Ecotourism: Preservation or Destruction?

In Peru, a reluctant sloth is coaxed into position allowing ecotourists to take photographs


Human curiosity is insatiable. I firmly believe that the need and want to seek out new places, experience unique environments, and encounter distinct peoples is fundamental to the survival of life on earth. The earth today, however, is different from what it used to be. Today, the world is no longer a place where getting from one region to another is a long, harsh, and enduring journey. In today's world, one can travel from one side of the earth to the other in a matter of hours. This ease of mobility, along with the rapidly improving communication technologies and the globalization of the world's economies, has truly made our world interconnected.

As we approach a new millennium, we must realize that our interconnected world will not last an eternity. The yearning to acquire knowledge about different places and peoples will, however, prolong the existence of this earth. The more people who know about and respect unique places and cultures, the less likely destructive habits will continue. The infinite habitats, ecosystems, and cultures found on this earth need assistance in the fight against the phantom that is haunting our planet, the phantom of tourism.

Tourism on the scale that we know it is a new phenomenon. Tourism and travel, in this case, can be defined as stepping outside one's own community to experience and see another, either foreign or domestic. Over the last 30 years, the increase in free time and the availability of cheap travel have caused a massive worldwide explosion. Millions of people are now able to journey with greater ease and regularity beyond their own regions and borders, with a chance to get to know new peoples, countries, and environments. In 1993, over 500 million people traveled across international borders. In the year 2000, it is estimated that 637 million people will journey outside of their own frontiers (Coccossis, 3). Domestic travel is increasing as well, for many people are experiencing social and economic changes that allow them to be more mobile. Ironically, the highest rates of growth in travel are being recorded by the newly industrialized and less developed countries (Cater, 19). Many of these countries are also heavily populated, and thus we can expect to see a substantial rise in travel during the upcoming decades. Tourism accounts for six percent of the global GNP and more than 13 percent of consumptive expenditure. Presently, tourism is the world's fastest growing industry, and by 2000 it will be the world's largest (Croall, 5).

In three years, tourism will be the world's largest industry. What is it, then, that can draw over 14 percent of the world's population to foreign regions? Experts in tourism affirm that the natural environment is a core feature of the tourist destination (Wong, 66). Although most will agree that tourism is a mind-broadening experience, few acknowledge that it can also wreak havoc on the natural environment and its inhabitants. Tourism can ruin landscapes, destroy communities, pollute air and water, trivialize cultures, bring about uniformity, and generally contribute to the continuing degradation of life on our planet.

More specifically, mass tourism has six negative impacts on the environment. The first of these is air, water, site, and noise pollution. Contamination of the air occurs because of motor traffic and the production and use of energy. Many seas, lakes, rivers, and springs are also affected by the numerous travelers who are enjoying their vacation. Water contamination is due to the following episodes: the discharge of untreated waste because of the absence or malfunction of sewage treatment plants, the discharge of solid waste from pleasure boats, and the activity of motor boating, which causes the release of hydrocarbons (Nelson, 7). On a personal note, when boating around the San Juan Islands a few years ago, there was much contamination in the waters because the sewage plants were either overflowing or not working at all. Site pollution occurs because of the absence or inadequacy of waste disposal facilities. Lastly, there is noise pollution resulting from motor traffic and the tourists themselves.

The second negative effect of mass tourism is the loss of natural landscape. Tourism brings with it the construction of housing, facilities, and infrastructure for tourists which inevitably encroach on previously open spaces (Nelson, 7). These landscapes are lost forever, for hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions have taken their place.

A third consequence of tourism is the destruction of flora and fauna. Many of the aforementioned types of pollution along with the loss of natural landscapes results in the disappearance of many of the plant and animal species that once lived in these natural habitats. Furthermore, tourist behavior such as trampling plant life and leaving behind waste directly affects both the flora and fauna that thrive in these areas.

Yet another ill effect of tourism is the "aesthetic degradation" of the surrounding landscape and sites (Nelson, 7). For example, the style of architecture of newly constructed tourist facilities may not be in harmony with the traditional buildings in the area. As a result, a traditional-style town might soon look like any modernized city.

Another effect of tourism is congestion. The concentration in time and space of tourists to visited areas causes considerable harm to the natural environment. This congestion also detracts from the overall quality of life in the toured area. A major consequence of congestion is traffic, leading to the loss of free time, high fuel consumption, and horrible air and noise pollution (Nelson, 8).

