Ecotourism: Nature-based Travel

The ecotourism industry's informal mantra has long been, "Take only photographs, leave only footprints." Indeed, nature-based travel is specifically designed to have a low impact on the ecosystems to which ecotourists are drawn. In many parts of the world, tour operators who specialize in ecotourism take steps to reduce the amount of pollution tourists generate by regularly removing trash from environmentally sensitive areas, using vehicles powered by alternative fuels or camping overnight in tents instead of staying in hotels. The idea, industry insiders say, is to bring travelers into intimate contact with nature but leave the environment essentially untouched, so that future visitors may enjoy the same experience.

Another key component of nature-based travel is assisting the local populations who live in and around ecotourism hotspots. In many cases, analysts say, popular ecotourism destinations are located in developing countries where poverty is rampant and there is little economic opportunity for residents. Given those circumstances, they say, ecotourism has been a huge boon for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. Underfunded governments in those places have been able to use profits from nature-based travel to develop health-care and transportation infrastructure and fund public education, among other things.

However, while supporters say that the growing popularity of ecotourism is a positive trend for the environment as well as for ecotourists, tour operators and host countries, others say that the reality is not quite so simple. Firstly, there have been more and more allegations in recent years that the profits earned by ecotourism tour operators are not reinvested into the local communities, but rather channeled abroad to the bank accounts of foreign companies that own and operate tour outfits. Secondly, there has been some speculation among environmental activists that many ecotourism operations in the developing world are not as ecologically friendly as they purport to be. Although such companies may claim to have a low environmental impact, there is no oversight body in the ecotourism industry to ensure that those businesses are keeping their word, they say.

The ecotourism industry has steadfastly defended itself against charges that it is redirecting profits and engaging in environmentally irresponsible practices. Such allegations have apparently not significantly affected nature-based travel; ecotourism operations continue to enjoy great success around the world. But at the same time, skepticism among environmental experts about the ecological benefits of nature-based travel has abounded. And given the grim environmental outlook in places like the Galapagos Islands and other ecotourism hotspots, questions about the long-term environmental sustainability of ecotourism are likely to persist, observers say.

Should the number of visitors to environmentally sensitive areas of the world be limited in order to stave off further land degradation and pollution? Or should ecotourism tour companies continue to be trusted as capable stewards of at-risk ecosystems? Might the creation of an international regulatory body for the ecotourism industry help ensure that profit-hungry tour operators adhere to the ecofriendly principles they promote on their Web sites and in their travel brochures?

Ecotourism advocates say that nature-based travel is a key sector of the global tourism industry and greatly benefits the environment. By educating travelers about the need for environmental conservation, ecotourism provides an important public service, they contend. Furthermore, most tour operators who specialize in ecotourism do not damage sensitive ecosystems because those companies follow specific precautions to minimize the impact of humans' presence, proponents say. For that reason, there is no need for a quota system to be implemented for ecotourists, they contend.

Nature-based tourism is also important because it is economically lucrative for poor developing countries; ecotourism results in the creation of new jobs and helps inject money into local economies, supporters assert. For the most part, they say, profits earned by ecotourism tour operators are reinvested locally to help improve the standard of living for local residents as well as to fund continued environmental conservation efforts. While supporters concede that some ecotourism companies are irresponsible, they insist that the vast majority of operators engage in morally sound business practices.

Meanwhile, critics of ecotourism allege that nature-based travel has been a victim of its own success. Because so many people are flocking to ecotourism hotspots to interact with nature, they say, human-induced land degradation is now rampant in many environmentally sensitive areas, placing endangered plant and animal species at greater risk of extinction. In order to safeguard at-risk ecosystems and preserve those areas for future generations, the number of ecotourists must be sharply curtailed, opponents insist.

In order to ensure that ecotourism tour operators are committed primarily to environmental preservation, not profits, some critics suggest that a global governing body be created to oversee the international ecotourism industry. Such an agency could monitor tour operators to ensure that they channel most of their profits into the local community and engage in ecologically sustainable business practices, opponents say. If the industry has no oversight, nature-based travel companies will continue to flout the defining principles of ecotourism, critics warn.

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.

