Can environmental conservation and tourism exist together harmoniously?

Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela (Albemarle), the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

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

Fancy taking an environmentally friendly trip to the Amazon, Alaska or Western Australia’s Kimberley region? Highly regarded organisations such as National Geographic and WWF (World Wildlife Fund) offer plenty of enticing travel options, such as Antarctica.

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

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

Many people view ecotourism positively, associating it with environmental conservation and the preservation of threatened wildlife. When searching ecotourism, envious images abound: sunbaking on isolated, pristine beaches; snorkelling in enchanting coral reefs; trekking in remote wildernesses and mountains; tourists immersing themselves in local cultures.

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

Ecotourism encompasses nature-based activities that increase visitor appreciation and understanding of natural and cultural values. They are experiences that are managed to ensure they are ecologically, economically and socially sustainable, contributing to the wellbeing and conservation of the natural areas and local communities where they operate.

Similarly, Wikipedia’s take says:

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

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

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

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

At its best, eco-tourism is responsible travel to natural areas that safeguards the integrity of the ecosystem and produces economic benefits for local communities that can encourage conservation. At the nexus of population and the environment, eco-tourism is a creative way of marrying the goals of ecological conservation and economic development.

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

Here are some of the places experimenting with ecotourism.

Galapagos Islands

The Discovering Galapagos Project produces curriculum materials about the islands for school students. It examines the impact of tourism:

Some of the good parts are that the tourists bring money to the Islands and are a source of income for many Galapagueños. However, there are also bad parts. As more tourists visit the Islands, they will need more places to stay meaning that big hotels could be constructed that possibly endanger nearby wildlife.

A study, “Rethink and reset” tourism in the Galapagos Islands: Stakeholders’ views on the sustainability of tourism development, was recently published in Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights. It raised a number of issues of concern:

A key finding of the study is that stakeholders share the view that unrestricted tourism growth is counterproductive because of both social and environmental impacts. Addressing the effects of overtourism in the Galapagos, as in other tropical islands, may involve degrowth strategies or a transition to slow tourism that provides a mechanism to increase the revenue and employment benefits from tourism, but decrease the per-capita impact on island resources.

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

Machu Picchu

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

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

The term ecotourism is now over used. It has been stretched from its original purpose to encompass any nature-related travel and to many is synonymous with sustainable.

Mount Kilimanjaro

Overtourism at Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has also drawn criticism:

Tanzania’s government sparked uproar in recent years after announcing plans for a cable-car system on the southern side of Kilimanjaro, to boost tourist numbers and provide access to those unable to climb it. Expedition groups, porters who help climbers and climate experts said the project would endanger the mountain’s delicate ecosystem and hurt the local economy.

Pros and cons

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

  • sustainable rural development based on environmental protection
    the creation of jobs
  • education and awareness about endangered animals and climate change
  • the improvement of life quality for locals
  • understanding of and sensitivity towards other cultures

Environmental certifications

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is one of the organisations providing guidance on the potential environmental benefits of ecotourism. It aims to “develop global standards for sustainable tourism and to create tools to verify legitimate claims of sustainable businesses while fighting against false claims, sometimes known as greenwashing”. Its work is explained in this video:

However, many commentators reject the idea of ecotourism, believing that it is self-contradictory. Architect and engineer Smith Mordak has argued at 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 farce, but also a helpful case study. Ecotourism is an illustration of the wider phenomenon facing climate action: the interests of economic development are all too often diametrically opposed to the interests of environmentalism.

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