The aforementioned impacts of tourism have all been related, in some way or another, to the physical environment. The damage, however, goes far beyond this realm. Local people are often the first to suffer from the negative effects of tourism. The arrival of hundreds and thousands of tourists can be a severe intrusion in the lives of locals, especially when the visitors outnumber them several times over (Croall, 8). The excessive noise, waste, and congestion where tourism has taken over can brew resentment and anger among the local community. Furthermore, local people are often left out of discussions and talks about new tourist developments. This can also lead to anger and frustration towards tourists (Croall, 8) The resident population not only has to put up with consequences resulting from tourism, but often has to change its way of life completely. This may entail faster work, holding an extra job, and working longer hours. The coexistence that takes place between the tourist and the native is by no means easy and social tensions, as mentioned before, may occur.

The local population, however, cannot be thought of as a homogeneous group. There are two kinds of local people; those who have a direct relation with tourism, and those who have no involvement with the tourist industry (Croall, 10). The former are people involved in the catering trade, transportation, shops, travel agencies, proprietors of local tourist business and entrepreneurs supporting the tourism industry (Croall, 10). All of these people derive most of their income from tourism. Therefore, they benefit from their involvement in tourism activity and receive a financial return on the usage of environmental resources. Consequently, they tend to be tolerant and are prepared to accept some environmental damage in order to increase their personal income.

The latter are those great numbers of people who are employed in non-tourism related jobs. As the many social costs caused by tourist development are not endured by their perpetrators, but by the local population alone, these people are forced to lose part of their public welfare for a very small, if any, rate of return. In most, if not all cases, the population of the destination country has often had to finance via taxation the infrastructure that provides the tourist access to the destination area. This demonstrates that the local people who are not involved in the tourist industry might have a net economic loss from tourist activity (Croall, 10). As a result, this section of the local population will often protest tourism development and will tend to be strong environmentalists (Croall, 10).

In conclusion, the phantom of tourism has been winning the battle. Mass tourism has led to the ruining of fine coastlines, the deforestation of rain forests, the erosion of rural landscapes, and the destruction of unique wilderness areas and wildlife habitats. But the destruction has not been confined to the physical environment. In many countries, it has had aversive effects on the traditional ways of life, and the distinctiveness of local cultures. Many people have been uprooted from their communites, their traditional skills lost to the area simply because it has suddenly been developed for the benefit of the tourist trade. What, then, can be done to destroy this phantom?

The Rise of Ecotourism

For many years, travelers have wanted to experience the exoticism of foreign cultures and environments without doing harm to either one of them. Conservation is not a new idea, yet it has recently resurfaced with a greater force and a stronger message; clean up or die! A few decades ago, conservationists believed in a type of travel that would not only generate profits but also promote conservation and management of natural landscapes and their inhabitants. Thus, in the 1970s, conservationists termed this type of travel ecotourism (Boo, 1). Ecotourism is now the fastest growing sector in the tourism industry, worth well over $300 billion a year (Freedman, 38).

According to the environmental author P. Wight, there are six key principles underlying the concept of ecotourism. First and foremost, ecotourism should not degrade the area of interest in any way, shape, or form. Second, ecotourism should provide long-term benefits to the area and to the local community. In this case, benefits may include conservation, scientific progress, social and cultural awareness, educational opportunities, or economic success. Third, ecotourism must provide first-hand, participatory, and enlightening experiences. Ecotourism should also involve education among all parties before, during, and after the ecotrip. These parties include the local communities, the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the industry, and the tourists themselves. Furthermore, ecotourism should promote understanding and partnerships between these parties. Lastly, ecotourism should advocate moral and ethical responsibilities and behavior towards the natural and cultural environment (Cater, 40). These principles are the foundation for the viability of ecotourism.

This foundation cannot be built, however, if the market is not willing to pour the cement. A United States Travel Data Center survey has found that travelers, on average, would spend 8.5 percent more for travel services and products provided by environmentally responsible suppliers (Cater, 41). These services and products include transportation, accommodation, food services, attractions, and sight-seeing tours. The survey also reveals that forty-three million U.S. travelers could take an ecotourism trip in the next three years (Cater, 41). Even with this knowledge available to them, my research shows that time and time again travel agencies are around for only one!

