Ecotourism has been gaining popularity since the 1980s, and it is estimated that the number of eco tourists increases by about 10% annually. It is an interesting modern movement, and one that speaks volumes about the world we live in today. On the one hand, the implication is that nature itself has become a tourist attraction. The life of modern city dwellers is so far removed from nature that the opportunity to escape the trappings of civilization is now a valuable commodity. On the other hand, it demonstrates an anxiety that we are destroying nature, and reflects an effort to preserve environments and cultures that are in danger of extinction.
The fundamental impetus behind ecotourism is the notion that traditional tourism is destructive, but that efficient and considerate touristic practices can serve the opposite role. Ecotourism draws travelers to remote and undeveloped locations throughout the world, promotes education about native cultures and the fragile ecosystems that support them, and ensures that their presence produces the smallest impact possible. Instead of constructing luxury hotels to cater to the habits of the visitors, eco tourist trips teach the visitors about the habits and customs of the locals and lodge them in ordinary native structures made from local materials.
The primary ‘tourist attractions’ of these trips are natural: exotic plants and animals, isolated cultures, and the opportunity for personal growth. Eco tourists go on safaris, jungle treks, rainforest explorations, and scuba dive on protected reefs. The industry is regulated by locals, and the money it generates contributes to the preservation of their way of life and environment. The rational is that local control ensures the promotion of local interests, and gives indigenous peoples the opportunity and financial security to resist more destructive forces of globalization (such as selling oil rights to their land or poaching ivory).
Today, the majority of popular ecotourism destinations are found in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The jungles of Brazil and Peru have many opportunities for eco-trips, and Costa Rica––with its numerous wildlife parks and refuges––is especially well known for hosting ecotourism. In Africa, Kenya has perhaps the most highly developed and regulated industry, and can boast more than 50 national parks in addition to countless pristine beaches and world-class coral reefs. Farther to the East, Laos is Asia’s most visited ecotourism destination. But there are also trips and eco-lodges dotted all across the globe, everywhere from Alaska to Australia.
In fact, there is even a type of ecotourism that has lately sprung up in major cities in the west. New York City has recently initiated a program for Green Certified Restaurants and Hotels, started a community bike share program, and boasts a number of natural preserves (such as the Uplands Farm Nature Sanctuary in Long Island)––all of which have become popular attractions for eco tourists. In London, a similar public biking service is in place, and the city’s ‘Green Tourism for London’ scheme assigns restaurants and hotels ratings for sustainability (similar to health code ratings). Local ecotourism authorities even organize occasional events like the “Walk the Thames Docklands” nature walk. Barcelona is another city that takes aggressive measures to ensure its tourism remains eco-friendly. They rake their beaches (over 30 hectares) and skim the coastline for trash every morning during high season, and now only allow hydrogen-fueled public buses on their streets. And the ecological initiatives in Paris are no less impressive. Highly ranked in the European Green City Index, the City of Light has a non-polluting electric tram system, over four hundred maintained green spaces, and countless sustainable local-only restaurants that will appeal to eco-conscious travelers.
But ecotourism is not without its critics. While it is certainly a movement fueled by the best of intentions, in many parts of the world the results are not always clear. In the west, the green initiatives encouraged by ecotourism help reverse or slow the damage already being done. Elsewhere, however, the opposite may be true. The goal of this type of travel is to preserve isolated cultures and landscapes from the encroachments of the modern world. But the strategy for doing so inevitably brings the modern world to the places it aims to keep ‘unspoiled’. Proponents claim that establishing eco-friendly tourism first will stop irresponsible tourism from encroaching. But critics argue that isolated cultures are being exploited simply by virtue of being put on the map. Or perhaps even worse: having their homes turned into some kind of living museum or unfenced zoo.
As you can see, ecotourism provokes some difficult questions, and it undeniably has its downsides. But it is certainly much more sustainable and respectful than the extravagance and wasteful luxury of much traditional tourism. In a world where unspoiled nature is becoming rarer every day, we need to find productive solutions for preserving it.
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