The Road Less Traveled

Ecotourism, the Environment and Sustainable Development

Christopher Cosgrove, Cristina Prelle, Josh Weinstein


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A closer look....






 Ecotourism: What is it?

Since the end of the First World War, tourism has evolved from a domestic to an international phenomenon and continues to grow exponentially every year, especially in developing countries. A subset of the growing tourism market is Ecotourism, which is frequently used interchangeably with the terms “alternative tourism”, “sustainable tourism”, and “green tourism”. The definition most widely accepted for ecotourism comes from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) who describes it as…

"responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." ( 2003,2004 The International Ecotourism Society )

 Ecotourism, although a widely used and generic term, incorporates its primary purpose (an interaction with nature) with the aspiration of minimizing the negative impacts to the host environment. Embedded within the notion of ecotourism is the principle that local communities should benefit and that nature should be conserved through low-impact tourism (Roe et al., 1997). TIES delineates certain principles that should be at the core of ecotourism ideology.

•  Minimize impact (both environmentally and culturally)

•  Educate and create awareness of the environment and cultural history

•  Provide financial benefits for future conservation

•  Improve the welfare of the local people

•  Be sensitive to host countries' political, social, and environmental conditions

•  Put priority on human rights and labor agreements

( 2003,2004 The International Ecotourism Society )

Since the 1960s, tourism has been enthusiastically promoted by organizations such as the World Bank or the United Nations as a means of development for developing countries. Countries with rich biodiversity and exotic wildlife could use these ‘resources' as an economic strategy in order to attract foreign investment and bring in revenue. The tourism market is rapidly growing and rapidly changing allowing developing countries to capitalize on the ‘attractions' found in their own backyards.


Going Wild: The Ecotourism Market


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The 1980's saw a shift from the mass-tourism industry (which takes you to sandy beaches in ‘typical' locations) to “green consumerism” where tourists seek out more environmentally-relevant holidays. Combined with the general growth of tourism, there was a shift from developed to developing countries, increased interest in “activity” holidays (i.e. bird or whale watching), increased interest in natural or exotic settings, and a world-wide growing concern for environmental matters ( Roe et al., 1997).


Ecotourism Statistics

(The International Ecotourism Society, 2000)


Ecotourism as Development

 Héctor Ceballos-Lascurain, a Mexican environmentalist, describes ecotourism as “a mode of ecodevelopment that represents a practical and effective means of attaining social and economic improvement for all countries” (Honey, 1999, pg. 6). The idea of ecotourism is different from “nature” or “wild-life” tourism because it concentrates not only on one type of activity, but is a partnership between the tourist, the tourism operators, and the local community. In theory, these fragile and pristine areas invite tourists in an effort to provide low-impact and small-scale tourism that educates the tourist, provides revenue for conservation, and economically and politically empowers the local communities. Many countries are disenchanted by the negative consequences of mass-tourism such as black markets, prostitution, drugs, or AIDS, so they turn to ecotourism – a more environment –friendly and cleaner alternative (Honey, 1999). It is also possibly more lucrative and less destructive than other economic alternatives as logging, commercial fishing, soil extraction, or farming. “Ecotourism is an alternative activity to overuse of natural resources” (Ananthaswany, 2004).

“In Kenya , it is estimated that one lion is worth $7,000 per year in income from tourism, and an elephant herd is valued at $610,000 annually” (Honey, 1999, pg. 8). This trillion dollar a year industry has become the world's number one employer (Roe et al., 1997).



Ecotourism has the potential to contribute in many ways:


- generates local employment (both directly in the tourism sector but also in peripheral support/resource sectors)

- stimulates domestic industry (i.e. hotels, retail, local crafts, transportation, restaurants)

- creates foreign investment/exchange

-provides a need for the rural economy

helps us have a general understanding of different cultures, generates concern for the conservation of local hertiages

-promotes the protection and active conservation of the environment


Although ideologically the concept of ecotourism seems to be a perfect symbiosis between development and conservation, many of those that advertise their eco-friendly tourist attractions often blur the meaning and purpose of ‘alternative' tourism. In South Africa , a developer plans to build “an $800 million dollar ecotourism paradise” equipped with “a floating casino, hippos in the water hazards, Club Med-style hotels, and imported wild game…” (Honey, 1999, pg. 28). In Nepal , rather than climbing the mountainous landscape, you can take helicopter treks to the summits of various mountains. Both of these are marketed as ‘ecodevelopments', but it is obvious that these mega structures are not protecting the environment but exploiting it to bring in tourists. Many ecotourism developments are unchecked, unaccredited and only hint that they are based on policies that are environmentally friendly (Ananthaswany, 2004).


Doing more harm than good?

It seems logical that preservation of the environment by those involved in ecotourism would be intrinsic to the concept because the environment is, in fact, the resource on which the enterprise depends. However, this ‘alternative' form of tourism has the potential to be more damaging than mass tourism because it exists in more fragile environments. Although these tourist destinations are usually smaller in size and scale, they are a relatively new phenomenon and might only be the early stages of a destination that could become larger, more crowded, and more destructive (Roe et al., 1997).

The graph below portrays the Butler's Tourism Area Life Cycle related to the carrying capacity of, in this case, a tourist destination. It demonstrates the concept that, unless proper measures are taken (intervention occurs), ecotourism destinations will become overused, their resources will diminish, and their worth will, ultimately, decline.


( Berry , 2001)


The cycle begins with few tourists and an unscathed environment, but then works itself up to the point of development where locals lose control to foreign and major chains. This massive growth stresses the environment as well as creates social problems and resentment among the locals.