In the last few years, ecotourism has become a buzz word to sell a variety of products. Manufacturers simply label numerous products as green or ecologically friendly to increase sales. "There is no question that green sells," states James Sanno, Chief Executive Officer of Omega Travel. "Almost any term prefixed with 'eco' will increase interest and sales". Sanno also points out the danger in the misrepresentation. The prefix "eco" has become just as ambiguous as the term "natural" (Cater, 42). Ray Ashton, ecotourism consultant and biologist, feels that ecotourism is a buzz word which is not understood. Ashton states, "People [travel agencies] have not changed their itineraries, they just use the word for marketing purposes; indeed, the tour may be yesterday's trip repackaged" (Cater, 42).

I found this to be true in my own research when looking for ecotourism trips on which to go. The tours were the same as any other, but the word "eco" was attached to the titles. This, of course, caught my eye, for I was looking for ecotrips. I wanted to get as much information out of the consultant as I could, so I asked how these trips were different from other ones. I got answers like, "Oh, that one's for nature lovers," or "Well on that trip, you see a lot of environmental things." I sarcastically replied, "Thank you...very informative," and went on my way.

Caroline Arlen, author of "Ecotour, hold the eco," conducted a study involving the market of ecotourism. Her study found over 200 outfitters in the United States alone that offer ecotours abroad. Of the 34 ecotour operations she contacted, 27 of them said they do not give environmental concerns high priority (Arlen, 61). An interviewed travel agent stated, "In the Galapagos, all the boats dump sewage right into the ocean...we're mostly concerned with comfort." Tom Stanley of Mountain Travel-Sobek claimed that

bulldozer races in the Amazon could be called ecotourism... and no travel or environmental watchdogs blow the whistles on operators that violate guidelines, often worded loosely, promulgated by groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the American Society of Travel Agents.

If there is no one looking out for agencies that violate guidelines, then there will inevitably be someone taking advantage of the system. This is exactly what is going on now in the ecotourism market.

Cherise Miller, an ecotourist, tells of her experience in Peru.

They advertised it as being an ecotourism facility with a world-record variety of birds... but on the first night we went caiman hunting. While searching, a guide spotted a baby, jumped into the river and caught it. Everyone in the boat passed it around and took pictures.

Ruth Norris, a nature guide and ecotourism adviser, had a similar experience in Kenya. "We went on a cheetah-chasing ecosafari. A mother cheetah was so panicked by all the tourists, she killed her cubs." These horror stories are not coming from the average tour company. These are agencies that boast their ecotourism trips, yet they obviously have not changed their tours in the slightest. A few decades ago, ecotourism appealed to mostly birders and scientists, but in today's market, agencies zero in on the everyday traveler. The tourist expects what he or she might be getting in Hawaii or Cancún. "Consumers are so powerful," states an agent, "that if they wanted to trash the world, the [tourist] industry would have to design trips around that...You have to set up rules" (Arlen, 63). Unfortunately, the rules seem to already be in place, but rules that are not enforced is like having no rules at all.

To survive and prosper, an agency must attract more people into going to more destinations at the most profitable price the market will stand. "The travel industry, being sensitive to the criticism that it is destroying the very world it encourages us to see, is desperately trying to appear ecologically responsible" (Cater, 34). This is exactly the effect we, as consumers, want to be having on the tourist industry. Consumers need to hit agencies where it counts, the pocketbook. If consumers can make agencies "desperate to appear ecologically responsible," then we have begun to make an impact.

The challenge to agencies who wish to zero in on consumer interest in ecotourism is to ensure that the values and principles inherent in ecotourism are incorporated into the ecotrips. The development of formal agreements and partnerships regarding both marketing and the actual tours themselves would considerably advance all parties' interests. In 1991, the English Tourist Board affirmed that any green marketing must be genuine and based on a carefully thought-out environmental policy (Cater, 49). The Board's suggestions include the following:

Six years after the English Tourist Board suggested these ways of legitimizing green marketing, we can now find a number of reputable ecotourism outfitters and learn ways to become an informed ecotourist.

