Others believe ecotourism is not a successful development tool because it is not environmentally sustainable. As Regmi states at the end of his 2016 article, ecotourism is a short-term solution in poor countries, but when it is developed past the point that it is manageable by the environment, resource base, and local population, it becomes damaging like mass tourism. The goal of ecotourism should not be economic development or modernization, because the scale of sustainable tourism is not large enough. Ecotourism for development assumes that income is the end goal.
It is wishful thinking to believe that ecotourists will not have any negative impact on the lands they visit. The 1998 article, “Managing urban wetlands for multiple use: research, restoration, and recreation,” by Zedler & Leach presents examples of threats to urban wetlands, even under protection. Trampling, vandalism, and trash accumulation resulting from overuse by visitors is one negative aspect of ecotourism. There may also be habitat loss due to space taken up by visitor amenities like a visitor center or kiosk, along with parking, trails, signage, and viewing points. Disturbance to wildlife is another impact that may be caused by the movement of people and pets startling animals, lighting which disturbs nocturnal species, noise which startles animals or impedes their communication, vehicle collisions with animals, the release of unwanted animals, and the taking of plants as souvenirs. Additional constraints include vandalism, air pollution due to increased air and ground transport to the location, and the need for visitors to find the site visually appealing.
One example of a tourism wetland used in the study is the urban University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, which contains 485 hectares of land and serves 370,000 local residents. The arboretum has an impressive records of high-quality tall grass prairie, federally and state-protected plant species, and numerous research projects. Visitors flock to the arboretum for hiking, jogging, cross-country skiing, biking, and more. Volunteer groups regularly help maintain the site. Nevertheless, even the arboretum faces challenges with the risk of vandalism and compacted soils on trails which prevent proper drainage and negatively impact vegetation. There is no threshold for visitor use, and the site is still influenced by the surrounding city. This means that urban run-off containing sediments, nutrients, and pollutants will flow into the arboretum during storms. The arboretum is also prone to hydrologic changes because of nearby residential and commercial developments. There are also questions regarding the impact of the arboretum on local livelihoods, as trees were protected from tree tapping for maple syrup for nearly one hundred years (personal communication), which is a tradition of the Indigenous Ho-Chunk peoples who occupy the area and were forced to cede the land now owned by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1832.
In some cases, ecotourism can accelerate land degradation by forcing resource users outside of the protected area, where competition for resources will heighten land degradation. The impact of travel on the atmosphere and Earth’s climate is not as obvious. A study recently published in Tourism Management Perspectives utilized data from 1995-2014 to show that tourism arrivals lead to higher CO2 emissions. Another study used a rapid ecosystem service assessment tool to calculate the socio-economic costs to the community of protecting a wetland in Nepal, which turned out to be twenty dollars per hectare per year more than the unprotected wetland value. Nevertheless, authors cautioned that ever-changing market prices can easily sway such a small margin and that all aspects of peoples’ livelihoods are not fully expressed with the assessment tool.
A Potential Alternative
One alternative presented by Regmi and other development scholars is community-based ecotourism. This form of ecotourism places local communities at the center and allows them to determine the ecotourism approach. Local people are involved in the management of resources, development, decision-making, and welfare. It is more successful at preserving Indigenous and traditional culture and is more likely to economically benefit local people. Mutual learning takes place between community members and visitors to enhance the overall process. And finally, community-based tourism is inherently smaller-scale and therefore does not degrade the environment in the same way as mass tourism.
Protecting land use rights for the vulnerable and chronically undernourished or hungry is also important. Smart city planning and more efficient subsistence or small-scale farming could replace ecotourism altogether by filling domestic food needs first and generating income. Organizations such as the UN may be called on in emergency scenarios where there are challenges to self-sufficiency, such as welfare needs. However, many instances of unsuccessful ecotourism for development projects have demonstrated that involvement from third-party organizations can do more harm than good, and income generation should not be the focus.
Photo of food market in Uganda from TripAdvisor.
My View on Ecotourism
If it isn’t clear by now, I personally do not see ecotourism as a development tool. There simply are not enough cases with positive outcomes for local livelihoods and the environment that can be presented as evidence to support it. Successful projects are certainly a reason for hope, but caution should be taken when using examples because it is possible that marginalized communities were silenced or that their issues are simply not heard by development organizations. I am not against ecotourism or even tourism as a whole. I simply believe that ecotourism exploits people who are already marginalized. People should not have to forfeit land, knowledge, culture, livelihoods, and other aspects of their lives, in exchange for “development” or having their basic needs met. Ecotourism should be a choice and not a necessity for survival in the modern world.
This post is third in a series of four about ecotourism. Follow the blog to be notified when the other articles are posted and to discover my viewpoint and share yours at the end!