Europe is slowly comes out of lockdown, and the wildlife tour operators that feature on Blue Sky Wildlife are putting measures in place. They are following their governments’ guidelines to ensure the safety of their guests and changing the way they run trips.
Nature lovers are finally being able to spend time watching wildlife outside of their own gardens and terraces, following weeks of restricted movement and social distancing all over Europe.
The wildlife tour industry has been hard hit by the long period of inactivity. It’s now gearing up to provide its guests with a safe environment in which to enjoy guided wildlife trips again. Guesthouses are being prepared and tours tailored to give the safest and best experience.
The world has changed since COVID-19 became part of our daily lives. But nature continues in its own ways and has even benefitted from the lack of human activity and the lessening of pollution.
On the other hand, isolation has taken its toll on the mental health of many people. Getting outdoors, taking in the natural world, is now an important part of returning to normal. However, the last thing anyone wants is to do something that might risk creating a second peak in infections. So how can you combine a health-giving experience and enjoyable hobby with preventing the spread of coronavirus?
Lifting travel restrictions
A number of countries in Europe are starting to allow people to leave their homes to socialise and travel. Ruth Miller from Birdwatching Trips in North Wales, UK, says their business is currently focussed on exclusive, very small group tours in Britain. She says upping the level of personal communication with their guests to answer queries, reassure and address concerns before a tour is important.
“We’re focusing on UK tours until travellers regain confidence to travel further,” says Ruth. “We already run only very small group tours and we will continue with this exclusive small-group approach.”
Photo credit: K’ Nature, Ventotene Island, Italy
Valerio Russo of K’ Nature, a wildlife tour operator in Italy, is similarly going to be concentrating on his home patch for now. “Unfortunately, we are still unable to say when we will be able to lead nature expeditions to Andalusia, Greece and many other countries,” he says. “Nevertheless, we are lucky to have places of equal beauty and naturalistic value just a few steps from home.
“After a long period of stoppage, during which we devoted ourselves to smart working and bird watching from home, we are excited to be able to start organising day trips to discover the natural wonders that surround us!
“We have been testing out some urban trekking and birdwatching routes in a city environment in the weeks leading up to the full relaxation of the lockdown. Photographic tours to nearby mountain ranges is something else we have been trying out. And we have been imagining how we will arrange our excursions.
“Fortunately for us, the vast majority of K’ Nature activities take place outdoors. They never involve large groups of participants, in order to reduce the disturbance of the fauna and maximise our guests’ sightings.”
As both these wildlife tour operators say, even more than before the pandemic companies across Europe are likely to be concentrating on small group experiences.
The new normal for wildlife tour operators
Richard Baines of Yorkshire Coast Nature in the UK sums up what he feels will become the norm for wildlife tour operators such as himself. “We believe strongly in the small group wildlife experience,” he says. “Moving forward into a post-pandemic world these types of trips may not only be the safest but also where clients are more relaxed and able to enjoy the trip without concern.
“We are lucky all our trips are based in the great outdoors where the risk is lower, but we usually include group transport. This may be the one element that we need to pause, and ask clients to follow in their own vehicles until we are truly beyond the risk.”
Photo credit: Steve Race, Yorkshire Coast Nature, Northern Gannets
This approach may be necessary but, as Richard says, is not without its down side. “Clients using their own transport may mean more vehicle emissions and a reduced service to those who need us most. Our transport has been invaluable to many people who cannot walk very far and love to see wildlife. So it would be very sad to take this service away permanently. We are determined to work on a tourism model that provides a safe and confident structure. We want everyone to enjoy wildlife not only away from their home area but also close to home.”
In the meantime, much of Yorkshire Coast Nature’s business, as with other wildlife tour operators around Europe, has had to be postponed until later in 2020 or even into 2021. It is a measure of the loyalty shown by wildlife enthusiasts to their favourite guides that their clients have not abandoned them.
“Here at YCN we made the quick decision to postpone all our trips in spring 2020 as soon as the COVID-19 restrictions came into place,” says Richard. “We quickly replaced many tour dates with new ones later this year or in 2021.
“Almost 100% of our pre-booked clients responded brilliantly and transferred their bookings alongside emails of support. We were very heartened by this response. It made a massive difference to our business when our clients said they loved our product so much they were willing to wait beyond a pandemic!”