The Response of Destination Areas:

Costa Rica as a Case Study

The next step in building the foundation for ecotourism is to evaluate the response of the destination areas themselves. Countries such as Belize, Costa Rica, Peru, and Botswana realize that they possess resources that are highly valued by the modern ecotourist. Thus, these countries are understandably tempted to maximize the short-term economic gains of ecotourism; yet they are also making efforts to control the direction and scale of tourism within sustainable limits (Cater, 33). This scenario results in a classic dilemma. The demand for authentic experiences with coral reefs, rainforests, wildlife, and exotic cultures is growing rapidly, but the carrying capacity of these attractive resources is finite. Consequently, maximizing economic returns while protecting the environment requires a delicate balance.

To examine this dilemma, let us now turn our focus to Costa Rica, the undisputed leader in the field of ecotourism. Costa Rica's status as one of the most advanced ecotourism destinations can be attributed to a few keys factors. First, Costa Rica is a safe country for visitors. This West Virginia-sized destination is wedged between two traditionally unstable countries, Nicaragua and Panama. Costa Rica has been spared the constant political instability in Central America, and has thus acquired a reputation of a stable and somewhat prosperous country. Second, Costa Rica has an extremely high diversity of wildlife and ecosystems as a result of its high range in elevation and its pivotal location between the Americas that allows for the migration of a vast number of species (Cater, 170). Scientists refer to Costa Rica as a "biological bridge" between North and South America, hosting an extraordinary variety of wildlife and culture. Finally, Costa Rica has established a respectable and comprehensible system of public and private protected areas (Cater, 170). The protected areas make up over one-fifth of Costa Rica's national territory (Norris, 33).

These key elements have resulted in tourism surpassing bananas as the country's number-one industry. In 1987, 36.1 percent of arrivals to Costa Rica cited ecotourism as a major motivation for their journey, and 72.3 percent cited Costa Rica's natural beauty (Boo, 29). Although this data is ten years old, I can postulate with much confidence that the percentage or people going to Costa Rica for the purpose of ecotourism has risen greatly over the past decade. One need only to realize that over a million tourists are expected to journey to this country by the year 2000 (Norris, 33). How, then, does a country the size of West Virginia deal with over a million tourists seeking to experience the famed wildlife and virgin forests? After all, Costa Rica is the ecotourism capital of the world...right? Well, maybe.

Two of the most visited areas in all of Central America are found in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Both attractions have been viewed as models-"beacon lights on the road to sustainable and sound ecotourism" (Honey, 40). Both, however, may also be warning lights signaling destruction and danger from ecotourism that has gotten out of hand. In these areas, ecotourism has expanded too rapidly and without sufficient planning, government and local community involvement, tourist responsibility, and international concern. In 1993, more than 3,000 new hotels rooms were constructed surrounding the most visited areas. This construction brings with it deforestation, erosion, improper disposal of sewage, and many other problems (Norris, 34). "It is a classic vicious cycle," states Norris, "more tourists bring more hotels, which brings more tourists." (Norris, 35).

Manuel Antonio is a 1,700 acre park that receives nearly a thousand visitors a day during the high season. People come to relax on the two white-sand beaches and trek through the forest to see monkeys, snakes, sloths, and iguanas. Norris points out that "some 300 monkeys are still there, but their migration corridors have been disturbed, and like the bears of Yellowstone, many have become garbage feeders" (Norris, 33). Serious problems of overcrowding, water pollution, trail erosion, and changes in wildlife behavior also plague Manuel Antonio. Unfortunately, at the present, Manuel Antonio still lacks sustainable measurement plans, trained personnel, and research into the carrying capacity of its National Park.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was originally intended for research and protection, not tourism. In 1974, for example, Monteverde had only four hundred visitors, most of whom were biologists, students, and scientists. During the 1980s, however, ecotourism increased 36 percent a year, and in the 1990s, it grew at a rate of 50 percent a year. Today, because of its high entry fee, (anywhere from $10-$20) Monteverde brings in close one million dollars a year, more income than all of Costa Rica's national parks combined (Honey, 44). This raise in fee hoped to curb the number of ecotourists visiting the Reserve, but no change has been noted. Monteverde also began limiting visitors to one hundred at a time. This limit has since been raised to two hundred.

Possibly the most significant impact of ecotourism in Monteverde has been an influx of new immigrants seeking jobs in the tourist sector. Immigrants looking for work in tourism are raising the cost of living and of land. The immigrants are putting too much pressure on community services that were developed by the Quakers who settled in Monteverde in the 1950s (Honey, 47). As one local states, "tourism is not a cooperative activity" (Honey, 47). This sentitment gets at the core of the problem, an enormous lack of cooperation between the involved parties.

