First off, please excuse my streak of pessimistic contributions; I would never intentionally attempt to put a negative spin on widespread conservation efforts. In spite of this, I have become increasingly curious of the true environmental benefits of ecotourism as this trend continues to gain popularity worldwide.
Since I recently moved from Ontario to British Columbia a few months ago, I will have made the equivalent of three round-trips between these locations by the end of this year. Realizing that air travel is a major contributor of CO2 emissions, I started considering the environmental cost of traveling to far away parts of the world. But even when we try our best to travel or vacation in the most sustainable ways possible, is there still an unavoidable ecological cost built into our desire to travel the world?
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people”. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, it turns out that behind this idealistic definition lies the unseen side of ecotourism: the side of environmental destruction, socio-economic problems for locals, and other (presumably) unintended consequences of this phenomenon. Despite the best of intentions, many negative impacts of ecotourism have been noted, and I want to share some of the most significant consequences predominantly to encourage everyone to thoroughly educate themselves before stepping on that plane (or train, or bus, or ship…).
Wildlife & Natural Landscapes
Although ecotourism is a useful ‘hands-on’ approach to learning about protection and management of unique flora and fauna, introducing a considerable number of people into a once pristine and lightly frequented habitat is likely to introduce exotic (perhaps invasive) species and disease to these areas. Common tourist activities, such as taking photographs or observing plants and animals at a close range can put added stress on organisms. At the extreme end, the introduction of tourists can lead to events such as forest fires, road destruction, physical barriers, and accidental death, among other habitat alterations and effects on wildlife. There are also many indirect consequences of ecotourism affecting flora and fauna that may not even appear until some time has passed. Consider for example the consequences of ecotourism activity on Northern Bahamian Rock Iguanas (Cyclura cychlura) in The Bahamas, where a study that compared iguanas on an island visited by ecotourists with an island free of visitors showed an increase in non-native food introduced into the diets of iguanas exposed to tourists. These introduced ‘foods’ likely combined with sand once ingested, which can lead to serious medical problems for the iguanas (and likely other affected species in similar circumstances).
With water being such a valuable commodity, it is extremely important to examine any effects of ecotourism on the quality and thus uses of water resources. On the positive side, an influx of tourists to a particular region may encourage a community to provide access to clean or safe water, but aside from this, impacts on water appear to be mostly negative. The consequences are similar to those that occur anywhere modern life and water are combined: eutrophication from increased nutrient input, contamination from fecal matter and chemical leaching, altered ecological dynamics from deviation of water flow to accommodate travel, and accumulation of litter, among others. Changes in water cleanliness and accessibility has serious implications for the quality of life of native plants, animals, and humans, and such consequences must be greatly considered.
Of all categories, I would have to say that socio-economic implications is most variable in terms of potential benefits. Ecotourism introduces new job opportunities (perhaps even for those who may not have employment otherwise), brings money into communities able to provide ecotourism, exposes local culture, religion and lifestyle, and may even improve health care for residents and tourists alike. Simultaneously, however, there are unintended and undesired repercussions of each benefit of incorporating ecotourism into a community. Even though employment may increase, inflation rates may also increase. The cultures and languages introduced to the tourists may also be replaced (or in competition with) those of visiting tourists. The health of locals can also be threatened by the introduction of foreign diseases and bacteria. These are not events that are destined to take place in all locations inviting ecotourists to explore their environment, but rather possibilities, some of which may occur.
There are many records and studies documenting instances of negative consequences of ecotourism – a simple search will bring up individual cases from all over the world. It is important to remember, however, that ecotourism also provides opportunities for people to explore and become acquainted with ecosystems and environments in an intimate way, different from a typical vacation to a tropical resort or a big city. Just make sure you do your own research and know the benefits and costs of your next ecotourism adventure.