Eco-tourism — travel to areas that conserve the natural environment — makes up one of the largest segment of global tourism income. It’s also one of the fastest-growing kinds of tourism, and responsible for producing more than $28 billion in revenue for developing nations. And when eco-tourism works well, it conserves the fragile habitats as it provides income for local communities and indigenous peoples.
But while eco-tourism can provide many benefits for both the environment and local people, not all eco-tourism is sustainable and beneficial to local communities and conservation efforts.
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Benefits of Eco-Tourism
The primary benefit of eco-tourism is that it encourages the development of local conservation efforts while also strengthening the economies of communities that are often impoverished. The income from eco-tourism can enable these local communities to self-fund conservation projects, making them less dependent on provincial or national governments for funding. Even if priorities of local or state officials shift, conservation efforts that are funded locally will stay funded.
Eco-tourist destinations can also connect with the global conservation community over platforms like social media, providing informative and educational posts that both advertise their efforts and help viewers around the world connect with nature.
The income from eco-tourism is also typically more sustainable than the income derived from extractive industries like logging, mining or agriculture. Building an economy around eco-tourism can encourage communities to think long-term — income from tourism should increase with investment in local amenities and infrastructure that both tourists and community members will benefit from. Residents and students will also benefit from the environmental education offered by local conservation projects, even if they are aimed at tourists.
And eco-tourism provides a unique educational opportunity for tourists interested in conservation. It’s rare that you get a chance to see animals behaving as they do in the wild — and when tourists are respectful of the wildlife, they can bring those lessons (and maybe a new respect for nature) back home with them.
Possible Drawbacks of Eco-Tourism
Unfortunately, eco-tourism can also be a double-edged sword for conservation — the most successful eco-tourism industries will both benefit from and suffer because of the number of tourists they attract. Large amounts of foot traffic and construction like fences, bright lights and vehicle paths can disturb native wildlife, even in reserves meant to protect them. And when animals become accustomed to human contact, especially if they are fed by tourists, they can become more vulnerable to poachers.
When a community builds an economy on eco-tourism, they’re also building on demand that fluctuates with weather, season and exchange rates. Eco-tourism is typically more sustainable over the long-term than industries that extract resources from the environment. However, short-term dips in revenue can leave local businesses that depend on eco-tourism in the lurch. And workers who can’t depend on eco-tourism may be forced to turn back to industries that harm the environment.
Eco-tourism developments, especially those run by foreign companies or non-local businesses, can force indigenous people into competition with lodges and safari parks. One example highlighted by 2010 Goldman Prize winner Thuli Makama was in Swaziland, where local people were forced off their lands by the development of a local eco-tourism industry. Indigenous methods of conservation are not at odds with eco-tourism — but some businesses may force the two into competition. And without proper research, you may not even know that the economic benefits of wildlife conservation aren’t being felt by local people.
Responsible and Sustainable Eco-Tourism
But it wouldn’t be right to say that eco-tourism is bad for the environment. Sustainable eco-tourism can work as a kind of compromise that provides money to conservation efforts while limiting the damage of tourism. And without eco-tourism, people would still travel anyway — tourism grows as an industry every year, and tourists travel to fragile environments whether the local tourism industry is environmentally-friendly or not.
A good eco-tourist destination will encourage tourists to respect wildlife — and also to limit their interactions with both plants and animals to photography and observation. The destination should not encourage that tourists bring food with them to feed the animals. Tourists should be encouraged to stay out of sight of especially vulnerable animals. Even being seen by some animals, like Magellanic penguin chicks, can be enough to raise their stress levels and possibly harm their health.
Not all eco-tourism is sustainable. But with some research, a tourist should be able to know whether or not their destination is practicing good stewardship of the environment and benefits local and indigenous people.
And tourism itself isn’t guaranteed to be harmful to the environment. There are ways to be environmentally-conscious while traveling. Tourists can get to their destination in the most eco-friendly way possible. For travel, driving or traveling by train is usually better for the environment than flying, especially if driving or renting an electric vehicle is possible. When traveling overseas, options will be more limited — but there are still ways to travel green. Even if flying is the only option, a tourist can still choose an airline that makes reducing its carbon footprint a priority.
Wildlife Conservation vs. Eco-Tourism
Sustainable eco-tourism has possible drawbacks — any time a person enters an undisturbed or fragile natural environment, they can put the animals in that environment at risk. But the benefits of sustainable eco-tourism, including the income it provides for conservation efforts and the attention it can draw to endangered species and at-risk wildlife, outweigh the drawbacks.