Can environmental conservation and tourism coexist harmoniously? Global Voices


Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela (Albemarle), Galápagos Islands, Ecuador – Photo courtesy of Flickr user Elias Rovielo (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Fancy an eco-friendly trip to the Amazon, Alaska or the Kimberley region of Western Australia? Very reputable organizations such as National Geographic and WWF (World Wildlife Fund) offer many attractive travel options, such as Antarctica.

In its promotional material, National Geographic brags about its sustainable travel options:

wildlife encounters and hands-on conservation experiences will provide travelers with information and inspiration to continue protecting the world and its creatures long after they return home.

Many people view ecotourism positively, associating it with environmental conservation and the preservation of endangered wildlife. When researching ecotourism, envious images abound: sunbathing on secluded, pristine beaches; snorkeling in enchanting coral reefs; trekking in remote wilderness and mountains; tourists immersing themselves in local cultures.

There have been many attempts to define the term. For example, in Australia, the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, the custodian of national parks and state forests, has a detailed explanation:

Ecotourism encompasses nature-based activities that increase visitors’ appreciation and understanding of natural and cultural values. They are experiences managed in such a way as to guarantee their ecological, economic and social sustainability, contributing to the well-being and conservation of the natural spaces and local communities where they operate.

Similarly, the Wikipedia outlet says:

Ecotourism is a form of tourism involving responsible travel (using sustainable transportation) to natural areas, environmental conservation, and improving the well-being of local people.

Responsible ecotourism programs include those that minimize the negative environmental aspects of conventional tourism and enhance the cultural integrity of local people.

Ecotourism often involves expensive small-group trips, with high-quality accommodation and meals. Visiting remote parts of the planet is high on many people’s wish lists.

The idea of ​​a trip that is sustainable and sensitive to the natural environment is appealing. We protect what we value, especially in economic terms. The PBR (Population Reference Bureau) maintains that:

At best, ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that maintains ecosystem integrity and produces economic benefits for local communities that can encourage conservation. At the crossroads of people and the environment, ecotourism is a creative way to marry the objectives of ecological conservation and economic development.

Yet these types of trips often have potential downsides: they can lead to pollution and other environmental damage; they often result in large carbon footprints from air, sea and other transportation; and they can create social and cultural disruption in local communities.

Here are some of the places that are experimenting with ecotourism.

the Galapagos Islands

The Discovering Galapagos project produces educational materials about the islands for students. It examines the impact of tourism:

Some of the good things are that tourists bring money to the islands and are a source of income for many Galapageños. However, there are also bad parts. As more tourists visit the islands, they will need more places to stay, which means that large hotels could be built, which could endanger nearby wildlife.

A study, “Rethinking and Resetting” Tourism in the Galápagos Islands: Stakeholder Perspectives on the Sustainability of Tourism Development, was recently published in Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights. It raised a number of troubling questions:

A key finding of the study is that stakeholders share the view that unrestricted tourism growth is counterproductive due to social and environmental impacts. Tackling the effects of overtourism in Galapagos, as in other tropical islands, may involve degrowth strategies or a transition to slow tourism which provides a mechanism to increase tourism income and jobs, but decrease the impact per capita on island resources.

For a tourist destination to succeed with sustainable tourism, social and ecological concerns must be taken into account; if tourism is seen as a catalyst for sustainable development, then the quality of life and individual well-being of local residents must be taken into account, even if conservation priorities are taken into account.

Machu Picchu

The Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru attracts huge crowds every year. Many people travel the legendary Inca Trail to get there. The CATALYST online community is “a source of travel and social action content for activists and travelers with a global conscience”. He warned in May 2022:

The lack of infrastructure supporting these figures has an even greater impact. There is only one bathroom at the entrance and human waste is a huge problem. The nearest village, Aguas Calientes, resorted to pumping human waste into the Urubamba River. The increase in litter, especially plastic water bottles, on the Inca Trail also contributes to uncontrolled waste.

The term ecotourism is now overused. It has been expanded from its original purpose to encompass all nature-related travel and for many it is synonymous with sustainability.

Mount Kilimanjaro

Overtourism at Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has also drawn criticism:

The Tanzanian government has sparked an outcry in recent years after announcing plans for a cable car system on the south side of Kilimanjaro, to boost tourist numbers and provide access for those who cannot climb it. Expedition groups, porters who help climbers and climate experts said the project would endanger the mountain’s delicate ecosystem and harm the local economy.

Advantages and disadvantages

There are many sites online advocating the positive aspects of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Softback Travel, which markets itself as a “minimalist approach to the outdoors,” believes the benefits include:

  • sustainable rural development based on environmental protection
    job creation
  • education and awareness of endangered animals and climate change
  • improving the quality of life of residents
  • understanding and sensitivity to other cultures

Environmental certifications

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is one of the organizations providing advice on the potential environmental benefits of ecotourism. It aims to “develop global standards for sustainable tourism and create tools to verify the legitimate claims of sustainable businesses while combating false claims, sometimes called greenwashing”. How it works is explained in this video:

However, many commentators reject the idea of ​​ecotourism, believing it to be contradictory. Architect and engineer Smith Mordak argued during the Architectural Review that:

Ecotourism is an oxymoron [seemingly self-contradictory]. Trying to fix environmental degradation with tourism is like trying to fix a black eye with a right hook. It’s a total joke, but also a useful case study. Ecotourism is an illustration of the larger phenomenon confronting climate action: the interests of economic development are too often diametrically opposed to the interests of environmentalism.


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