The Corporatization of Nature-Based Travel

Following the setback in the Balearic Islands, critics of nature-based tourism intensified their efforts to rally support for their cause. They began warning that the ecotourism industry was being overtaken by corporate interests and that action had to be taken to curtail the growth of ecotourism.

They noted that in 2004, the nature-based tourism industry was expanding three times as fast as the overall global tourism industry, according to the World Tourism Organization. The rapid expansion of the ecotourism industry meant that independently owned and run tour operators were being marginalized by larger, profit-hungry corporate tour operators who were less concerned with responsible environmental stewardship, they charged. Although there was ample evidence from various ecotourism destinations to support their claim, critics focused on one of the world's best-known such destinations, the Galapagos Islands.

There, large corporations were bankrolling tour operations, helping fund the construction of roads, stores and hotels, and assisting in the modernization of airports and seaports to facilitate travel to and from the islands. Although the companies running tours on the archipelago were committed to ecotourism, the islands' unique ecosystem was suffering as a result of the massive influx of visitors. Between 2001 and 2006, the annual number of tourists to the Galapagos Islands increased by 200%, reaching nearly 150,000 in 2006.

Migrant workers from the South American mainland--hired for low wages to help construct tourist infrastructure and later to staff hotels and restaurants--also contributed to the environmental degradation in the area. Many brought goats to the islands as a source of food, but those animals began competing with the islands' famous tortoises for food, much to the dismay of scientists. The migrants were "bringing other species that can out-compete natives," asserted Martin Wikelski, a biology professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, who warned that the Galapagos ecosystem was being thrown off balance. Further contributing to the problem were rats that arrived in the islands via supply ships; in their new environment, they reproduced rapidly and devoured the same food sources as native species.

Concerned that the islands' environmental problems were spiraling out of control, Victor Carrion, deputy director of the Galapagos National Park, declared in July 2007 that action would have to be taken. He did not call for eliminating tourism altogether, but said that the number of ecotourists on the islands would have to be scaled back significantly in order to ensure the future environmental prosperity of the Galapagos.

"We have to revise our tourism model and aim for fewer tourists and higher revenues," Carrion asserts. "We have not set a cap on tourists, but I think we should." Observers say that the environmental problems confronting the Galapagos Islands mirror those being experienced in many other areas of the world. Like Carrion, many environmental officials in other popular ecotourism destinations are weighing the pros and cons of curbing the number of visitors in the near future, to restore the health of the environment.

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