The Environmental Effects of Ecotourism

Although the impacts of ecotourism are difficult to assess (due to lack of baseline data and their indirect and cumulative nature), many environmental effects are documented and are of growing concern. Most of these impacts only become apparent in the long term, perhaps making ecotourism seem more ‘environmentally friendly' than it actually is.

Tourists are commonly most attracted to more fragile environments such as islands, mountains, and coastal zones. This high-demand for exotic (but fragile) ecosystems places considerable stress on the environments ecotourism is planning to protect. Although tourists are encouraged to tread lightly, those that have paid considerable amount often do not care about the long-term impact of their tours. Most likely, they believe that they have ‘paid a fortune' for their exotic adventure, and thus believe they should be able to do what they please -- despite the consequences on the environment. It is possible that ecotourism could be more detrimental than typical mass tourism because of the fragile environment in which it takes place. These ‘stresses' on the environment can be categorized into four forms:

•  “Permanent restructuring” of the environment through development/construction

•  Creation of waste

•  Various recreational activities (i.e. game hunting, safaris, etc.)

•  Changes in population dynamics (seasonal fluctuations in populations/ general pop. Increase)

(Roe et al., 1999)

“The immediate effects can be subtle—changes to an animals' heart rate, physiology, stress hormone levels and social behaviour, for example—but in the long term the impact tourists are having could endanger the survival of the very wildlife they want to see” (Ananthaswamy, 2004).


The following are some of the important impacts of Ecotourism...

•  Disturbance of feeding, breeding, and behavioral patterns

Along with ecotourism comes the constant pressures of tourists searching for wildlife (i.e. trophy hunters, bird watchers). This can affect the feeding or breeding of the local species. Some of these are immediate, while others have long term consequences. It is often the highlight of a wildlife safari to spot a large predator attacking its prey, however, this can disturb the feeding patterns of many predators such as cheetahs or lions. In addition to the disturbance of natural prey/predator relations, tourists blatantly interfere by feeding the animals directly – this often has severe consequences on behavioral patterns. This could cause changes in normal feeding behavior such as the inability (after a period of time) to find food for themselves or a loss in body size or reproductive success. For example, in the Galapagos, land iguanas left their breeding sites in favor of places where food could be begged from tourists (Roe et al., 1999).

In the presence of tourists, dolphins have become increasingly frenetic (tending to rest less) while bears have become increasingly vigilant (when they should be hinbernating). “The tourist visits could be increasing animals' heart rates and metabolism when they ought to be conserving their energy, and this could be reducing their body fat and individual fitness…” (Ananthaswamy, 2004).

•  Interference with parent-offspring relations

 There is risk of young being rejected by their mothers when they come in contact with tourists. Also, it has been documented that in Canada 's Gulf of St Lawrence , females spent more time paying attention to tourists than their pups.

Ex. Observations of yellow-eyed penguins in New Zealand show that chicks in areas with higher frequencies of tourists weigh around 10% less (Ananthaswamy, 2004). A number important for their survival.

•  Increased susceptibility to predators

 There is considerable evidence suggesting that tourist's observations can make them more vulnerable to predation. For example, tourists approaching tend to lure adult birds away from their nest, leaving them open to predators. Animals can also become accustomed to the presence of tourists, thus leaving them more susceptible to hunters/predators when they move off the ‘ecotourism' reserve.

•  Disease

 Commonly overlooked, the transmission of disease from tourists to wildlife, especially to large apes can be devastating – it has the potential to wipe out entire populations. With visitors come disease such as an intestinal parasite introduced to wild gorillas or, in the case of Botswanian mongooses and meerkats, human-induced tuberculosis.

• Death of individual animals

 Tourist vehicles, tourist traffic.

•  Pollution and Habitat Damage

Waste water and solid waste collection and disposal are sometimes poorly managed and generally, dumping and removing are disposed of improperly. Tourists often leave litter both near their accommodation areas (hotels, etc) as well as in the open. In addition to waste pollution, noises from vehicles or tourists have been shown to disrupt the behavioral patterns of some wildlife – especially during critical times such as the mating or resting seasons. The building of infrastructures, hotels, paths, and other recreational facilities obviously is a destruction of habitat. In addition, soil erosion and the killing of vegetation has become evident along buildings and roads.


What to Do Next

 The potential of Ecotourism as a form of sustainable development in developing countries is high. It has the promise of building up a local culture through increased profits and employment while conserving the environment and creating a new-found respect for different cultures and heritages. However, because of the fragile nature of the ecosystems in which these ‘sites' are built, further research must be done so that we don't end up destroying the environment. Further focus should be on the relationship between short- and long-term impacts of ecotourism, and we should broaden our scope to populations and wildlife communities rather than anecdotal evidence on species or individuals.

Club-med style hotels should not be able to peddle their mega-structures under the façade that they are offering an ‘environmentally friendly' adventure. Tougher restrictions should be placed on all kinds of ‘alternative tourism' to ensure that the objectives of tourism are fulfilled. The benefits should go to the local people, not foreign investors, and a major priority should be on the conservation of the environment (seeing as it is the generator of the new revenue). There should be mandated prerequisites for successful local participation in ecotourism projects and initiative.

Ecotourism should be a combined effort between the local community, the developers, and the tourists that visit these fragile sites. Local people should have significant participation in the structuring and organization of these sites. Efforts should be made to educate those involved -- those practicing ecotourism should be trained and have associates ranging form biological experts to socioeconomic experts. Most importantly, perhaps, tourists be aware of the fragile nature of the sites that they visit, so that their impacts can be minimized.

Ecotourism has the amazing potential to foster growth in a developing world. But only if it's done right.