What Is Ecotourism & How Can It Be Improved?
Understanding the very real benefits we all stand to gain from our natural world is also one of the best ways to protect it.
Ecotourism is on the rise as our climate changes, and it also happens to be a great way to encourage positive interactions with nature.
But, there are issues with many popular ecotourism destinations that need to be examined more closely.
Plenty of ecotourism success stories also exist, which means that both local communities and the plants and animals who call the surrounding areas their home can benefit from it.
So, what is ecotourism and how can it be a part of a sustainable strategy?
What is ecotourism?
Ecotourism is a kind of tourism that aims to turn environmental protection into a profitable business by supporting all the services an ecosystem can provide, in a way that still brings money into local communities.
For our ecosystems to currently survive, they usually need to provide financial benefits to those within them – something that guarantees their protection.
Ecotourism is one of these tangible benefits.
And if done right, it aims to give both the buyer and seller a reason to look after the land, instead of only taking from it. By focusing on the benefits ecotourism can provide, these reasons become more personal, and other perks naturally develop over time.
What are the benefits of ecotourism?
In general, the benefits of ecotourism can all be organized under the different kinds of ecosystem services that exist.
And while this is a simplified list, ecotourism can lead to these direct and indirect benefits:
- Food and other raw materials
- Clean water and better air quality
- Money, recreation, and a more pleasant place to live
- Animal and plant habitat as well as reduced biodiversity loss
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), an organization that works to better connect our food system and wildlands around the planet, describes four key ecosystem services, listed below.
ecosystem services: the direct and indirect ways in which ecosystems impact human well-being
Provisioning services. These are some of the simplest material benefits from the land we inhabit, and includes things like food, raw materials, medicines, and freshwater – all of which come directly from ecosystems.
Regulating services. This is where the advantages of ecotourism become less obvious, made up of things such as carbon sequestration, air quality, nutrient recycling, and other biological processes that go on behind the scenes.
Supporting services. Biodiversity thrives in a healthy ecosystem supported by diverse plant and animal species, and supporting services are those which provide these species with a habitat to live in.
Cultural services. The direct, non-material benefits that people receive from their environment including recreation, tourism, spirituality, and even art inspired by surrounding nature.
All of these services compliment each other, but it’s clear that some of these services are much easier to put a number on than others.
And more importantly, it’s obvious how some are more appealing when it comes to making a living.
How does the ecotourism industry work?
Ecological tourism is seen as a creative way to combine environmental conservation with economic development, and the industry has taken off over the last few decades.
It’s now one of the most important sectors of international tourism, expected to grow around 15% between 2022 and 2030, with a market size of nearly $200 billion in 2021.
But this still leaves many of us with the question: is ecotourism good or bad?
The constant noise of consumerism and more immediate ways of making money tend to be the things we focus on, instead of protecting the world around us.
This is far more excusable in some areas of the world, where the baseline of comfort is lower than what’s expected by many of us living in wealthier nations. In these places, trying to stop someone from cutting down a wild plot of land to grow cash crops that could pull their family out of poverty seems like a much more ignorant and unethical idea to push.
But even if this wasn’t the case, most of us are simply too caught up in our day to day lives, and it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to always consider the bigger picture – even as we all cope collectively with climate grief.
Good examples of ecotourism
Demand for ecotourism locations is increasing as urban areas expand, and this change of pace represents a much needed escape from the city and the congestion that comes with it.
Some countries have adopted the concept well, so let’s take a look at a few positive ecotourism examples:
Costa Rica is a well-known ecotourism hotspot, known for stunning views and pristine ecosystems.
And in many ways its leading the charge for environmental protections, with over 30% of it’s territory protected by its national park system and other environmental groups.
The country has seen a dramatic surge in income from ecotourism in recent years, and has some of the best environmental protections and “Rights of Nature” laws in the world.
Tourism represented around 10% of the GDP before COVID-19, and is likely to pick up again as restrictions relax over time. Some of this money directly funds effective regulations and protection of the environment by the government, in alignment with the ethos of ecosystem services.
Park entrance fees generate revenue toward protection in many cases, and in Rwanda, gorilla trekking is a huge tourist draw and comes with a hefty fee.
In Volcanoes National Park, $1500 permits serve to keep visitor numbers low while also generating important income to fund the protection of an endangered species.
