Ecotourism Soars in Popularity

For years, tourism--defined as travel for pleasure--has been the largest single component of the global economy. The tourism industry generates several trillion dollars' worth of economic activity every year, and continues to grow steadily as of 2007. It is also a huge employer in both the developed and developing worlds; roughly 8% of all jobs in the global economy are tourism-related. [See 2007 An Overview of Various Forms of Tourism]

Since the mid-20th century, travelers have been visiting overseas destinations in unprecedented numbers. For instance, in 1950, some 25 million tourists traveled abroad, according to the World Tourist Organization. But by 2004, that figure had skyrocketed to 760 million, and it is projected to rise to roughly 1.5 billion by the year 2020.

During the past 15 years, ecotourists have comprised an increasing percentage of those overseas travelers. Although the vast majority of so-called mass tourists gravitate to beach resorts and other traditional vacation destinations, more and more travelers have decided to abandon the beach in favor of something more adventuresome, educational, or both. According to industry analysts, ecotourism meets those criteria, which has helped make nature-based travel one of the fastest-growing segments of the global tourism industry.

Ecotourism has also proven to be financially lucrative for tour operators who cater to that specific type of travel. Various industry studies have revealed that ecotourists tend to spend far more money on food, lodging and activities than their mass-tourism counterparts. For that reason, observers say, nature-based tour operations have become an international growth industry, aiming to take advantage of the constant influx of wealthy ecotourists.

The booming popularity of ecotourism in the 1990s helped solidify previously isolated locales, such as the Galapagos Islands and South America's Amazon rain forest, as premier international tourist destinations. Around the world, governments proclaimed their commitment to ecotourism, and earmarked funds for the upgrade of transportation infrastructure to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors. By 1998, even large international organizations such as the United Nations were advocating ecotourism. That year, the U.N. Economic and Social Council petitioned members of the international body's General Assembly to support a measure that would dedicate an entire year to promoting ecotourism. The council explained that doing so not only would spur economic development in impoverished nations, but also would raise public awareness about the pressing need for environmental conservation in the developing world.

The U.N. later declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism, and went on to sponsor lectures, panel discussions and other events around the world to educate the public about nature-based tourism. One of the year's crowning achievements was the creation of the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism, a document outlining steps for the promotion and development of environmentally sustainable ecotourism. [See 2007 Excerpts from the 2002 Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism]

In the early 2000s, however, criticism of the rapidly expanding ecotourism industry began to mount. Many environmental activists asserted that the influx of visitors to once-remote parts of the world was exacting an enormous toll on the environment. They said that although ecotourists might have good intentions, the massive growth in their numbers was placing a significant strain on fragile ecosystems by polluting the land, water and air.

Initially, tourism industry officials tried to prevent the anti-ecotourism movement from gathering steam. One of the early flashpoints in that battle took place in Spain's Balearic Islands in 2001. That year, the local government attempted to impose an "eco-tax" on travelers to the islands. Lawmakers wanted to implement the tax because during the preceding 30 years, tourism had wreaked havoc on the local environment. All funds raised via the tax were to be earmarked for environmental restoration.

However, upon learning of the proposed tax, executives in the global tourism industry turned out in force. They argued that a tax on visitors to the Balearic Islands would severely hurt the local economy as fewer visitors would come. After exerting a great deal of pressure on the government, the tourism industry prevailed, and the proposed tax was withdrawn.

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