Ecotourism in the U.S.

Some of the most popular ecotourism destinations are remote overseas locations, such as the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean or the Serengeti National Park in the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. Every year, American tourists--and many other travelers from different parts of the world--flock to those areas to commune with nature. However, with the exception of Alaska, not many places within the U.S. qualify as major ecotourism destinations, according to tourism-industry insiders.

A few U.S. states--Alaska, Hawaii, Virginia and West Virginia--have established organizations dedicated to the promotion of local ecotourism. All four of those states boast impressive mountain scenery, and hiking is a popular pastime among travelers to those places. Still, the ecotourism industry is struggling to gain a foothold in the U.S., where many American travelers still take traditional beach vacations during their leisure time.

In 2001, West Virginia began taking steps to develop its ecotourism infrastructure in an effort to improve the state's economy. That year, the local Department of Environmental Protection joined forces with the West Virginia Division of Tourism to start promoting ecotourism destinations throughout the state. The agreement signed by the two agencies declared that a robust nature-based travel industry in the area would "create a sustainable ecotourism economy for the state of West Virginia, thus improving the quality of life for its citizens."

According to some ecotourism-industry officials, there are signs that American travelers would take advantage of nature-based travel options close to home, instead of heading abroad for ecotourism. For instance, they say, the country's extensive national park system has been, and remains, hugely popular; in 2004, there were more than 275 million visits to federally protected nature areas, up from 220 million in 1980, according to the National Park Service.

Furthermore, recent polls have shown that many U.S. tourists are concerned with environmental preservation. One 2003 study, cosponsored by the Travel Industry Association of America and National Geographic Traveler magazine, found that three out of every four American travelers "feel it is important their visits not damage the environment."

For those reasons, ecotourism advocates express optimism about the prospects for growth of nature-based travel in the U.S. By combining leisure vacations with environmental education, they say, ecotourism could offer a wealth of interesting experiences to U.S. tourists. Supporters say that if more states follow West Virginia's lead in promoting nature-based travel, ecotourism could become an important part of the country's domestic tourism industry within a decade or two.

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