Portions of these fees are then fed back into the local community. So not only are the revenue-generating habitats that Mountain Gorillas live in protected – people are also able to benefit from their knowledge of the importance of forests.
And these kinds of programs are valuable not only for protecting habitats and incomes, but also for preserving the complex endangered animal cultures that exist within them.
Tourism before COVID-19 represented a substantial chunk of the GDP of Madagascar, which is largely a state-run operation.
However, ecotourism isn’t entirely a government-run project.
In Anja Community Reserve, a brief stopover to check out some lemurs directly brings the local community money, and nearly half of that goes into maintaining local environments while the rest enters the community.
This is one of the best examples of ecotourism that exists, and the region’s success has allowed it to employ 85 guides and animal spotters, and even invest in things like community run hospitals and schools.
Bad examples of ecotourism
While there are plenty of great ecotourism examples, it’s also incredibly common to run into poorly run operations causing more problems than they claim to solve, and other countries and communities are making less of an effort.
Here are a few examples:
The Uganda Wildlife Authority’s mission statement is “to conserve, economically develop, and sustainably manage the wildlife and protected areas of Uganda” and claims to channel 10% of tourism revenue back into the community.
Yet, in Uganda, protected habitats are routinely destroyed for commercial gain and parkside communities are some of the poorest on Earth.
In 2020, a protected forest ecosystem was destroyed to plant sugar, and an oil well is about to start up inside Murchison National Park – with a proposed pipeline that will cross multiple protected habitats.
These areas could easily turn a profit from ecotourism if given the chance, and local communities and the scientists who study these unique ecosystems are often left feeling helpless as these decisions are out of their hands entirely.
One of the best examples of “ecotourism” in name only is the whale shark experiences available in the Maldives.
Tourism makes up the largest sector of the economy. And while trips are marketed as ecotourism, the subjects of the experience, whale sharks, are suffering.
Many tour companies illegally bait the water to attract them, leading to a dangerous association between boats and food for a species already at risk from overfishing.
Tourists ignore unenforced instructions not to touch or grab the animals, and it’s clear that the experience holds no regard for their wellbeing and is purely about the money involved.
Elephant sanctuaries are one of the most popular attractions of Western tourists in Thailand, but the unethical treatment of the animals is by no means limited to one country.
77% of nearly 3000 elephants investigated across six Asian countries in 2017 were found to be mistreated, with Thailand being the worst offender.
While there are genuine elephant sanctuaries around, it’s hard to know which ones are cruelty-free, if that’s even possible; and there’s already a lack of awareness among consumers surrounding the ethics of zoos and captive animals in general.
Does greenwashing exist in ecotourism?
No matter how it’s portrayed in the media, ecotourism is about money.
It’s up to every government to manage the pros and cons of ecotourism in a responsible way, but in reality that’s unlikely to ever happen.
Greenwashing in ecotourism is a real problem, and is one of the more negative facts about ecotourism that isn’t simply going to go away. So, it’s on the consumer to ensure that what they’re paying for actually benefits the environment in the way it’s supposed to.
While financial and environmental incentives can be aligned, economic gains are usually the top priority, which leaves the larger goal of environmental protection at risk.
There needs to be a sense of long-term fulfillment in order for local communities and governments alike to value the conservation of the environment, and that means a much deeper education on both sides.
In countries like Uganda, where governments reliably break their promises, local communities see little benefit from the protection of forests, so industries like the illegal wildlife trade will grow, and firewood being gathered from deforestation will continue.
As these habitats are lost, we also lose huge amounts of traditional ecological knowledge, which plays a key role in mitigating climate disasters around the world.
On the other hand, where governments pull their weight (like in Costa Rica), the evidence is clear that sustaining a pristine environment benefits the community and conservation becomes a unifying philosophy.
On the supply side, eco friendly tourism needs strong leadership in order to be successful, but it’s not all up to governments. The nature of supply and demand gives consumers power too.
As tourists, it’s important to be educated and investigate the locations we plan to visit! Close encounters with animals are one of the first red flags to look out for.
While Rwanda appears to do it well, whale sharks in the Maldives are not nearly as well protected.
With a better understanding of the benefits, misconceptions and drawbacks of the ecosystem services approach to tourism, we can channel our money into projects that make a difference.
Ecotourism can work – if it’s done right!
So read reviews, leave reviews, and start demanding more of so-called ecotourism attractions.
What travel destinations do you think check all the boxes for those who care about the environment?