Ecotourism – Boon or Doom?

2002 – International Year of Ecotourism

The term ecotourism has come into existence fairly recently and now evolved as a concept. Simply stated ecotourism is environmentally responsible tourism, which must be:

1. Environmentally, socially, culturally, and economically sustainable
2. Educational and
3. Locally participatory

Ecotourism as defined by IUCN is, environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, to enjoy, study and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features both past and present), that promotes conservation, has lower visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations

Some Socio-economic and Environmental benefits of Ecotourism

• Tourism revenue generated can be channeled in to the management of the protected areas
• Tourism could generate local employment, both directly from the tourism sector and from various support and resource management sectors
• It could stimulate local industry i.e., hotel, restaurants, transport systems souvenirs and guide services. It generates foreign exchange
• It diversifies the local economy, particularly in rural areas where agricultural employment may be sporadic or insufficient
• It could benefit local people by stimulating development and improvement in support, infrastructure of services i.e. local transport, communications and water and energy systems
• It serves as an effective educational tool for visitors, creates awareness and instills in them a degree of concern which could perhaps eventually translate in to active support for the conservation of the area, the revenue earned from tourism prompts by convincing government officials and the general public of the value of natural areas.

Some Negative Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts of Ecotourism

• Tourism may cause degradation of the habitat by polluting waterways, accumulation of garbage, overharvesting of flora etc. *Unregulated tourist activity may cause disturbance to the flora and fauna e.g. Visitors may disturb nesting birds, use of spotlights shocks and disconcerts animals. Frequent damage to flora may affect their regeneration potential
• Ecotourism ventures often alienate local people if they are denied access to the area in question on one hand while outside tourists are encouraged on the other
• Influx of outsiders as tourists and entrepreneurs cause social and cultural degradation of the local population

The Debate

Although planned as an approach to make biodiversity pay for itself as also provide a financial incentive to communities to conserve, it remains a highly controversial concept. Ecotourism has been promoted the world over and raises several questions. A key question is who benefits from ecotourism? Several case studies show that profit from this enterprise ultimately goes to the exchequer or the private enterprises and not to the local people. Also, when does draw the line beyond which ecotourism starts to cause degradation and disturbance to the very elements which are to be conserved? There is a strong lobby that feels that ecotourism has alienated local people and caused social and cultural degradation. On the other hand supporters of ecotourism quote examples where the biodiversity and local people have benefited from ecotourism. Both points of view need to be debated.

By Arunava Das

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