Eco-tourists travel to high-quality natural destinations in order to observe, support, and study intricate ecosystems across the world—think amateur scientists traveling to the rain forests in Brazil to study native flora and fauna. Now, tourism becomes a way to learn more about complex life-systems.
But there's a lot of controversy surrounding ecotourism's recent spike in popularity. Many believe this could lead to the degradation of ecosystems and the daily lives of indigenous people. Instead of maintaining longtime traditions, they'll become tour guides. They fear that rather than preserving and respecting areas where most humans don't venture, these guides will take anyone anywhere if they pay them enough. While developing countries promote ecotourism to improve their economy, the traffic can put these natural systems at risk.
Might ecotourism prove to be a Pandora's Box?
It's a complicated subject, and by no means will we answer all these questions now. But we do want to raise awareness about ecotourism and how to do it smartly if you so choose. Putting the least amount of strain on surrounding cultures and natural habitats is paramount if we are to preserve the very ecosystems ecotourism celebrates.
The bold print will suggest pros of ecotourism. The italics following will question negative consequences. As you read through the pros and cons of ecotourism, think about the different countries where ecotourism flourishes—Belize, Galapagos—and how your footprints might have a cultural or ecological affect.
Studying Intricate Ecosystems Informs Environmentalists
More informed environmentalists who study the flora and fauna, geography and geology of these natural places will lead to further research and better practices when trying to preserve these areas. When industrialization occurred, the natural world was greatly ignored, and we lost habitats and ecosystems that will never be restored. So the argument is: if we can create environmentalists through ecotourism, then it must be a good thing.
But more traffic from environmentalists can hurt or destroy natural landscapes.
No doubt, many of these ecotourism destinations contain delicate ecosystems that would be significantly altered by industrialization and the various hotels, roads, cars, and pollution that come with it. But what about a few hundred more people visiting these places a year? Especially environmentalists who would be careful to preserve these areas?
Ecotourism Can Improve Local Economies
Costa Rica has benefited from their push for more ecotourism. They were able to develop jobs and received more visitors in the country annually, just by promoting the diversity of ecological locations. Why shouldn't other countries do the same to improve their economies? After all, ecotourism is the fastest growing kind of tourism in the world. When you travel responsibly, you can return 95% of revenue to the local economy, whereas normal travel and tourism only contributes 20%.
But developing economies can be put at risk when industrialized countries influence their growth and decision-making.
There is such a thing as too much, too soon—especially when it comes to developing nations. When labor and resources are cheaper in developing countries, many powerful countries will take advantage of that. And this is especially true when considering how ecotourism might be impacted by that kind of influence.
Consider the Sherpas of Mt. Everest—natives who help foreign travelers reach their destinations: they receive little pay from the Western countries who hire them to lead guiding trips, and they're also ten times more likely to die on an expedition than commercial fishers in the U.S.—the deadliest job in the nation. The influx in people who want to climb Everest has contributed to a change in the lives of many indigenous people.
And, even on the reverse, ecotourism can also inhibit third-world countries from developing resources that are necessary for their growth. If eco-tourists work to prevent any land or resource development, these countries will be forced to rely on tourism alone.
Eco-tourists Can Make a Conscious Effort to Improve Local Communities
Some believe that ecotourism helps local economies and introduces financial stability to areas that hadn't been stable before. They promote new jobs, an influx in cash, and they help bring technology and development to areas that might not have good roads, infrastructure. These are also the people who believe eco-tourists can also help local communities understand how important it is that they preserve their natural habitat.
But by changing how locals preserve and interact with local habitats, you could be hurting overall livelihood and ending thousands-year-old traditions, like hunting and foraging.
The idea here is that a Westerner or eco-tourist would visit a place, see that indigenous people live off the land—hunting, gathering, using the environment to create housing—and would then try to get that area politically preserved, so that there was zero interaction between the locals and the land. Is that fair? We're not so sure.
That's why helpful organizations try to promote conservation above all else—including improvement. That should be your worry as an eco-tourist: do you have any right to try to influence a local area? Probably not. It's best you visit, take a look, have little as impact as possible on the community and ecosystems, and then head home.
When we talk about ecotourism we understand that, no matter what our intentions, we will have some kind of impact on the environments and cultures we visit. This doesn't necessarily mean that the impact will be negative—though this is the greatest risk of any kind of tourism. Think about how you might reduce your footprint. Consider the mode of travel and how you might reduce carbon emissions by going by train instead of by airplane, for example. Ecotourism should be about being a conscious traveler, aware of each place's intricacies—both ecological and cultural—so that you do your best to be an observer only.
For more resources about ecotourism, consider what's available to you online, like these sites:
But also consider the research you can do on the specific country or area you plan on visiting. What is the impact of tourism there? How do the local economies function? What are people and businesses doing right now that hurt the local environment? In this way, you become more than a traveler and you become more informed about how your trip would work in the frame-work of the environment. Sure, there's going to be pros and cons with ecotourism. The best thing you can do is to become as informed as possible.