How the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Make Us More Responsible Travelers

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins—who has worked tirelessly to conserve the wild lands of Patagonia—encourages travelers to become better custodians of the places they visit in a post-COVID-19 world.

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Make Us More Responsible Travelers

Local gauchos take visitors into the wetlands using horse-drawn canoes in Iberá National Park, Argentina.

Photo by Beth Wald

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins was finishing a three-month stint checking up on her various rewilding initiatives in Patagonia National Park when the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down Chile’s borders in late March.

Tompkins, the cofounder of Tompkins Conservation, took one of the last flights out of Chile that month, but her conservation work hasn’t slowed.

From her family’s ranch in Southern California, she’s been working harder than ever to ensure that all her conservation projects in South America—which range from jaguar reintroduction in Argentina to marine conservation—continue to move forward. She’s also using her time in quarantine to remind the world that the fate of humankind is connected to the health of the planet. “It’s a moral imperative that every single one of us steps up to reimagine our place in the circle of life,” Tompkins said in a TED Talk that she delivered from her living room on May 26. “Not in the center, but as part of the whole. We need to remember that what we do reflects who we choose to be. Let’s create a civilization that honors the intrinsic value of all life.”

Tompkins, the former CEO of the outdoor brand Patagonia, started Tompkins Conservation with her late husband, Doug Tompkins, in 1992 to conserve and rewild large tracts of land in Chile and Argentina. And since her husband’s passing in 2015, Tompkins has only deepened her commitment. In 2018, Tompkins Conservation gave 1 million acres to Chile’s national park system, the largest private land donation in history.

We caught up with Tompkins, an AFAR Travel Vanguard winner, to talk about rewilding, the concerns and opportunities that she sees ahead, and what travelers can do to become better custodians of the planet.

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the cofounder of Conservation International, stands on the shores of Lago Llanquihue, Chile’s second largest lake.

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the cofounder of Conservation International, stands on the shores of Lago Llanquihue, Chile’s second largest lake.

Photo by George Steinmetz

What is the message of your TED Talk?
I don’t think my message has changed much over the years. Basically, when you look at something like COVID-19, or certainly the bigger issue rolling in after this—climate change—you do not have the luxury of ignoring it anymore. The cacophony of events taking place is a reflection of what’s happening down in the ecosystem and the Earth’s ability to put up with how we’re living.

What can COVID-19 teach us about being better custodians of the planet?
We’re living in a world where our lack of recognition regarding our relationship to nature is the undoing of us. So to be standing on the sidelines while all of this plays out is the last place on Earth you should be as a person. If COVID-19 doesn’t teach us that, then nobody’s listening—which has generally been the case. Because if you listen, and you really think about what’s going on and what the root cause of things are, it requires you to change your lifestyle, and none of us like to do that. For those of us who survive [the pandemic]—and that will be the vast majority—this is your opportunity to look at where you are, and where you’re going, with new eyes. And hopefully more complete eyes.

How can we as travelers work to change our mindset?
People should be traveling, but they should become much more plugged into where they are, what they’re seeing, and not just skim the cream off the top of where they’re going. If you really love that place, or if you met people there who moved you, be engaged. Think about how you could give something back, however small, to that community or that area.

Tania, a jaguar in captivity, gave birth to the first two cubs born in Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands in 70 years.

Tania, a jaguar in captivity, gave birth to the first two cubs born in Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands in 70 years.

Photo by Raphael Abuin

What are some ways that travelers can give back to the places they visit?
People should be actively asking, how does this happen that I can have these experiences? Who is saving Patagonia? And connect their philanthropy directly to their joy. They’re not separate. Take responsibility for the things that you have found you really love. And without question, go with the right people. Figure out who they are, whether it’s Patagonia or anywhere else. You might go to Africa and visit one of the parks managed by African Parks. You go there and say, this is fabulous: I saw seven elephants this morning. Then you should say OK, African Parks, what do you need? How can I contribute? They’re better at doing that than most.

What makes Patagonia such a special place for you?
It’s wild. And it’s huge. I’m from the West in the United States and it still feels huge. And when you go there the first time, you don’t really understand what you’re looking at, as is always the case. The grasslands were actually hammered by a century of overgrazing, but at the time you don’t know any of that. And there’s a lot of mythology in Patagonia. So whether you see it with your own eyes or through somebody else’s eyes, it sticks with you.

And then Doug and I just wanted to leave business to work on conservation. We loved the Southern Cone, so that’s where we got started.

How much of an impact has the tourism shutdown caused by the pandemic had on the region?
In Chile, the national parks are in a different stage of evolution than U.S. parks, which are massively visited. You don’t have that incredible influx of tourists there like you do in Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. But will it have an impact? Absolutely. Chile and Argentina are planning with the assumption that foreign visitors will be few, and internal visitors will be driving around the country for their holiday, getting to know their own country, when usually they fly to Miami or someplace outside of the region.

Trekkers cross a fjord in Patagonia National Park, Chile.

Trekkers cross a fjord in Patagonia National Park, Chile.

Photo by Gabe DeWitt/Courtesy of Chulengo Expeditions

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your conservation work in Chile and Argentina?
Our actual conservation work has not really been heavily affected. We have a big rewilding program in Chile and Argentina: giant anteaters in Argentina; the Darwin’s rheas in Chilean Patagonia; macaws that haven’t been in Argentina for 100 years; all the way up to jaguars in Argentina—all of that keeps going.

What are the long-term goals for your work in Patagonia?
We hope to double the work we’ve already been doing, and we hope to expand that way out into coastal regions and marine conservation areas. We’re very keen to keep going and turn up the heat. We’ve done two large marine parks in the Atlantic. But now we’re going to expand that kind of work. I’m going to turn 70 next month and I want to work faster, farther, harder. I don’t want to lose any time.

Plan Your Trip
For the latest information on travel restrictions and border closures, check with the U.S. State Department website for the latest information. U.K.-based Pura Aventura has an itinerary that covers parts of the Route of Parks, a 1,700-mile scenic route in Chile, and will start visiting Iberá National Park soon. Mt Sobek and female-owned Chulengo Expeditions, led by a former Tompkins Conservation staffer and guide, offer the popular Aviles trek in Patagonia National Park. For a full list of small, reputable local operators who will need a lot of support to survive in the wake of COVID-19, visit the Route of Parks website.

>>Next: Why You Should Put Patagonia on Your Travel Bucket List

Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.
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