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Ecotourism: The Pros and Cons of Environmentally Sustainable Travel

Updated on March 14, 2018
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Ecotourism is a booming sub-sect of the tourism industry.

Who wants to go to Theme Parks? Do people still do that? Do people really want to have a controlled travel experience, complete with resort package deals and a vast array of corporate eatery choices? Do people want to interact with people dressed up like cartoon characters and eat at buffets instead of traveling to real places to experience unfamiliar cultures and participate in unique local customs? It seems as though people are more inclined these days to experience the natural world and favor real communities over man made travel destinations. There are many alternatives travel-wise to theme parks and other so called “tourist traps.” People are changing. Our tastes are changing. We crave authenticity where we once collectively sought out planned vacations that were highlighted by family fun and time shared condos. The world is getting smaller, figuratively, and it is easier than ever to travel to destinations that were once only accessible through the pages of “National Geographic.”

There is a boom going on in the ecotourism sector. Or should I say industry? Is ecotourism a sustainable alternative to traditional tourism or is it just a cleverly disguised way for businesses to make money? Is the thriving ecotourism trend teaching the respect for the natural world as its name suggests, or is it hurting it? There are a lot of questions about the core initiatives of individuals, communities, local governments, and businesses that claim to market their natural wonders to environmentally conscious people who believe that they aren’t making an impact on the natural and undisturbed ecological wonders of the world. Allow me to back track for a moment in order to make sure that we are all on the same page. First and foremost, what is ecotourism? On the surface, it is simply an alternative to commercial mass tourism with an emphasis on visiting natural, often fragile and universally undisturbed, locations rich in cultural heritage throughout the world with great attention to minimalizing human impacts on said locations. It is a smaller scale tourist agenda that promotes education and experience for the tourists, while increasing and supporting economic growth within local communities. See? It’s simple. People travel to other places to admire different forms of biodiversity. Therefore, tourists influence locals to protect and promote their natural assets as ecotourism destinations. It sounds great on paper. People are given the opportunity to learn about and experience new things without making a negative impact. However, practical applications don’t always mirror the good intentions of a pure idea. The primary focuses of ecotourism that are inherent to its very definition are responsibility, sustainability, education, and awareness. These are all great things. They are imperative to the very notions of earth stewardship, but they have to be achieved in a way that they are not counterproductive. When discussing the pros and cons of ecotourism we are really distinguishing between intentions and results. We must be mindful of the possibility of green washing. Green washing is a deceptive marketing strategy that aims to trick consumers into thinking that their company or products are environmentally friendly when they are just using the guise of environmental protection as a way to increase profits. Terms like “clean coal” come to mind. We ought to know who is profiting from our travels and just how minimal our minimal impacts on the environment are.

The intended monetary distribution associated through ecotourism is supposed to remain within the visited communities. Revenue from tourists is supposed to promote economic growth and community based awareness. This awareness, or pride, within a community is supposed to further enhance efforts to protect and preserve the local or regional environmental tourist draws. An entire national economy can benefit from ecotourism. Money is a strong incentive for any endeavor, and where there is the opportunity to make money, there will almost always be businesses waiting to reap the rewards. The problem with ecotourism on a definitive level is the loopholes it provides for businesses and corporations to supersede the interests of local economies. Then, where there was once an opportunity for education and respectful observation of a sensitive ecosystem or natural habitat, there is the very real threat of cultural and environmental exploitation. Outboard engines replace canoes, all- terrain vehicles replace hiking boots (Nature trails themselves have a tendency to disturb animals, alter nesting, and wear footpaths into otherwise inaccessible routes), and hotel chains replace local travel lodges. Chain restaurants encroach on local eateries, which are therefore forced out of business. The money that was originally intended to promote awareness, sustainability, and local culture thus ends up heading to corporate headquarters instead of supporting the local community. With corporations and big business comes development and expansion. Roads must be built to accommodate an influx of traffic, which leads to parking lots. Where one company sees opportunity, others are sure to follow suit. Soon there is corporate competition for land, development rights, and revenue. If McDonalds sees an opportunity, so does Burger King and so on. Retail stores move in and the once pristine destination becomes Disney World. This is, of course, the worst case scenario tied to the ecotourism movement. Let us just accept the fact that human interaction tends to have a negative snowball effect. Mass tourism isn’t necessarily a by-product of the insensitivity of the tourist’s themselves. The infrastructure of the tourism industry and the need for amenities to accommodate their stay plays a large role in the environmental degradation. People don’t realize that there is an undue price to be paid for their comfort. Most tourists who wish to expand their appreciation for nature and culture don’t account for sewage systems, water treatment, and power grids when booking a room at the local Holiday Inn. It’s all about supply and demand. Communities need to meet the demands of an industry that they see as vital to their economic survival. Ecotourism is, to date, poorly regulated. Hopefully this will change in time. Hopefully people will learn to achieve the primary goal of sustainable awareness and education through first hand experience.

I do not aim to dissuade people from participating in exciting ecotourism endeavors. They can be a very positive thing. We can change the world, or stop changing it per say, by learning to appreciate and respect it. The more you know about the potential for destructive human impact, the more you can do to take measures to avoid it. Seriously, go enjoy some state parks, visit Yellowstone, paddle out and see a coral reef or two. Just be wary and mindful of your impact. You may not know that the establishment of environmentally protected areas once caused indigenous people their homes, or that a local government made a difficult choice regarding the expansion of the local tourist trade to unsustainable levels for the economic long term benefit of the community. Being human and wanting to be sustainable are at odds with each other, but it is far better to be aware and proactive than it is to take the natural world for granted. Of course no impact is better than low impact, but if we opt to take the low impact route, we need to be sure that we are minimizing our “footprint” as much as possible. Do some investigative research. You’ll be surprised by what you find by just scratching the surface. Do your research, people. We want to be able to enjoy our natural resources indefinitely, not deplete them.

It is my intention that prospective travelers and revelers of culture and nature learn as much as possible before embarking on potentially life changing and exciting adventures. The information is out there. All you have to do is turn over a few stones. Then, if you would, please return the stones to where you found them.

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