In 2007, the UNWTO estimated that ecotourism captured 7% of the global tourism market.
As the race continues to find alternative sources of energy and green solutions to combat global warming, new industries are sprouting up as well. Ecotourism is a case in point. The idea budded almost four decades ago in the 1970s, but has taken on new meaning today, as global concerns about a fast depleting environment are deepening.
So what exactly is ecotourism, an industry that is growing at a very rapid pace? The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has defined the term as tourism that minimizes the negative impacts on the environment, supports the protection of natural areas through economic benefits, creates jobs for local communities, and increases awareness for conservation of fragile environments and animals. Fueled by individuals who desire to experience pristine and untouched environments and at the same time promote green awareness, this niche market has been expanding by at least 20% to 30% since the 1990s, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).
In fact, ecotourism accounts for one in five tourists worldwide today. To acknowledge ecotourism’s sensational popularity, the United Nations held a World Ecotourism Summit and declared the year 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism. Building upon the momentum, the UNWTO declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity. “These people are looking for two things: access to unique areas that most tourists can never visit, and a way to improve the quality of life of the people and places they do visit,” elaborates Duane Silverstein, executive director of Seacology a Berkeley-based non-profit organization.
And as more tourists flock to experience the unspoiled environments of underdeveloped countries, those economies benefit immensely. “Many of our projects encourage ecotourism so that rural people can make a living out of something apart from using too much of the forests or fisheries or wetlands,” explains Geoffrey Howard of the East Africa office of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Nairobi, Kenya. Tourism has indeed turned into a powerful tool for conservation. Blue Ventures, a British non-profit organization, offers expeditions for scientists and volunteers to its marine field station in a remote location in Madagascar. Their efforts have paid off. In three short years, Blue Ventures succeeded in improving octopus conservation and awareness, winning the organization the United Nations Seed Award.
Today, it is Costa Rica, which holds pride of place as the world leader in ecotourism. From just 330,000 visitors in 1988, the country’s rich biodiversity spots have attracted more than two million tourists just twenty years later in 2008. According to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, the country raked in a total of $2.2 billion in revenues last year, as tourists spent an average of $1000 to visit the country’s carefully preserved green ecosystem.
In the U.S., ecotourism has become the fast growing travel trend and
represents 5% of the overall U.S. tourism market, according to research
estimates from Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Journal.
But it is not just emerging market nations that are pushing ecotourism; developed countries are benefiting as well. Netherlands-based architectural firm, WHIM, is planning to construct an entire Recycled Island in the Pacific Ocean from 97 million pounds of plastic. Touted as the ecotourism spot of the future, the island, roughly the size of Hawaii will be fully sustainable with enough space to accommodate half a million ecotourists. Taking care not to leave behind too many carbon footprints, the island will be powered by wave and solar energy, while seaweed will provide eco-friendly fuel for the residents. Over in Sweden, at a location around 40 miles away from the Arctic Circle, a Tree Hotel made of glass was opened recently. Set amidst a thick forest, the mirrored exterior walls reflect the surroundings, making the structure seemingly disappear in the lush greenery. The environment friendly building is made of sustainably harvested wood with electric radiant floor heating and incinerating toilets. “This is untouched forest and we want to maintain it the same way,” says Anette Selberg, the Treehotel Sales Manager.
Yet, despite such good intentions, ecotourism can have a negative side too. Less obvious impacts are worrisome to many conservationists and environmentalists. “Transmission of disease to wildlife, or subtle changes to wildlife health through disturbance of daily routines or increased stress levels, while not apparent to a casual observer, may translate to lowered survival and breeding,” explains Philip Seddon of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. In the hinterlands of South America or Africa, the “dos and don’ts” guidelines are often blurry, which potentially can cause harm. And as ecotourism continues to grow, competition will also rise at a scorching pace, potentially leading to a depletion of resources.
Biologists and researchers call for caution and feel that ecotourism should be developed carefully. Perhaps in recognition of its growing dangers, as well as promise, the second World Ecotourism Conference was recently held in Malaysia, in collaboration with UNWTO and TIES, to promote safe ecotourism and discuss frameworks.
If approached correctly, ecotourism could become an essential cog in the wheel of conservationism. “There’s a compelling argument to be made that ecotourism is a huge piece of the conservation movement, which would drop off if the travel stopped,” points out Auden Schendler, the executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. in Colorado. In our storied past, man has largely served as a foe to the environment. By fostering travel that reinforces good environmental practices and promotes the economies of underdeveloped countries, ecotourism might foster a symbiotic relationship between humankind and the environment that in the end will benefit all of us.