Ecotourism, tourist travel to ecologically diverse natural environments, is popularly regarded as an effective way to channel private-sector dollars into the conservation of unique ecosystems. The idea is to take a demographic who loves to travel and loves spending and use the revenues of their tourism to conserve and protect the ecological wonders that they travel so far to see, often in developing nations which rely on all kinds of tourism for income. The Ecotourism Society feels we should be striving toward ecotourism “that entails responsible travel to natural areas and which conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people.”
However, it is an imperfect system. Ecotourism is unique in that it hangs in the balance between ecological conservation and degradation; it has the potential to fuel either, and unless carefully regulated, the latter is much more likely. Nature-based tourism has been influential in protecting the environment; a good example of this would be the influence it’s had in preserving the habitat of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, or protecting the Galapagos Islands’ marine iguana species. The Galapagos Islands is bringing in as much as $60 million annually, and, thanks to the efforts of tour operators, naturalist guides, park officials and scientists, it has been a model for low-impact eco-tourism.
However, these same park officials are now concerned about habitat fragmentation, air pollution from vehicle traffic, stressed water supplies, litter, and other problems. (Vanasselt) This has to do to an influx of tourists and of mainland natives who have migrated to the islands in search of work. In Kenya’s Maasai Mara National reserve, illegal off-road driving by tour operators has scarred the landscape. (Vanasselt) And in Costa Rica, native turtles are being startled away from their nesting grounds by over-eager tourists. Human encroachment on animal habitats, specifically as a result of so-called “eco”tourism, has biologists concerned for the safety and the future of the animals impacted. I mmediate effects of human contact include changes to an animal's heart rate, physiology, stress hormone levels and social behavior, all of which can carry serious implications not only for the individual animals’ health, but also for their ability to have and raise offspring.
One of ecotourism’s biggest challenges is sustainability. The problem is little or no regulation when it comes to controlling the maximum number of visitors allowed at certain sites, and their destructive behaviors in parks. Part of the problem is that not enough profit of eco-tourism is actually being reinvested in park services or reaching the surrounding communities. Instead, much of the profit is either eaten up by the government or is leaked back to commercial tour operators in much wealthier countries (where most of the tourists are coming from). An appropriate solution might be to raise park entrance fees, enough to cover parks’ operating costs as well as the costs of any ecological damage. Right now, entrance fees are amounting to just 0.01 to 1 % of a tourist’s total trip cost.
Training programs could ensure that more local residents themselves are hotel mangers, tour guides, and park rangers. Local communities have more of an investment in the surrounding ecosystems than large foreign corporations that are looking to make a quick profit. For ecotourism to be effective, things like community development, conservation, and environmental education must be emphasized in tourist programs.
But perhaps an even more serious threat to the world’s ecosystems starts before the ecotourists even arrive at their destination. Popular forms of long distance travel (especially the airplane) continue to produce large amounts of greenhouse gases which are having a negative impact on the Earth’s climate. If you fly half-way across the globe to enjoy pristine natural parks are you just working to destroy what today you admire? It’s for this reason that ecotourism has been described as “an industry whose success threatens to become its own undoing.” (Mellgren)
One solution that some airlines have begun pursuing is investing in reforestation projects to “rinse” their carbon emissions out of the air. This has be the route taken by the Costa Rican airline Nature Air, which claims to be the first airline ever with zero net carbon dioxide emissions. Nature Air is, however, a very small airline. Is it a reasonable goal for huge commercial airlines to reach “zero net carbon” through the planting of trees alone? As long as we are traveling just as far and burning the same amounts and kinds of fuel, is true sustainability possible? The author of this paper seriously doubts it.
Ecotourism is not without its flaws. It often scarily resembles its unsustainable sister, traditional tourism. For now, there may not be an easy answer to damaging effects of plane travel, but placing ecotourism in the hands of local communities, promoting the patronage of local restaurants and the consumption of local food, paired with a strong element of environmental education, can provide us with a positive and sustainable future, not just for ecotourism, but the whole world in which it exists.
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