By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer
With environmental concern on the rise, the ecotourism movement has begun to impact how individuals choose to travel. Ecotourism is the practice of visiting natural environments with the intention of promoting conservation. In some locations, this has been beneficial, but tourism inherently demands development, and development sometimes strays from the original goals of ecotourism.
Growing up directly between two of the most popular beach destinations in New Jersey, I have done my share of grumbling about out-of-staters that clog my roadways and litter my shorelines. Conversely, I have also had the unique privilege of working with numerous education programs, introducing people to the natural wonders of the seashore for what is usually the first time.
Though some tourists are a nuisances, many come to appreciate our landscape and support environmental conservation. Yet, through the traffic jams and kayak tours that trademark my summers at the Jersey Shore, my fellow locals and I often find ourselves asking, “Do we need your ecotourism?”
The movement is, undoubtedly, well-intentioned. Ecotourism is founded on curiosity, which leads to education, awareness, and unique cultural experiences that strengthen the tourist’s relationship with the natural world and engender a new appreciation for an environment that they would not otherwise come into contact with. Additionally, the tourism industry generates funds for conservation efforts in these locations.
Tripaneer, a popular online travel agency, weighs the pros and cons of ecotourism on their BookAllSafaris Blog. They provide a positive example of ecotourism in South Africa, where 70% of national park funds come from tourism revenue generated by entrance fees, lodging, and dining on wildlife reserves.
“This contributes directly to wildlife conservation because these reserves must deliver what tourists are paying for — wildlife,” blogger Octavia Drughi said.
The blog explains that the benefits are evident in countries like Botswana and Namibia, where once-dwindling wild populations are rising as a result of increasing habitat on wildlife sanctuaries funded by tourist dollars.
Ecotourism brings money not only to conservation organizations, but also to the local economy. Locals may become employed as guides, merchants, or hosts to visiting tourists. This is especially important in lower-income communities, which are often found in exotic tourist locations like Africa and South America.
“Increased traffic means more money, funneling directly back into the community along with a higher standard of living,” journalist Emily Folk said in an ecotourism exposé for The Ecologist.
But, increased standard of living oftentimes has an unintended adverse effect: gentrification. As tourism increases, the area must adapt to accommodate the additional people and provide services that will draw them back. This leads to high-end restaurants replacing cheap grocery stores, five-star hotels replacing affordable apartment complexes, and lifetime residents no longer being able to afford to live in their homes.
New York City’s famous High Line brings greenery to an otherwise bleak industrial landscape and draws millions of tourists year-round. Unique shops and eateries have sprung up around the Lower West Side of Manhattan after the High Line’s opening in 2009, dramatically transforming the socioeconomic character of the area in a phenomenon referred to as eco-gentrification.
“Many small businesses and moderate-income residents have been forced to relocate due to rising land values, while even those who can afford it have begun to experience the downsides of living or working in an area that panders to tourists,” the Gaurdian writer Jeanne Haffner said.
Development in tourist destinations increases ecological competition for wildlife in addition to economic competition for residents. Viable habitat has to be cleared to construct tourist amenities. Tourists bring pollution, either as fuel discharge from transportation or by discarding personal waste in inappropriate manners. Even well-intentioned ecotourists may engage in destructive behavior: exploiting wildlife, disturbing habitat, or supporting businesses that do such things.
In 2018, CNN announced that the government of Thailand was indefinitely closing Maya Bay, a picturesque beachfront park that gained international attention after the world watched Leonardo DiCaprio frolic across spotless white sands in the 2000 film “The Beach.”
Tourists flocked to the beach en masse: government officials estimate roughly 2.5 million visitors annually. Many came to support Thailand’s Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, of which Maya Bay is a part; however, the swarms of sunbathers and snorkelers turned the pristine waters into a cesspool of sunblock, alcohol, and boat fuel.
Though the mentality behind ecotourism is pure, the movement has had unforeseen impacts on the environment and economy of popular destinations. We all want to see the world, and many of us are eager to do our part to help the environment, but is there actually a way to travel in a sustainable and morally sound manner?
The Ecologist offers three simple pieces of advice: do your research, avoid taking more than you need, and always keep the environment in mind. Education is essential. It is crucial to become aware of the struggles in the area you are visiting and remain conscious of your role in the societal and ecological systems.
So, do we need your ecotourism? I would prefer you stay home and let me have my favorite beach-towel parking spot. But if you have an itch to travel, take care to do so in a way that preserves the culture — both human and wild — of your destination.