The Corporatization of Nature-Based Travel

Following the setback in the Balearic Islands, critics of nature-based tourism intensified their efforts to rally support for their cause. They began warning that the ecotourism industry was being overtaken by corporate interests and that action had to be taken to curtail the growth of ecotourism.

They noted that in 2004, the nature-based tourism industry was expanding three times as fast as the overall global tourism industry, according to the World Tourism Organization. The rapid expansion of the ecotourism industry meant that independently owned and run tour operators were being marginalized by larger, profit-hungry corporate tour operators who were less concerned with responsible environmental stewardship, they charged. Although there was ample evidence from various ecotourism destinations to support their claim, critics focused on one of the world's best-known such destinations, the Galapagos Islands.

There, large corporations were bankrolling tour operations, helping fund the construction of roads, stores and hotels, and assisting in the modernization of airports and seaports to facilitate travel to and from the islands. Although the companies running tours on the archipelago were committed to ecotourism, the islands' unique ecosystem was suffering as a result of the massive influx of visitors. Between 2001 and 2006, the annual number of tourists to the Galapagos Islands increased by 200%, reaching nearly 150,000 in 2006.

Migrant workers from the South American mainland--hired for low wages to help construct tourist infrastructure and later to staff hotels and restaurants--also contributed to the environmental degradation in the area. Many brought goats to the islands as a source of food, but those animals began competing with the islands' famous tortoises for food, much to the dismay of scientists. The migrants were "bringing other species that can out-compete natives," asserted Martin Wikelski, a biology professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, who warned that the Galapagos ecosystem was being thrown off balance. Further contributing to the problem were rats that arrived in the islands via supply ships; in their new environment, they reproduced rapidly and devoured the same food sources as native species.

Concerned that the islands' environmental problems were spiraling out of control, Victor Carrion, deputy director of the Galapagos National Park, declared in July 2007 that action would have to be taken. He did not call for eliminating tourism altogether, but said that the number of ecotourists on the islands would have to be scaled back significantly in order to ensure the future environmental prosperity of the Galapagos.

"We have to revise our tourism model and aim for fewer tourists and higher revenues," Carrion asserts. "We have not set a cap on tourists, but I think we should." Observers say that the environmental problems confronting the Galapagos Islands mirror those being experienced in many other areas of the world. Like Carrion, many environmental officials in other popular ecotourism destinations are weighing the pros and cons of curbing the number of visitors in the near future, to restore the health of the environment.

Ecotourism Benefits Environment, Supporters Assert

Advocates of nature-based travel say that ecotourism has had an enormously positive influence on environmental conservation in recent decades. Since ecotourism became popular in the early 1990s, they say, global awareness of environmental issues has grown substantially. One of the reasons people are currently paying more attention to environmental issues is that ecotourists become educated on their trips, supporters contend. Once they return home, travelers share their stories and experiences with friends and family, sparking those people's interest as well, proponents say. "A lot of what we talk about our conservation programs, our community involvement programs--a lot of it has to do with guest education," says John Lewis, who runs an ecotourism lodge in Costa Rica.

Many proponents of ecotourism reject charges that they engage in unsustainable environmental practices, such as disposing of sewage incorrectly or polluting the land and air. While supporters concede that a handful of nature-based tour operators do not abide by the guiding principles of ecotourism, they assert that the vast majority of ecotourism companies are extremely responsible as stewards of the environment.

Many advocates of ecotourism insist that a quota system for visitors should not be implemented. They say that for many impoverished regions of the world, ecotourism profits represent one of the biggest sources of foreign revenue. Given those circumstances, restricting the number of visitors would deprive local residents of their economic livelihoods, supporters contend. Proponents also assert that countries blessed with stunning natural environments should be entitled to use those areas as a source of income. " based on tourism," declares Rocio Martinez, president of the Galapagos Islands' chamber of commerce on the. "We should take advantage of our natural environment to reap the benefits of tourism."

Regardless of whether ecotourism operations are corporately owned or run by local residents, profits earned from nature-based tourism are routinely recycled into nearby communities, proponents insist. Among other things, they say, tourist dollars help fund public education, develop transportation and health-care infrastructure, and support environmental conservation programs. Furthermore, backers say, residents living in or around ecotourism destinations benefit from ecotourism because the industry provides them with steady, well-paying jobs running tours, constructing tourist facilities or staffing hotels and restaurants.