The Spanish model for wildlife tour operators
In Spain the lockdown was tough and the recovery of wildlife watching tours is being governed by some strict protocols and recommendations. These have been given by the Spanish Institute for Tourist Quality (ICTE). They focus on the subject of active tourism and ecotourism, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martin Kelsey of the wildlife our operator Birding Extremadura outlines what these guidelines have meant for his guesthouse and his guided birding tours.
“Our tours are exclusive and private. This means that with one specific guide guests will not be sharing the days in the field with anyone else. We know that this is the best way to experience nature in our area safely.
Photo credit: Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura, Extremadura Plains
“At Birding Extremadura we are strictly following the Spanish government’s protocols for reducing COVID-19 contagion, both at our guest house and in the field. So guests can be confident that we are offering nature holidays in this part of Spain that are safe and secure.
“At the house, hand sanitiser gel, tissues and disposal containers are available at both the entrance to the establishment and the dining room. Guests are requested to disinfect outdoor shoes and remove them as they enter the house.
“Check-in registration is done using an App, no pens required, and room keys are disinfected. The dining room has a layout to allow social distancing and all meals, including breakfasts, are served at the table.
“We have a thermometer in the First Aid kit to check the temperature of anyone feeling unwell and a protocol is in place to follow-up anyone showing symptoms of Covid-19.
“On guided field excursions the use of face masks is obligatory. Hand sanitiser, gloves and wipes are available. To ensure social distancing, the middle seats of vehicles are not used and rotation between seats is not allowed during the day.
”At the end of the day the vehicle is disinfected using permitted products. Binoculars are not shared and the telescope eyepiece ring and focusing wheel is disinfected before and after each individual use if that equipment is shared.”
Photo credit: Sergio González Asián, Living Donana, Iberian Lynx
Upping the safety equipment
These stringent measures are common to other Spanish wildlife tour operators. Sergio González Asián from Living Doñana in southern Spain reveals what precautions his company is putting in place.
“Clients and guides are provided with disposable masks, gloves, hydro-alcoholic gel, disinfecting wipes and a specific container in which to deposit this material once used. The use of masks is mandatory during any transfer in our vehicles even when not travelling with other passengers.
“The minimum safety distance between clients must be maintained both in the means of transport and in common areas of hotels and rural houses. This also applies during activities in the countryside.
“In general and weather permitting, checking in and the allocation of rooms and keys will take place in an area outside the establishment. We will do this in a staggered manner to avoid crowding in common areas with other guests.
“To further help with social distancing, our vehicles display basic instructions on hygiene and spacing between travellers. And we leave the central seats in our five- and nine-seater vehicles unoccupied and ask each guest to stick to the same seat throughout their tour.
“The size of our groups is limited to five people plus a specialist guide when travelling in a nine-seater, with the possibility of incorporating a maximum of three other travellers if they are using their own vehicles.
“We ask tour guides and guests to avoid any physical greeting. Also not to share water bottles and other travel items such as sunscreen creams or insect repellents. The lending of binoculars is also discouraged. The guides have disinfectant materials to apply to the eyepieces and focus wheels of ground-based telescopes before guests use them.”
Providing the best all-round wildlife tour experience
Inglorious Bustards in Andalucia has put in place similar arrangements in their vehicles. “We have been working hard to keep abreast of all current rules and procedures for safe working,” says Niki Williamson. “Though many of these common-sense procedures were already part of our trips, ensuring hygiene, safety and comfort for our guests. We now want to reassure guests that they can rely on a number of additional precautions specifically directed at avoiding virus contagion.
“Our vehicle is thoroughly cleaned between every outing – we ourselves are also thoroughly scrubbed between outings! Our group sizes are limited to guarantee appropriate social distancing. Passenger numbers are limited to two per row of seats in our spacious, air-conditioned minibus. Plus a minimum distance of 2m between non-cohabiting participants must be maintained in the field.
Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Booted Eagle
“In situations where it is not possible to achieve appropriate social distancing we ask our guests to wear face masks. We encourage them to bring their own reusable masks to avoid using unnecessary disposable items.
“Any shared optical equipment, such as telescopes or loaned binoculars, are sanitised at regular intervals throughout the trip and between trips. Days are spent outside and away from crowded places. That’s the joy of nature-watching!
“As well as hand sanitiser, we have sourced bio-compostable gloves as part of our continued resolve and commitment to eliminate non-biodegradable waste from our trips.
“Any accommodation we use, or hostelry establishments visited, are known to us and trusted. We have verified that they are totally compliant with the Spanish lockdown-easing procedures.
