Ecotourism: Nature-based Travel

The ecotourism industry's informal mantra has long been, "Take only photographs, leave only footprints." Indeed, nature-based travel is specifically designed to have a low impact on the ecosystems to which ecotourists are drawn. In many parts of the world, tour operators who specialize in ecotourism take steps to reduce the amount of pollution tourists generate by regularly removing trash from environmentally sensitive areas, using vehicles powered by alternative fuels or camping overnight in tents instead of staying in hotels. The idea, industry insiders say, is to bring travelers into intimate contact with nature but leave the environment essentially untouched, so that future visitors may enjoy the same experience.

Another key component of nature-based travel is assisting the local populations who live in and around ecotourism hotspots. In many cases, analysts say, popular ecotourism destinations are located in developing countries where poverty is rampant and there is little economic opportunity for residents. Given those circumstances, they say, ecotourism has been a huge boon for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. Underfunded governments in those places have been able to use profits from nature-based travel to develop health-care and transportation infrastructure and fund public education, among other things.

However, while supporters say that the growing popularity of ecotourism is a positive trend for the environment as well as for ecotourists, tour operators and host countries, others say that the reality is not quite so simple. Firstly, there have been more and more allegations in recent years that the profits earned by ecotourism tour operators are not reinvested into the local communities, but rather channeled abroad to the bank accounts of foreign companies that own and operate tour outfits. Secondly, there has been some speculation among environmental activists that many ecotourism operations in the developing world are not as ecologically friendly as they purport to be. Although such companies may claim to have a low environmental impact, there is no oversight body in the ecotourism industry to ensure that those businesses are keeping their word, they say.

The ecotourism industry has steadfastly defended itself against charges that it is redirecting profits and engaging in environmentally irresponsible practices. Such allegations have apparently not significantly affected nature-based travel; ecotourism operations continue to enjoy great success around the world. But at the same time, skepticism among environmental experts about the ecological benefits of nature-based travel has abounded. And given the grim environmental outlook in places like the Galapagos Islands and other ecotourism hotspots, questions about the long-term environmental sustainability of ecotourism are likely to persist, observers say.

Should the number of visitors to environmentally sensitive areas of the world be limited in order to stave off further land degradation and pollution? Or should ecotourism tour companies continue to be trusted as capable stewards of at-risk ecosystems? Might the creation of an international regulatory body for the ecotourism industry help ensure that profit-hungry tour operators adhere to the ecofriendly principles they promote on their Web sites and in their travel brochures?

Ecotourism advocates say that nature-based travel is a key sector of the global tourism industry and greatly benefits the environment. By educating travelers about the need for environmental conservation, ecotourism provides an important public service, they contend. Furthermore, most tour operators who specialize in ecotourism do not damage sensitive ecosystems because those companies follow specific precautions to minimize the impact of humans' presence, proponents say. For that reason, there is no need for a quota system to be implemented for ecotourists, they contend.

Nature-based tourism is also important because it is economically lucrative for poor developing countries; ecotourism results in the creation of new jobs and helps inject money into local economies, supporters assert. For the most part, they say, profits earned by ecotourism tour operators are reinvested locally to help improve the standard of living for local residents as well as to fund continued environmental conservation efforts. While supporters concede that some ecotourism companies are irresponsible, they insist that the vast majority of operators engage in morally sound business practices.

Meanwhile, critics of ecotourism allege that nature-based travel has been a victim of its own success. Because so many people are flocking to ecotourism hotspots to interact with nature, they say, human-induced land degradation is now rampant in many environmentally sensitive areas, placing endangered plant and animal species at greater risk of extinction. In order to safeguard at-risk ecosystems and preserve those areas for future generations, the number of ecotourists must be sharply curtailed, opponents insist.

In order to ensure that ecotourism tour operators are committed primarily to environmental preservation, not profits, some critics suggest that a global governing body be created to oversee the international ecotourism industry. Such an agency could monitor tour operators to ensure that they channel most of their profits into the local community and engage in ecologically sustainable business practices, opponents say. If the industry has no oversight, nature-based travel companies will continue to flout the defining principles of ecotourism, critics warn.