In order to encourage more ecotourism outfits to become environmentally friendly, some supporters suggest that tour operators be provided with incentives to promote sustainable nature-based travel. Those backers point to British Airways PLC--a company that annually distributes "Tourism for Tomorrow Awards" to environmentally sustainable tour companies around the world--as proof that the private sector can help bolster the public profile of responsible ecotourism companies. Indeed, proponents say, recent recipients of the British Airways awards have seen a notable increase in business activity. David Bellamy, a well-known British environmental activist, asserts that providing awards to certain tour operators helps "turn the spotlight on tourism that doesn't cost the earth."

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.

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.

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."

An Overview of Various Forms of Tourism

In the broadest sense, tourism is travel for pleasure. However, tourism now comes in many varieties. Some types of tourism, such as ecotourism, center on the natural environment and environmental conservation. Other forms of tourism, such as mass tourism, are entirely different, revolving around oceanside resorts and other traditional vacation destinations. The following is a sampling of the many forms of tourism available today:

Adventure tourism. Adventure tourism has greatly increased in popularity in recent decades. As the name suggests, adventure tourism often involves participation in athletic activities--such as rock climbing, whitewater rafting and mountain climbing--that ordinary tourists might deem too risky or too exhausting. Given the central role that the wilderness plays in adventure tourism, people are usually required to travel to remote locations to partake in it.

Ecotourism. Since the mid-1990s, ecotourism--also known as nature-based tourism--has been the fastest-growing sector of the global tourism industry. Most ecotourism tour operators prize environmental conservation and encourage guests to "leave only footprints" in the regions they visit. Ecotourists usually take trips to remote parts of the world that feature unique plant and animal species, endangered ecosystems, or both.

Geotourism. The word "geotourism" did not enter the popular lexicon until 1997, when a National Geographic magazine editor invented the term. Geotourism generally describes travel that aims to preserve the historic character of a particular destination, both culturally and aesthetically. Tourism-industry insiders say geotourists tend to gravitate to places with a rich cultural heritage and strong sense of community.

Mass tourism. This form of tourism typically involves travel to traditional vacation destinations, such as beaches or mountain resorts. "Mass tourists" place a premium on relaxation. Mass tourism constitutes the largest sector of the global tourism industry.

Pro-poor tourism. The overall goal of pro-poor tourism is poverty reduction. In that sense, pro-poor tourism is different from most other types of travel because it does not involve a specific type of destination. Instead, pro-poor tourism represents a way of traveling and operating tourism-related business. Tour operators that consider themselves "pro-poor" often seek meaningful interaction with local residents. Pro-poor tourism outfits also invest a large amount of their profits into nearby communities and try to improve residents' quality of life by giving them service or construction jobs. This type of tourism has recently gained a foothold in South Africa and several other parts of the world.

Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism

To national, regional and local governments:

Guarantee--in conjunction with local and indigenous communities, the private sector, NGOs and all ecotourism stakeholders--the protection of nature, local and indigenous cultures and specially traditional knowledge, genetic resources, rights to land and property, as well as rights to water....

Develop regulatory mechanisms for internalization of environmental costs in all aspects of the tourism product, including international transport....

Define appropriate policies, management plans, and interpretation programmes for visitors, and earmark adequate sources of funding for natural areas to manage visitor numbers, protect vulnerable ecosystems, and the sustainable use of sensitive habitats. Such plans should include clear norms, direct and indirect management strategies, and regulations with the funds to ensure monitoring of social and environmental impacts for all ecotourism businesses operating in the area, as well as for tourists wishing to visit them....

Ensure that basic environmental and health standards are identified and met by all ecotourism development even in the most rural areas. This should include aspects such as site selection, planning, design, the treatment of solid waste, sewage, and the protection of watersheds, etc., and ensure also that ecotourism development strategies are not undertaken by governments without investment in sustainable infrastructure and the reinforcement of local/municipal capabilities to regulate and monitor such aspects....

Promote and develop educational programmes addressed to children and young people to enhance awareness about nature conservation and sustainable use, local and indigenous cultures and their relationship with ecotourism....

