If you’re like me, ecotourism is a word you’ve heard thrown around—and one you’re fairly confident is the brainchild of Greenpeace—but have never actually looked into. I finally did, and was surprised to find that ecotourism is both an incredibly fascinating concept and something that I would love to do. My guess is that you would too. But what is ecotourism, and what does it mean for your travels? Let’s investigate.
Photo Credit: Modern Languages at Finger Lakes Community College - Costa Rica 2013 by LeafLanguages, on Flickr
Ecotourism is simple: it is purposeful travel to fragile and relatively undisturbed natural areas designed to educate about human impact on the environment and to produce environmentally conscious world citizens. In exchange for money. This is where ecotourism is genius—it uses profit attained through the long-established industry of tourism to incentivize natural resource conservation and the expansion of state-protected areas, and in doing so turns the classic cost-benefit rationale that often supports deforestation on its head. It is no longer more lucrative to plow down forests to build the newest moneymaking tourist attraction; it is more lucrative to leave them standing for wallets to stare at in awe.
As you can imagine, there are many economical and environmental benefits to ecotourism. It is an excellent vehicle for transferring income from wealthy nations and persons to the poorer sectors of society, which often support rich biodiversity and immense ecosystems; it produces a trickle-down effect that brings added revenues to rural and previously disadvantaged areas, providing new employment opportunities for Costa Ricans; it provides an alternative to environmentally damaging industries, encourages individual conservation efforts, and supports the expansion of protected lands. There are also, however, many economical and environmental costs that prospective eco-tourists should be aware of.
Exploitation of the local working force, leakage, and overall instability are among the industry’s greatest concerns, and all three are exemplified in Costa Rica—an ecotourism pioneer that has been its poster child since the early 1990s. Recognized as one of the few countries with true ecotourism, Costa Rica was ranked fifth in the world in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index—an annual numerical benchmarking of the environmental performance of a country’s policies.
Although ecotourism in Costa Rica is highly regarded in terms of environmental consciousness, exploitation is a concern in any industry. Ecotourism is thought to create jobs for locals, and does. But the jobs that locals receive are oftentimes low paying and limited in upward-mobility, and little if any compensation is given for switching to professions in the tourism industry. This has been the case in Costa Rica, as in many other developing countries, and is likely to continue.
Another problem in Costa Rica is a lack of resources to construct the infrastructure necessary for tourist development. This has led the country to turn to foreign corporations and international donors, and consequently leakage problems have ensued in which profits earned do not stay in the country. With internal profit, there is always a risk that matters of local environment and nature protection will become secondary to profit maximization. But without internal profit, there is no ecotourism at all.
Lack of resources is also the source of the greatest problem of all: trail deterioration, habitat disruption, pollution, and litter. Without resources, it is understandably difficult to train personnel to efficiently regulate and protect a national park. The result? The progression of environmental degradation for which no one can be held accountable. Visitor overcapacity further degrades the environment, and although policies have been specifically designed to alleviate pressure on more fragile environments, even those designated as suitable are becoming fragile as the number of eco-tourists continues to rise.
Ultimately, it’s easy to criticize the eco-tourism industry: how can the world’s most delicate ecosystems be protected by a profit-oriented business? But regardless of whether or not you feel the benefits outweigh the costs, it is impossible not to appreciate the savvy ingenuity of a conservationist vision that manipulates money rather than succumbing to it. You may now go forth and eco-tour (or travel) with gusto.