Ecotourism: What to Consider

Image Credit: Artem Beliaikin, CC0 1.0, Image Cropped

The concept of ecotourism has seen a massive surge in popularity over the last decade. It is defined by The International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” In other words, when you’re participating in ecotourism, you should be enjoying some sort of ecological marvel, and learning something, ideally whilst not damaging local people or ecosystems. Yet this can be a lot more complicated than it sounds.

With the advent of social media and bloggers advertising new places that The Lonely Planet previously couldn’t, along with flights getting cheaper all the time, ecotourism is booming. So let’s take a look at the concept, and some things you should consider when travelling, well, anywhere really.

NB: There are tens of articles out there that look at the impact of ecotourists on local populations (we’ve even linked some below). Us being Ecology for the Masses, we’ve decided to focus here on cases which directly affect non-human aspects of an ecosystem.

A Protective Shield

At its best, ecotourism can conserve natural places that have natural resources that big businesses want to exploit. Ecotourism can provide another income revenue than chopping down trees or drilling for oil while also acting as an incentive to conserve the habitats and species people are willing to pay to see. The Sani people of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park managed to avoid letting oil companies in by relying on ecotourists. Norway recently rejected plans to drill around its famous Lofoten islands, and while many credited the policy as a shift away from Norway’s dependence on oil, the natural beauty and the tourist dollars that Lofoten brings in can’t be ignored.

Yet this isn’t always the case. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef rakes in the dollars year after year, yet poor decision making on behalf of the federal government is leading to huge coral die-offs. Despite areas like Borneo bearing incredible diversity of species and a large tourist industry, deforestation continues at an alarming rate.

An Educational Tool

The other great thing about ecotourism is it is inspirational to people. When people see a species or ecosystem up close they are much more likely to emotionally engage in a way that they cannot from flipping through a National Geographic. These trips may inspire future generations to conserve spaces as many others have before them (Teddy Roosevelt, looking at you). Well thought out ecotourism, in my opinion, can serve as a great form of education about ecology, conservation, and natural resource management.

Yet of course, this only works if you have companies that are willing to teach the right lessons. Both of our earlier examples, the GBR and Borneo’s forests, will continue to have patches of land suitable for ecotourism, despite the widespread ecological destruction those areas are suffering. Theoretically, companies could still operate viable tours which still show the splendors of those areas. And those companies want tourists to return, so the message “hey this will all be gone soon” might be perceived as bad business. That may then outweigh the long-term benefits of making people more alert and aware of the consequences of human activity. Several have already taken this route (see this link for a personal account from one of our team).

Conservation Funding

Visiting wildlife sanctuaries or zoos can provide the funding that many of these institutes need to stay open. Centres that work to conserve specific species or allow injured individuals to recuperate before releasing them often rely on tourist dollars. Additionally, guided tours of forests, deserts or any other ecosystem can often help protect that area.

Costa Rica has taken huge steps forward in the last 30 years to save their ecosystem, with the tourism industry benefiting enormously

Whilst animals like these two may benefit from the care of the workers at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, not all rescue centers or zoos contribute as directly to the conservation of species. It’s well worth  (Image Credit, Sam Perrin, NTNU)

Yet your interaction itself with the species might be detrimental to their livelihood,whether directly or indirectly. Our very presence can change the way that species interact with humans in the future, becoming more or less wary of future visitors. In addition, many of these species that people will travel distances to see are in fragile ecosystems. The pollution people leave in these places, intentional or not, can be truly damaging. For example, ingredients found in sunscreens (such as zinc oxide) have a damaging effect on coral reefs. While a single diver may not bleach a reef, tourist hotspots such as the Great Barrier Reef can be appreciably damaged by the thousands of visitors hoping to see it.

There’s also the question of where your money is going. If money goes through ecolodges or other companies, this can lead to people in villages that provide cultural activities getting less money. This is again, complicated by who provides what services to tourists. Don’t be afraid to enquire about where your money is going before booking a tour or accommodation.

The Travel Itself

There is also, as always, the question of the carbon footprint attached to lengthy travels to remote places. It’s always worth considering travel closer to home that doesn’t rely explicitly on air travel. Long flights are a huge carbon emissions source, and while I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing the world, if you’re going to take one, make it worth it.

I don’t want to suggest that you should never travel (that might be a tad hypocritical). But when you do, make sure that you ask why you’re doing it, and do a bit of research to ensure that your money is helping, not hurting, local ecosystems.

Other Reading

Misinformation in Ecotourism: An Example from the Great Barrier Reef

The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism

Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park: Where Oil Vies with Tourism For the Rainforest

Lara Veylit is a wildlife ecologist interested in the population dynamics and life history evolution of managed populations of wild boar (Sus scrofa). You can read more about her research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here.

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