madagascar’s tourism industry took its first step toward recovery. On Sept. 5, the quasi-governmental agency Madagascar National Parks (MNP) reopened all 43 protected areas under its direct responsibility. The government authorized the reopening of all natural areas and cultural sites starting the following day.

Government representatives and members of the tourism sector attended a reopening ceremony Sept. 5 outside MNP’s local office and visitors’ center at Analamazaotra National Park in east-central Madagascar, one of the country’s flagship parks. The reopening came as a relief to members of the local community, who rely on tourists for income, after months of hardship in their absence.

“If I could organize a dance party right now, I would do it,” Christin Nasoavina, head of a 110-member association of local guides, told Mongabay just after the ceremony. “The last time I accompanied tourists inside the park dates back to March 15.”

Christin Nasoavina, a guide at Analamazaotra National Park, says he is delighted by the prospect of getting back to work shortly after the park’s reopening ceremony on Sept. 5. Image by Rivonala Razafison.

To visit the parks, nature lovers are required to comply with health protocols: They are forbidden from touching animals, and must maintain social distancing and wear face masks for the duration of their visit. The number of tourists per guide is limited to four, down from eight previously, and groups must keep 10 meters (33 feet) apart. Visitors must undergo health screening and supply their contact information to enable tracing, and MNP is supposed to reach out after their visit to check if they’ve remained healthy.

The protected areas MNP manages represent just over one-third of the country’s nearly 7 million hectares (17.3 million acres) under protection. In 2019 MNP parks attracted 229,970 visitors and generated  $1.84 million in entrance fees, not to mention additional revenue to local people in guides’ fees, accommodation, meals, transportation, and the like.

Visitors vanished from the country after March 20, when the government imposed a heath state of emergency in an attempt to halt the virus’s spread. Madagascar stopped international flights and imposed lockdowns on major cities, including Antananarivo, Toamasina and Fianarantsoa, and later on the regions surrounding them. The main roads closed to travelers, isolating settlements that depend on towns for their essential needs. Restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, and other gathering places closed. As of Sept. 17, the virus had infected 15,925 individuals in Madagascar and killed 216, according to government figures.

Just a few passersby walk down a street in the town of Andasibe that is normally crowded during the high tourist season. Andasibe’s economy depends on tourists visiting Analamazaotra National Park and nearby Mantadia National Park, which recently reopened after more than five months closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Image by Rivonala Razafison.

Outside protected areas, tourism is vital for local communities throughout the impoverished country, one of the poorest in the world. “Around 90% of the local economy is linked to tourism. Many inhabitants, estimated at 14,000, rely on visitors’ arrival for their income,” said José Claude Solomamiarivony, deputy mayor of the town of Andasibe, just outside Analamazaotra National Park.

Nivoarisoa Razafimahatratra, a widow, has been selling food to national and foreign tourists at a stall in Andasibe for years. She told Mongabay she struggles to even sell one-quarter the volume of food she did before the pandemic. “We’ve awaited the park’s reopening for months,” she said. “ Hopefully the tourists’ comeback will make a difference quickly.”

Nivoarisoa Razafimahatratra at her food stall in the village of Andasibe. With no tourists, she estimates she lost at least three-quarters of her business during the coronavirus pandemic. Image by Rivonala Razafison.

Park guides are among those hard hit by the absence of tourists. “Many of them had to embrace new jobs. Some became charcoal producers,” said Solomamiarivony, who said they were legally cutting eucalyptus trees in plantations to make charcoal, not illegally cutting natural rainforest.

“I experienced the 2002 and 2009 crises,” said Nasoavina, the guide association head, referring to political upheaval in 2002 and a coup d’état in 2009 during which tourism tanked and he turned to cultivating vegetables to survive. “But I think this one is the most devastating.”

The country’s National Federation of Guides estimates that around $5 million in guiding revenue would be lost in 2020 if the pandemic-induced restrictions were to continue. In June, the group predicted the losses would top out at $2.7 million if tourism were to resume in September, the peak of Madagascar’s tourist season.

An Indri or babakoto (Indri indri), the largest species of lemur and one of the charismatic animals that draw visitors from around the world to Analamazoatra National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
An Indri or babakoto (Indri indri), the largest species of lemur and one of the charismatic animals that draw visitors from around the world to Analamazaotra National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Even with the parks reopening, the effects of the health crisis will reverberate for a long time. In Andasibe, five investors betting on the growth of local tourism, which is driven by the national parks, spent huge sums to construct new hotels. They had to suspend the work because of the pandemic.

MNP, for its part, has to reduce its personnel. “We have to dismiss some employees,” Mamy Rakotoarijaona, MNP’s director-general, said during a meeting held after the reopening ceremony. “Even if there were no crisis, our annual revenue is not enough to cover our expenses.”

Mamy Rakotoarijaona, director-general of Madagascar National Parks, shows a map of fires detected around Analamazaotra National Park. Widespread economic difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic have led to an uptick in threats to Madagascar’s protected areas. Image by Rivonala Razafison.
Marcel Rakotomandimby, a Madagascar National Parks agent, says staff took care of Analamazaotra National Park during recent lockdowns to halt the spread of the coronavirus, and it escaped some of the threats that other parks in the country have suffered. Image by Rivonala Razafison.

Analamazaotra National Park and nearby Mantadia National Park experienced less pressure during the lockdowns than other protected areas in Madagascar. With tourists and park managers forced to stay home and local people under even greater economic duress than usual, a number of them suffered heavy illegal logging, hunting, and fires. “Night and day, we constantly took care of the park during these long months of closure, like physicians did with their patients,” Marcel Rakotomandimby, an MNP agent at Analamazaotra, told Mongabay.

The day after the reopening ceremony, on Sept. 6, President Andry Rajoelina announced a series of additional measures significantly easing restrictions across the country and restoring the tourist economy. Museums, restaurants, bars and nightclubs could resume business and the main roads, except for those connecting the northern regions where coronavirus cases remain high, could reopen by mid-September, which they have now done.

Madagascar National Parks office and visitors center at Analamazaotra National Park. Image by Rivonala Razafison.

The president also said international flights will resume to the tourist destination of Nosy Be in the northwest starting in early October, and that his team is considering reopening the country’s main international airports before the year’s end. Domestic flights resumed in early September.

Madagascar’s parks won’t be able to resume business as usual until all those airplanes start landing. That’s true even in the Beampingaratsy protected area in southeastern Madagascar where the lockdowns had minimal impact because the site admits only researchers, not tourists, according to Tovondriaka Rakotobe, the national representative of the France-based NGO Nitidae, which manages the site. “Their comeback awaits the resumption of the international flights,” he told Mongabay.

A park staffer welcomes a visitor to Analamazaotra National Park on the morning of Sept. 5. The park had been closed since March as part of Madagascar’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. Image by Rivonala Razafison.

Banner image: A visitor undergoes health screening before entering Analamazaotra National Park in east-central Madagascar on reopening day, Sept. 5. Image by Rivonala Razafison.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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