Ecotourism's Cloudy Future

Since its inception, ecotourism has become both wildly popular and extremely controversial. Today, observers say, nature-based tourism is more popular than ever, but the controversy has shown no sign of diminishing. Can the industry survive?

Around 1990, the time when "ecotourism" first entered the popular lexicon, the International Ecotourism Society defined the term as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people." But as the global ecotourism industry has grown, many wonder, has it stayed true to its roots?

Supporters insist that it has, and assert that nature-based travel remains the best way to raise public awareness of the world's at-risk environments, endangered plant and animal species and dwindling natural resources. But critics--who are equally dedicated to environmental preservation--contend that unless ecotourism is scaled back soon, there will be no at-risk environments to preserve in the not-so-distant future, since they will be ruined by overdevelopment.

In the context of Darwin's theory of evolution--which states that only the "fittest" species can survive--humans are undoubtedly one of the world's most powerful species, if not the most powerful. Humans have survived many drastic changes in the planet's natural environment largely due to their intellectual power and mastery of weaponry. But while that power can be used to safeguard and protect, it can also be used to harm. According to many observers of the current ecotourism debate, one of the deep ironies of humans' ongoing effort to preserve the world's most fragile ecosystems is that people--in their rush to save the world's endangered plant and animal species--are actually pushing them closer to extinction.

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