Is Ecotourism All that It Seems?

You're planning a vacation to a remote corner of the world, to see breathtaking scenery and wildlife. You want to take in as much as possible with minimal impact. And you want your money to go toward helping local communities continue to protect their natural resources. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), an international nonprofit, "promotes responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." That's ecotourism in a nutshell - in a protected rainforest in Brazil, for example, or a wildlife reserve in South Africa. So what could be wrong with this? Read on.

Done well, ecotourism can be a win-win concept. In one example of ecotourism working as it was intended, Lapa Rios, a resort in southern Costa Rica, has maintained high standards for resource preservation while bringing jobs, money, and volunteers to the local community. The resort's employees almost all come from the surrounding villages, and have an opportunity to learn about conservation and sustainability as well as learning English. The resort helped build a local school, where visitors can volunteer to teach; and it uses local food sources whenever possible. The owners put the land - much of it virgin rainforest - into a trust to ensure its preservation, and the hotel's facilities were only built on land that had previously been cleared. Because the rainforest is privately owned, access is limited.

But of course, Lapa Rios isn't perfect. It's a luxury getaway only available to the wealthy - whereas some might argue that ecotourism should strive to provide opportunities for more ordinary travelers to experience the wonders of nature. This is a common criticism of many sustainability-focused resorts. The Himalayan nation of The Kingdom of Bhutan, a well-known ecotourism destination, is also not an easy vacation for most people. The government limits the number of tourists allowed in to the country in order to protect the native environment and culture.

The high cost alone is not the only downside of ecotourism. The fact is, this mode of travel has a mixed record, which is evident in places like Costa Rica. The country has made a strong commitment to protecting its rainforests and biodiversity and encouraging international tourism to see these very things. As a result, its economy is bolstered by an influx of travelers coming to experience its flora and fauna, and many communities have capitalized on this, learning to preserve their natural resources and using the income generated as a result to build schools and health clinics.

But several of Costa Rica's most popular rainforest areas are overrun with people - threatening the future of wildlife - and the surrounding towns are filled with dust and noise from excessive traffic and construction. The cloud forests of Monteverde are one such example, receiving so many tourists that the well-being of the region's biodiversity is at risk and officials are looking at limiting the numbers of visitors allowed into the parks.

Another problem is that the term ecotourism is often bandied about haphazardly, with many hotels and companies calling themselves "ecoresorts" or "ecolodges" when all they offer is a chance to view nature up close - without sustainability as a priority. One high-end hotel in Nicaragua, surrounded by rainforest and perched at the mouth of a spectacular river, bills itself as a "nature lodge," but visitors say it features air conditioning and cable TV in rooms that one guest described as "Hyatt in the jungle."

Sometimes, what so-called ecotourism brings may be the opposite of ecotourism: hotels draw people to a unique ecological landscape which then suffers from the human impact. (Of course, there's also the issue of the fossil fuels you burned up traveling to this remote location. But that's a topic for another day.)

To get a taste of some of the issues surrounding ecotourism, check out this ecotourism game, which asks the question, "Can you make ecotourism sustainable?" Try your hand at it!

So should you go visit that remote and delicate ecosystem, or choose a path more traveled in order to help keep some places intact? The key to successful ecotourism is to find a balance between encouraging tourism as an economic opportunity and preserving the ecological and cultural resources of the area. As the traveler, you can do your homework beforehand and make sure your trip is as low-impact as possible. Read up on the ecosystem you want to visit and the tour operator or hotel you're planning to use. Call and ask them about specific practices: What, exactly, do they do to help the local community? What policies have they put in place to ensure low-impact to the environment? What is their energy source? How do they handle their trash and sewage? Ecotourism, when it is working, has tremendous potential. But it can also backfire, or be used to hide policies that are not at all sustainable, so gathering as much information as possible is key.

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