“Our legendary picnic lunch is being provided as usual – hygienically prepared, served on disinfected reusable crockery to avoid plastic waste. It is stuffed full of locally sourced, sustainably produced and delicious ingredients!”
Wildlife tour operators looking on the bright side
Al Henderson from Ebro Delta Birding in northeast Spain also considers that providing delicious food for their guests safely is paramount. “Lunches during birding trips can be at restaurants (following the strict safety guidelines set by the Spanish government). Or, to ease any fears, we can provide packed lunches that can be eaten at fresh air picnic areas during the tour.”
Al’s area has possibly suffered less from the effects of the spread of coronavirus than other parts of Spain. He says: “Ebro Delta Birding is in a relatively fortunate position in Southern Catalonia in that we are being fast-tracked through the de-escalation of COVID-19 lockdown.
“The ‘Terres de l’Ebre’ region where we are located has suffered relatively few cases of coronavirus. The Ebro Delta Natural Park is a huge area of around 320 kms², and is a sparsely populated rural zone. So it’s unlikely that guests will come across other people and, if they do, it’s easy to maintain a safe distance.
Photo credit: Al Henderson, Ebro Delta Birding, Black Kite
“There are current travel restrictions between different regions in Spain, but two of our tours – the Ebro Delta Express and Ebro Delta Experience – are based solely in this area. The accommodation throughout the duration of these two tours is at our privately owned guesthouse in the countryside.
“One of the positives of the prolonged lockdown here is that the birds have had much more habitat to themselves and have been undisturbed for weeks. This has led to record-breaking numbers of flamingo pairs. Many varieties of birds are being spotted in areas closer to human habitation than where they have previously been observed.”
Changes in other parts of Europe
Restrictions are also being eased gradually in other parts of Europe, outside of Spain. And there are familiar measures being put in place for keeping guests safe. Frank McClintock of the wildlife tour operator Paradise in Portugal shares what coming out of lockdown means for his company and anyone staying at the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada. “At the moment we’re serving everyone their meals on their terraces and practising social distancing. Our main drawing room is “out of bounds” so that life can be lived without the need for masks while at the Quinta itself.
“Our boats and equipment are disinfected after every use. Birding outings are restricted to four people in a nine-seater. This is the maximum that is allowed by law at present, though this might well change by the time we get to September. It’s still very much a fluid situation with restrictions being lifted slowly and carefully.”
Photo credit: Andrei Prodan, Bunica Maria, Pelicans
Andrei Prodan of Bunica Maria also has the task of sanitising boats in Romania. “After every tour our boats are disinfected for our guests’ comfort and safety,” he says. “Bunica Maria aims to take care of its guests with special measures and some free benefits during this confusing time for everybody. We are offering single travellers a private table for eating and no single supplement for their stay. All laundry is professional washed, and dishes sanitised in our dishwasher. Our tours are all conducted in wide-open spaces, in boats and in small groups.”
Andrei goes on to sum up what might well be echoed by all of the Blue Sky Wildlife wildlife tour operators: “The pandemic has given us new challenges but the experience, and what has happened in nature during the lockdown, could ultimately be of great benefit not only to us but to the Earth.”
Looking after mental health
Ruth Miller of Birdwatching Trips says: “From our own experience as well as from the feedback we have had from previous guests during this pandemic, we know that contact with wildlife is even more important than ever. We want to share with people the benefit of engaging with birds and other wildlife first-hand.”
Niki Williamson of Inglorious Bustards agrees: “Now that travel restrictions are easing, the wide open spaces of the natural world will surely hold a great appeal for many travellers. Days spent outside and away from crowded places are part of the joy of nature-watching!
Photo credit: Ruth Miller, Birdwatching Trips, Ogwen Valley, Wales
“Hopefully with new-found appreciation of nature will come a more responsible attitude to travel. People will take time to think about how we protect the places we are visiting, reduce our waste and compensate for our travel footprint. We need to look at greener transport methods and carbon balancing schemes.
“As a responsible eco-tourism operator, this is something Inglorious Bustards holds central to everything we do. We’re looking forward to stepping up and supporting people to make these green, ethical holiday choices.
“The safety and comfort of our guests is, of course, paramount. We are totally confident in our procedures and really looking forward to bringing folk the natural high we all need right now. Days out in nature are not only good for health but good for the soul.”
Are you interested in a wildlife tour in Europe?
For more information, contact one of our specialist wildlife tour operators and companies to book directly your next wildlife tour.