To the private sector:

Bear in mind that for ecotourism businesses to be sustainable, they need to be profitable for all stakeholders involved, including the projects' owners, investors, managers and employees, as well as the communities and the conservation organizations of natural areas where it takes place....

Conceive, develop and conduct their businesses minimizing negative effects on, and positively contributing to, the conservation of sensitive ecosystems and the environment in general, and directly benefiting and including local and indigenous communities....

Ensure that the design, planning, development and operation of ecotourism facilities incorporates sustainability principles, such as sensitive site design and community sense of place, as well as conservation of water, energy and materials, and accessibility to all categories of population without discrimination....

Work actively with indigenous leadership and local communities to ensure that indigenous cultures and communities are depicted accurately and with respect, and that their staff and guests are well and accurately informed regarding local and indigenous sites, customs and history....

Generate awareness among all management and staff of local, national and global environmental and cultural issues through ongoing environmental education, and support the contribution that they and their families can make to conservation, community economic development and poverty alleviation....

To non-governmental organizations, community-based associations, academic and research institutions:

Monitor and conduct research on the actual impacts of ecotourism activities upon ecosystems, biodiversity, local and indigenous cultures and the socio-economic fabric of the ecotourism destinations....

Cooperate with research institutions to develop the most adequate and practical solutions to ecotourism development issues....

To inter-governmental organizations, international financial institutions and development assistance agencies:

Strengthen efforts in identifying the factors that determine the success or failure of ecotourism ventures throughout the world, in order to transfer such experiences and best practices to other nations, by means of publications, field missions, training seminars and technical assistance projects....

Develop financial mechanisms for training and capacity building, that takes into account the time and resources required to successfully enable local communities and indigenous peoples to participate equitably in ecotourism development....

To local and indigenous communities:

As part of a community vision for development, that may include ecotourism, define and implement a strategy for improving collective benefits for the community through ecotourism development including human, physical, financial, and social capital development, and improved access to technical information....

Strengthen, nurture and encourage the community's ability to maintain and use traditional skills, particularly home-based arts and crafts, agricultural produce, traditional housing and landscaping that use local natural resources in a sustainable manner....

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.

Recent Milestones in the History of Ecotourism

Ecotourism - 1990s

Ecotourism, also known as nature-based travel, begins to grow in popularity on nearly every continent, including Antarctica.

Ecotourism - 1998

Recognizing the increasing public profile of nature-based travel, the United Nations Economic and Social Council asks members of the U.N. General Assembly to approve a measure that will result in a yearlong effort to promote ecotourism.

Ecotourism - 2001

After decades' worth of tourism-related land degradation in Spain's Balearic Islands, the local government proposes an "eco-tax" on travelers to fund the restoration of the islands' natural landscape. However, after local tour operators warn that such a tax would severely hamper the islands' tourism revenue, the proposal is withdrawn. The event is viewed as a significant victory for the global tourism industry, and sparks a debate about environmental protection in areas of the world frequented by tourists.

Ecotourism - 2002

The U.N. declares 2002 to be the International Year of Ecotourism. Throughout the year, conferences, panel discussions and public events take place around the world under U.N. auspices to educate people about the benefits of environmentally sustainable tourism.

In May, representatives from more than 130 countries gather in Quebec City, Canada, for a global summit on ecotourism under the auspices of the U.N. Environmental Program and the World Tourism Organization. Government officials, tourism industry executives, business developers and environmentalists collaborate on the creation of a nonbinding measure known as the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism. The document recommends a series of steps that should be followed in the coming years to ensure that ecotourism remains environmentally sustainable and economically profitable for residents of developing countries.

Ecotourism - 2007

Growing numbers of environmental activists allege that the mounting popularity of ecotourism is resulting in widespread land degradation and pollution in many popular nature-based travel destinations in Latin America, the Pacific Ocean and Asia. They demand that quotas be placed on the annual number of travelers to such places to minimize the human impact on sensitive ecosystems.

In July, environmental officials in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands--one of the world's premier ecotourism destinations--announce that they are considering implementing restrictions on travel to the archipelago. To compensate for the resulting reduction in the number of tourists, they suggest that the price of visiting the Galapagos Islands be increased substantially.