Ecotourism is a form of tourism that was developed to be mutually beneficial for the environment and the local people living in the area. There are many definitions of ecotourism but one of the most widely used definitions is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Ecotourism destinations are built on five main principles: minimizing the environmental impact of tourism, building environmental and cultural awareness, providing direct financial benefits for conservation, providing financial benefits and empowerment for local people, and raising sensitivity to the host country’s cultural, political, social, and environmental climate. Ecotourism is a way for the local community to benefit financially for conserving their environment.
Ecotourism was started as a way to give communities an incentive for protecting their environment. Many communities in developing countries were facing dire poverty, lack of available jobs, and the inability to advance in education or careers. These communities had no other way to survive than to use their natural resources. However, the communities were using the natural resources to the point where the ecosystems were not able to replenish themselves. The communities were deforesting, overfishing, and hunting animals to extinction in order to survive. Ecotourism was supposed to be a way for the communities to protect their environments while still being able to make a living. However, there have been several problems that have arisen with ecotourism.
One of the problems with ecotourism is visitor overcapacity. This means that too many tourists are coming into an ecotourism destination and the location cannot support the number of people. Many natural parks, forests, beaches, and other locations are being polluted because too many people are visiting the location. Many tourist destinations have peak times of year when they expect more people to come than during other times and this is when visitor overcapacity causes the most problems for ecotourism destinations. There often aren’t good regulations for how many people can visit a location during a certain time frame, and this leads to having too many people come and negative impacts for the environment.
Another issue with ecotourism is greenwashing, or hotels and ecotourism destinations taking the label of being ecotourism destinations without doing much to protect the environment. There is no worldwide certification process for ecotourism destinations. Some countries, such as Costa Rica, have national ecotourism certification processes, but many places can develop ecotourism destinations as they see fit. Without regulations that all places are consistently required to follow in order to be called an ecotourism destination, many hotels or tourist attractions label themselves as ecotourism destinations but they do very little to protect the environment. For example, some hotels will only use biodegradable cleaning supplies and label themselves as ecotourism destinations. This leads tourist to believe that they are spending their vacations in places that are protecting the environment when this is not really the case. Large hotel chains are often the biggest threat to the environment in tourist destinations. These hotels are usually run by people who are not from the community so they do not feel a responsibility to protect the environment. Also, large hotels produce a lot of waste, pollution, and other detrimental things to the environment. The waste that hotels produce is not always disposed of properly, and this can create environmental and public health hazards. As more places develop, especially in rural areas, and as the desire to travel to these places increases, the issues of large chain hotels negatively impacting the environment, health of the local people and the local economies will become major problems.
Another issue with ecotourism is leakage, or the profits earned by tourism not staying in the local economy. The idea for ecotourism was started because local communities were using the natural resources to the extreme in order to survive. If the local communities are financially benefiting from their environment, than they have a stake in keeping it healthy and stable. However, if the local community is not seeing any of the benefits from the tourism, than they will keep doing what they need to do to survive, which is using the natural resources. This, coupled with visitor overcapacity, can leave the environment worse off than before it was an “ecotourism” destination. If the profits stay in the local community, the community has an incentive to keep the environment profitable, which could lead to limiting how many tourists are allowed into the location each day. One of the key points of ecotourism is that the profits benefit the local community and allow them to have meaningful jobs that pay a living wage, send their kids to school, and have access to adequate healthcare. Ecotourism is supposed to benefit the local community, not create more hardships. Many local communities find that they can only receive minimum wage jobs with no opportunity to advance. Without involving the local community and giving them input, ecotourism will never work as it was designed to.
In recent years, tourism has only increased, especially in areas where tourism was not very prominent before, such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Tourism, whether it is an ecotourism destination or a conventional tourism destination, creates a big carbon footprint due to travel from planes, trains, cars, the building of new hotels, and how these hotels are run. Because of this, there has been some push in the tourism industry to start moving towards more sustainable tourism, whether or not a destination is considered an “ecotourism” location. Tourism will never be sustainable until transportation is completely sustainable. New Zealand is currently trying to make their transportation system carbon neutral, which will not only benefit tourism but also the country as a whole. Australia and Finland are creating regulations for hotels that require them to cut carbon emissions, energy and water waste, and to dispose of waste in a sustainable way whether they are ecotourism destinations or not. Several Asian countries are creating backpacker hostels or small eco lodges on organic farms in order to create sustainable tourism in their area. This idea also helps the communities to avoid being reliant on tourism for income, as tourism can be very unstable. These lodges are also being created by the community with the profits staying in the community and a focus on protecting the environment and sharing the culture of the area with tourists.
Ecotourism, in theory, provided many benefits to the environment and the local community. However, it has not always been implemented in the best way for these benefits to be felt by the local community. As tourism starts to shift to being more sustainable as a whole rather than being divided between ecotourism destinations and conventional destinations, the tourism industry will have less negative impacts on the environment. As countries start to regulate the tourism industry, like New Zealand, Australia, and Finland are starting to do, there will be less greenwashing and the whole system will become more sustainable. However, there still needs to be awareness about local communities, especially in developing countries where the focus on regulating the tourism industry might not be a high priority. Consumers, NGOs focused on human and environmental issues, and other countries with a focus on regulating the tourism industry need to make sure that developing countries are not taken advantage of by large chain hotels, that these chains are following similar methods to try to become sustainable no matter where they are located, and that the local communities can benefit from tourism whether it is in a large chain hotel or in a small rural eco-lodge.