Ecotourism: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” is a book that many travelers and nature lovers hold close to their hearts.  This makes it disheartening to read a recent Scientific American blog post about how recent studies show that many species in Walden Pond are facing local extinction.

“Despite the fact that ~60% of all natural areas in Concord are undeveloped or have remained well protected, a striking number of species have become locally extinct: 27% of the species documented by Thoreau have been lost, and 36% exist in such low population abundances that their extirpation may be imminent.”
Source: Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau’s woods are driven by climate change, by Charles Davis, et al.

Anyone who keeps tabs on the news over the past few years knows that this isn’t just happening in Walden Pond.  It’s happening almost everywhere.

Stories like this might give us the urge to visit Concord or some other area facing similar ecological problems.  Often, this urge stems from an honest attempt to support local conservation efforts or get a final glimpse of a dying wilderness.  For better or for worse, it is this urge that ecotourism efforts are counting on.

The goal of ecotourism is noble, The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines it as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. (Source: TIES Website )”  It might be good news that this kind of tourism accounts for at least 20% of international tourists.

Still, ecotourism has its critics.  Tours that focus on watching whales, turtles, and bears, sometimes end up killing or hurting the animals they intended to protect.  Also, the flood of new travelers sometimes leaves an area more polluted and creates greater demand for local natural resources.  This is especially common in destinations that have poor regulation, or areas where ecotourism programs have not been reviewed before they were implemented.

What options are left for the traveler who wants to preserve the wilderness?  Do we just send checks or conduct online information campaigns?  There must be a middle ground where we can travel to an endangered ecosystem responsibly, so we can truly know the areas we are trying to protect.

As Thoreau once wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Perhaps it might be possible to appreciate and see this wildness for ourselves and, at the same time, preserve it.

In your opinion, does ecotourism work?  What is your experience when it comes to visiting areas that are heavily marketed as ecotourism destinations?

Posted by | Comments (2)  | October 30, 2008
Category: General

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