Ecotourism – Is it harmful or helpful?

In the last decade, ecotourism has exploded and everyone wants to cash in on this trend from eco-resorts to eco-adventures. Ecotourism attempts to maintain the natural aspects of the tourist destination while compromising with the need for income from tourists and the resources that these tourists require. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local area.”

Tourism brings lots of money to an area which might not have much income otherwise and ecotourism has become the solution to preserving the natural assets of these areas. In most cases, tourism does benefit the local economy and better the locals’ livelihoods with income from tourism. Traditionally, the locals’ and tourists express little concern over the changes in the local area, natural beauty, waste disposal issues and so on which arise as the number of tourists increases. These problems are especially difficult in newly opened areas or developing countries, such as Thailand.

The trend in the past decade to help alleviate the problems caused by tourism, especially in natural areas, is ecotourism. However, the term ecotourism itself is often misused or overused. There are no set rules or accepted way to verify whether something classifies as ecotourism or not. This means that many tour operators can make claims about their tours being eco-tours without any clear criteria. The operators might not know any better or they are simply following what everyone else is doing without understanding the purpose of ecotourism.

There are many problems with ecotourism that eco-destinations must deal with. These problems include poor waste management, shortage of knowledgeable guides, and excessive development. These destinations often undergo a drastic change when “big operators” come into an area and develop larger resorts and complexes. I recently visited Thong Nai Pan on Koh Phangan and saw a drastic difference between two beaches in the bay. One beach was changing quickly as investors from Bangkok were pumping money into renovating resorts from the original wooden bungalows to concrete rows of rooms. As the resorts provide nicer amenities, they can charge more for the rooms and attract customers with more money to spend. But, this type of resort and the tourist they attract tend to have greater impact on the environment because there are bigger buildings and facilities, such as pools, and thus produce more waste.

An unfortunate byproduct of tourism is that the very visitors who are coming to see the beauty of the landscape inadvertently cause damage to the place that they have travelled so far to see. A good example are snorkelers which crowd on boats to view coral reefs and damage the corals by stepping on them. Plastic bags and drink containers floating in the water is another byproduct of these visitors. Day after day, the visitors come and little by little the coral will become less beautiful and the ocean water will become more polluted. The result is that the natural assets which brought the visitors to the area in the first place will be destroyed.

The million dollar question is “How can we ensure destinations are sustainable?” It is a matter of figuring out ways to control the negative impacts of tourism (e.g., loss of habitat, loss of water quality due to poor sewage/pollution control, etc) so that they don’t lessen the areas’ value as a quality tourism destination. This responsibility cannot fall upon the local authorities alone as the nature which is lost belongs to us all. We all are responsible for the affects of our travel and need to consider ways to ensure our destinations prosper with the fewest negative effects on the environment.

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