Critics Say Nature-Based Travel Threatens Fragile Ecosystems

Many ecotourism critics say they are not opposed to the concept of nature-based travel; in fact, they believe that it is an admirable and effective way to educate the public about the need for environmental conservation. However, what many critics oppose is the rate at which the ecotourism industry has expanded in recent years. Unfortunately, they say, the sheer magnitude of the ecotourism industry in many ecologically vulnerable parts of the world is now posing a grave danger to the very environment that ecotourism was meant to protect.

One of the main problems with nature-based tourism in recent years has been the involvement of foreign-owned businesses and tour operators whose main motive is capturing tourist dollars, opponents contend. Many corporate firms that run tour operations in top ecotourism destinations actually show disregard for environmental conservation by leaving trash behind, polluting water sources and bankrolling ecologically destructive infrastructure projects, critics charge. In the Galapagos Islands, such developments have threatened the core identity of the region, they contend. "This place could turn into another Disneyland," warns Fernando Ortiz, head of the local branch of Conservation International.

Many critics dispute supporters' assertions that money generated from ecotourism operations is often funneled into local economies. While opponents acknowledge that some nature-based tour operators do in fact recycle some of their profits into the community to raise residents' quality of life, they argue that many foreign-owned tour operators use their profits to fund business initiatives that have nothing to do with ecotourism. "Tourism proceeds are not being reallocated to the management or enhancement of the natural systems or to compensate local individuals who are adversely affected by the presence of protected areas," asserts Osmany Salas, executive director of the Audubon Society in Belize, a popular ecotourism destination in Central America.

Some critics say that regardless of some ecotourism companies' alleged dedication to environmental preservation, most are simply interested in making money and little else. "People talk about ecotourism, but the fact is that the tourism industry is always looking for a quick buck," declares Doug Rhodes, owner of Hotel Paradiso del Osos in Mexico. Rhodes adds that many nearby hotels in the area catering to ecotourists do not dispose of their sewage and trash properly. Although he asserts that ecotourists would likely have no objections to paying the bill for improved waste management, Rhodes complains that many hotel operators simply lack the initiative to make their facilities more environmentally friendly, perhaps because they do not want to invest money in such upgrades. "It's just a matter of will," he says.

In the view of many critics, the best way to resolve the current environmental crisis faced by many ecotourism destinations is to either restrict the number of visitors--via quotas or higher prices--or create some sort of regulatory body that monitors ecotourism operations to ensure quality control. By taking those steps, opponents say, the integrity of at-risk ecosystems could be maintained while preserving nature enthusiasts' access to those areas. Failure to quickly reduce the number of visitors in environmentally sensitive areas of the world could mean that those regions will be destroyed within a few decades, critics warn.

Finally, a few critics of ecotourism contend that nature-based tourism is not only environmentally destructive, but culturally destructive as well. Those opponents say that the very presence of wealthy ecotourists--who often are not familiar with or interested in local customs--causes a major disruption in the lives of local residents. Environmental tourists have "a huge economic, environmental and social impact merely by arriving in a developing country," argues Rosaleen Duffy, an outspoken critic of ecotourism who has written a book on the topic (A Trip Too Far: Ecotourism, Politics and Exploitation) and lectures at Britain's Lancaster University.

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