Ecotourism: An Economic Alternative?

Although heavily developed places such as Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla., remain Americans' top travel destinations, a growing number of tourists--both from the U.S. and abroad--are spending their vacations in the relative wilds of mountain ranges, arctic islands and rainforests. According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), such so-called ecotourism now accounts for about 7% of all international travel expenditures, and is growing at a rate of 4% per year. Countries such as Nepal, Costa Rica and Honduras--previously far off the beaten path for tourists--have experienced a boom in visitors in the 1990s. Even within the U.S., people are flocking to national parks and forests in record numbers.

Some studies have shown that ecotourists, on average, are more sensitive to issues facing the environment and indigenous peoples in the areas they visit than are other tourists. The Ecotourism Society, in Bennington, Vt., defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." For this reason, many observers say that ecotourism offers tropical nations a benign way to profit from rainforests. Currently, many nations with rainforests, such as those in South America, South Asia and Africa, have development policies that advance deforestation.

If ecotourism continues to expand, many observers say, governments will have an incentive to preserve their rainforests, so that tourists will continue to visit. After all, these analysts point out, tourism is one of the most profitable and quickly growing industries in the world, generating gross revenues of $3.4 trillion annually. By maintaining their forests and promoting them as travel destinations, governments could attract an ever-larger percentage of those dollars, observers say. In this way, the habitats of plants, animals and people who live in the forests would be preserved. "Ecotourism can help create jobs and business opportunities for local communities while building appreciation for a country's natural heritage and culture," says Okyeame Ampadu-Agyei, Ghana director of Conservation International, an environmental group.

Still, some environmental groups have expressed skepticism over whether ecotourism provides a practical or "sustainable" (not harmful to the environment) alternative to development. The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) in San Francisco, Calif., for example, supports rainforest ecotourism, but with reservations. How many people, RAN asks, can visit the rainforest before the habitats of animals and plants are disrupted almost as much as they would be by development and farming? High levels of ecotourism, they warn, could turn the rainforests into "theme parks," in which the trees remain standing but the vitality of the forest ecosystem gradually succumbs to human interference. Such a trend is already being observed in crowded national parks and forests in the U.S., critics note.

Furthermore, some analysts cite data showing that most ecotourism revenues profit foreign tour operators more than the indigenous tribes who call the rainforests home. Thus, critics contend, ecotourism essentially exploits the homelands of native peoples for the financial gain of tour operators. "Tour guides and tourists enter our houses when we are working in the fields, they hunt and fish for the food we need, they leave garbage," says Moi Enomenga, a leader of the Huaorani, an indigenous tribe in the Amazon River basin in Ecuador. "Tourists are paying $2,030 per day for [tours] and we are being exploited and receive nothing."

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