Monteverde, much more than Manuel Antonio, has been successful in implementing some sort of conservation techniques. But even the money generated from such things as the raise in entry fee is not enough to aid the area and its inhabitants. It is very difficult for people in rural areas like Monteverde to get the benefits out of ecotourism. Most of the money does not even get to Monteverde. It just stays in San Jose or with travel agencies in the United States or Europe (Honey, 47).

Costa Rica's overall success in ecotourism can be attributed to its political stability, exceptional biodiversity, extensive publicity, and the interaction between a comprehensive protected areas network and a private sector actively promoting ecotourism (Croall, 175). Although both Monteverde and Manuel Antonio have been described as models of sound and sustainable ecotourism, there are obviously numerous problems plaguing both areas. Even in these model destinations, concerns are raised by the enormous rise in tourist visitation levels and by anecdotal evidence of environmental damage. However, as the number of tourist destinations offering ecotourism trips increases, ecotourists will disperse to new destinations, resulting in an ease in demand for Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. Mexico and Cuba could emerge as two of the most important ecotourism sites because of their great number of potential attractions and their proximity to North America (Croall, 175).


Throughout this paper, I have raised numerous questions regarding whether or not ecotourism is a sustainable option. From the viewpoint of the market, to that of the destination sites, to that of the tourists themselves, I have been questioning the validity of ecotourism. I have discussed numerous problems facing not only the natural environment, but also the peoples who inhabit these destination areas. Some argue that ecotourism is a counterproductive practice. They feel that ecotourism is trend which encourages economic development in the wilderness... and not just any old wilderness. "You won't get proper ecotourists to stay," states Freedman, "unless you set up shop in a virgin rainforest that is chock-a-block full of endangered species- precisely where you'll be doing the most damage" (Freedman, 38). Freedman and others hold the view that ecotourism, like the economy, is best left alone.

I, on the other hand, have a more realistic and optimistic view. Ecotourism cannot be stopped, for the wheel has been set in motion. Ecotourism can be, however, restructured and regulated. The challenge to the tourism industry can be clearly understood in the words of Sir Walter Crispin. "Above all," he states, "the tourist industry has to remember a central precept: do not kill the goose which lays the golden eggs." After concluding my research, I have devised a plan that is necessary for the development of a sustainable ecotourism program. The plan consists of the following five elements:

A successful ecotourism program must include input from all concerned groups including government representatives, international and national NGOs, tour operators, tourists, local business people, and natives of the destination area. Each one of these individual groups has specific knowledge and expertise to contribute to the making of a successful program. Furthermore, groups that are not included may not cooperate or may sabotage the efforts of the involved parties.

Short-term economic gains must not take priority of the long-term benefits of a successful ecotourism program. If there is to be an effective transformation from an exploitative practice to one of cooperation and patience, then the tourist destinations and their leaders must adopt longer term perspectives. Thinking and policy need to shift from political and economic goals to ecological and social ones. Tourists, tour operators, and local guides must be educated about proper conduct and practices in areas in which ecotourism takes place. The education of tourists must begin prior to departure and must include information that familiarizes visitors with the environmental and cultural problems and concerns plaguing the destination area. The education and training of tour operators and guides must make them aware of and sensitive to the areas they will be promoting; for this will ensure responsible itineraries of ecotrips. A very important understanding is that the ultimate protectors of the natural environment and traditional cultures are the local communities themselves. There are few ecotourism destinations which are not found in the domain of long-established societies. Tour operators and community leaders must work together to make ecotourism both economically valuable and environmentally sound. Even the most thought-out plans involving the previous four elements will result in failure if there is not constant feedback, evaluation, and regulation. Destination areas and the people involved with them need to be in constant contact with each other to ensure that rules are being followed and the necessary changes are being implemented.

I believe that if these five elements can be part of an ecotourism program, success will soon follow. Eighty-five percent of the industrialized world's citizens believe that the environment is the number one public issue, whereas seventy-six percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists. Seventy-six percent of Canadians believe that environmental protection should remain a government priority during a recession, even if it means a lower economic recovery (Cater, 40). The support is out there, let's act!

I now leave you with the ecotourist motto, something by which everyone will hopefully one day live: Take nothing but photographs; leave nothing but footprints; kill nothing but time.

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