We live in a globalized world thanks to the ease of travel by airplane and this is evident in the fact that tourism has become one of the world’s largest industries and one of the fastest growing branches is nature tourism. Ecotourism is a term for nature tourism that has been coined and is defined as “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples” by the World Conservation Unit (IUCN). Although the idea of attracting large groups of people to trample around a pristine environment seems counterintuitive in the goal of protecting ecosystems, if managed correctly ecotourism is not only beneficial in conservation efforts but also a benefit to the local economy of communities.
Ecotourism is an attractive source of revenue for local governments, businesses, and residents alike since it brings capital into the area. Also ecotourism allows for the development of new jobs such as craftsmanship/community craft markets/shops, inns, restaurants, and guiding. With more available capital in the community the government can build better infrastructure such as roads, community buildings/schools/medical offices, irrigation and water treatment which benefits everyone in the community. Ecotourism can be an important tool for in sustainable development and community empowerment since it brings employment and educational opportunities, as well as, an increased capacity for building into the community. But ecotourism is definitely not always the answer. Not all communities want to forgo their traditional way of life in order to be tour guides for privileged foreigners who have no concept of their customs. Also not all communities have the initial infrastructure to even begin hosting travelers who usually expect a certain level of comfort (i.e. piped water, inns, easy access by road/air). Although ecotourism by definition is environmentally conscious, if its development is not managed correctly it can actually be a cause for environmental degradation.
If ecotourism is not managed in accordance to its sustainable goals, it can become an environmental threat as just nature travel that attracts larges masses of people that put pressure on the ecosystem and natural resources of the area. Tourism can damage the environment through soil erosion, increased pollution (air, noise, solid, sewage and light), natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and overuse of water resources for tourist consumption, irrigation of lawns/golf course/parks, use in pools, and use by hotels. Also studies have found that although the introduction of ecotourism in communities usually reduces negative environmental impacts such as cutting down trees, that the behavioral change did not always indicate a greater environmental awareness but rather people were simply too busy with new employment/satiated with new income to need to continue such actions. Thus, once the local economy builds up economic funds development can grow to threaten natural resources if their remains to be a lack in environmental awareness. Also ecotourism does not always benefit the community but sometimes just benefits outside corporations. An example of exploitative tourism are the predominately western owned mountaineering guiding companies in Nepal that are notorious for exploiting sherpa guides.
But all in all, I believe that ecotourism is a successful and important tool in sustainable development, the empowerment of communities, and the conservation of the natural environment if it is approached and managed by the communities and with environmental awareness at its heart.