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What is ecotourism? The seemingly new trend of travel is officially defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” But what exactly does that mean?
Ecotourism has several main principles to work with the highest benefit, as defined by the International Ecotourism Society (TIES). These ecotourism principles include minimizing negative impacts of tourism on natural environments, respecting the environment, providing positive experiences to every actor involved, providing financial benefits for eco-friendly travel, empowering the local communities involved, and providing an all-around educational and culturally sensitive, as well as environmentally friendly travel experience.
Machu Picchu: it’s on nearly every traveler’s bucket list, and for good reason. The site is a world wonder with an ancient society built atop the high mountains of Peru. However, the site has introduced a limit to the number of visitors who can enter the park daily and annually because the volumes were beginning to take its toll on the site. The constant flow of visitors began to damage the rocks and the mountainside paths. Without ecotourism and eco-friendly practices, places like Machu Picchu could face total devastation at the hands of well-intending, but ill-informed, visitors.
Many popular tourist sites are natural wonders, but large crowds of people coming isn’t always good for conservation. So many people on the same hiking path can not only wear down the path, but also cause the ecosystem to change. Not to mention, use of certain products, like sunscreens, aerosol cans, or certain sprays, can seriously damage the local species and nature.
What Are the Negative Effects of Tourism?
Mountainside landscapes, paradise-like beaches, and lakeside towns are all at risk when faced with large-scale tourism. Damage can come from constant wear and tear to the area, or the result of built-up tourist facilities, construction of new hotels or water pipelines, and construction of new roads or infrastructure. When this happens, habitats are disrupted or at worst destroyed and the natural environment can be irreversibly harmed — trees are cut down, wetlands are drained, and sand and soil are eroded.
Not only can long-term tourism damage the place in question, but it can also negatively impact the natural resources of the local community. When large groups of tourists come to visit an area, they may be using natural resources at a much higher rate than the local community does. This often mainly refers to the many hotels and tourist hotspots that overuse resources like water. By taking this into account, ecotourism attempts to minimize these impacts, be it by limiting tourism rates, or in eco-friendly hotels and lodgings that cut down on the use of resources.
How Does Ecotourism Help?
Ecotourism works to minimize the impacts of tourism on the environment. By cutting down on the number of visitors allowed in (example Machu Picchu) or banning certain sunscreens (like in Hawaii’s coral reefs), even the smallest of environmentally-friendly actions can have huge benefits. These efforts to curb tourist behaviors result in less continual wear of the environment, letting it survive longer. Ecotourism and sustainable tourism also promote adapting to the local culture. This can mean using less water or having a simpler hotel so as not to use up natural resources, or to use less construction that has the potential to harm the region.
In Costa Rica, ecotourism is the main form of tourism. The country was one of the first to adopt the sustainable travel trend, where it has certainly flourished. Costa Rica is home to some of the best rainforest, beaches, volcanoes, and wildlife in the world. Visitors are still able to see all of these different environments today thanks to the sustainable efforts in the country. Over 21% of the country’s land is now a protected area, and the economy relies more heavily on, and was able to grow more from, the tourism sector.
Sustainable Tourism and the Local Community
Local communities are often heavily affected by the tourism in their region. With many countries seeing most of their economy coming from the tourism sector, and often times having to share natural resources with large companies coming in, local communities tend to benefit from ecotourism activities and sustainable travel. Some of the main ideas of ecotourism are to protect and respect the local cultures, heritages, and customs. Indigenous groups often rely on nature, while their heritage may largely involve the natural environment. Ecotourism helps empower local communities by relying heavily on local businesses, local opportunities, and community-led events. This also allows them to ensure they’re receiving the outcomes and benefits they want from their natural surroundings, and their home. By providing more job opportunities to these communities, they’re also able to have greater income opportunities, helping the economy of the local community. Subsequently, when you’re planning your trip, be sure to stay at a locally owned hotel or eat at local restaurants.
Ecotourism also has an emphasis on interacting with the local community’s culture and heritage. This gives the town or area an incentive to preserve the customs and allows for greater interaction between tourists and locals.
When you engage in environmentally-friendly tourism practices, you’re directly contributing to conservation efforts. By supporting sustainable businesses, the money you pay to your eco-tourism hotel or excursion often goes back into the environment and area you’re visiting. This money can then go into protecting the natural area, as well as into the management of a park or program that protects the area. In some cases, you’re paying the fee not directly to the park or program, but rather in a tax or entry fee to the host government. Countries like Seychelles, for example, offer visitors an unforgettable experience on clear blue seas and golden sand beaches — but for a price. Tourists entering the country must pay a fee of $90 USD in taxes, which accordingly goes into the preservation of the environment, and into the upkeep of local ecotourism businesses. While travelers may find the extra expense frustrating, this small amount goes a long way in protecting a beautiful destination.