Ecotourism is the practice of small to medium groups of people visiting far-away fragile and somewhat undisturbed natural areas. It is seen as a low impact and small scale alternative to standard tourism. There are many purposes to ecotourism, such as education, fundraising for conservation, or economic and political empowerment of local communities. In theory ecotourism focuses on socially responsible travel, personal growth, and environmental sustainability. An integral part of ecotourism is the emphasis on the importance of recycling, energy efficiency, water conservation, cause direct financial benefits for conservation, create respect for local culture, support human rights, and provide of economic opportunities for local communities.
Popular ecotourism destinations in the world include South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Kenya’s Masai Mara Park, and in the United States the Florida Everglades, Grand Canyon, much of Hawaii, and the Alaskan Tundra.
Ecotourism has become one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism, growing by 10-15% annually worldwide. Unfortunately a consequence of the booming industry is that many ecotourism sites do not meet the guidelines outlined earlier. For example, South Africa has a huge ecotourism industry and as a result receives many economic benefits. But the people in the ecotourism areas do not receive these benefits and are forced to leave their homes. In addition there are gross violations of human rights and creation of environmental hazards in the quest for ecotourism money. Instead of benefiting local populations, the money generated by ecotourism is spent on public relations to dilute the criticism directed at South Africa’s ecotourism.
When ecotourism increases the population of the target location it puts pressure on the local environment and requires additional infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, sanitation facilities, and lodging. When local communities are unable to meet these infrastructure requirements, there are negative environmental consequences such as the improper disposal of campsite sewage in East African parks results in contamination of the nearest river where wildlife, livestock, and people draw drinking water.
Even further, tourists leave behind garbage in the form of the meals they eat, toilets they flush, and water they drink. All of these are part of a broad regional economic and ecological system that they are reconfiguring with their presence. And, the energy required to transport ecotourists can be vast – 10,000 kilometers of plane travel consumes about 700 liters of fuel per person.
When inside the ecotourism location, even taking pictures and leaving footprints can be damaging. Trails contribute to soil erosion, impaction, and plant damage. Wildlife viewing can scare away animals and disrupt their feeding and nesting habits, or even acclimate them to the presence of people.
So when you plan your next trip, keep in mind the consequences of a “sustainable” ecotourism trip, and plan accordingly.
By Alanna Scheinerman, Class of 2013