Ecotourism Why It is Important


People travel; always have, always will. Germans have wanderlust, college students at spring break have sunlust, retired people have recreational vehicles (RVs), Australians go walkabout, Japanese go everywhere. In the distant past, people traveled for the most fundamental reason - to find food. During 99% of human history, people were nomads or hunter-gatherers, moving almost constantly in search of sufficient nutrition. Then someone made the startling connection between some discarded seeds in the past and the sprouting seedlings of the present; she reported the discovery to her clan, and things have not been the same since. With the development of agriculture, travel, always an inherently risky undertaking, was less needed. Farming peoples could remain close to their familiar villages, tend crops, and supplement their diet with local hunting. In fact, we might imagine that long-distance travel and any venturing into completely unfamiliar territory would have ceased. But it didn't. People still traveled to avoid seasonally harsh conditions, to emigrate to new regions in search of more or better learning or hunting lands, to explore, and even, with the advent of leisure time, just for the heck of it (travel for leisure's sake is the definition of tourism). For most people, still, there's something irreplaceably satisfying about journeying to a new place: the sense of being in completely novel situations and surroundings, seeing things never before encountered, engaging in new and different activities.

During the final quarter of the 20th century arose a new reason to travel, perhaps the first wholly new reason in hundreds of years: with a certain urgency, to see natural habitats and their harbored wildlife before they forever vanish from the surface of the Earth. Ecotourism or ecotravel is travel to (usually exotic) destinations specifically to admire and enjoy wildlife and undeveloped, relatively undisturbed natural areas, as well as indigenous cultures. The development and increasing popularity of ecotourism is a clear outgrowth of escalating concern for conservation of the world's natural resources and biodiversity (the different types of animals, plants, and other life forms found within a region). Owing mainly to peoples' actions, animal species and wild habitats are disappearing or deteriorating at an alarming rate. Because of the increasing emphasis on the importance of the natural environment by schools at all levels and the media's continuing exposure of environmental issues, people have enhanced appreciation of the natural world and increased awareness of environmental problems globally. They also have the very human desire to want to see undisturbed habitats and wild animals before they are gone, and those with the time and resources increasingly are doing so.

But that is not the entire story. The purpose of ecotravel is actually twofold. Yes, people want to undertake exciting, challenging, educational trips to exotic locales - wet tropical forests, wind-blown deserts, high mountain passes, mid ocean coral reefs - to enjoy the scenery, the animals, the nearby local cultures. But the second major goal of ecotourism is often as important. The travelers want to help conserve the very places - their habitats and wildlife - that they visit. That is, through a portion of their tour cost and spending into the local economy of destination countries - paying for park admissions, engaging local guides, staying at local hotels, eating at local restaurants, using local transportation services, etc. - ecotourists help to preserve natural areas. Ecotourism helps because local people benefit economically as much or more by preserving habitats and wildlife for continuing use by ecotravellers than they could by "harvesting" the habitats for short-term gain. Put another way, local people can sustain themselves better economically by participating in ecotourism than by, for instance, cutting down rainforests for lumber or hunting animals for meat or the pet trade.

Preservation of some of the Earth's remaining wild areas is important for a number of reasons. Aside from moral arguments - the acknowledgment that we share the world with millions of other species and have some obligation not to be the continuing agent of their decline and extinction - increasingly we understand that conservation is in our own best interests. The example most often cited is that botanists and pharmaceutical researchers each year discover another wonder drug or two whose base chemicals come from plants that live, for instance, only in tropical rainforest. Fully one-fourth of all drugs sold in the USA come from natural sources - plants and animals. About 50 important drugs now manufactured come from flowering plants found in rainforests, and, based on the number of plants that have yet to be cataloged and screened for their drug potential, it is estimated that at least 300 more major drugs remain to be discovered. The implication is that if the globe's rainforests are soon destroyed, we will never discover these future wonder drugs, and so will never enjoy their benefits. Also, the developing concept of biophilia, if true, dictates that, for our own mental health, we need to preserve some of the wildness that remains in the world. Biophilia, the word coined by Harvard biologist E. 0. Wilson , suggests that because people evolved amid rich and constant interactions with other species and in natural habitats, we have deeply ingrained, innate tendencies to affiliate with other species and actual physical need to experience, at some level, natural habitats. This instinctive, emotional attachment to wildness means that if we eliminate species and habitats, we will harm ourselves because we will lose things essential to our mental well-being.

If ecotourism contributes in a significant way to conservation, then it is an especially fitting reprieve for rainforests and other natural habitats, because it is the very characteristic of the habitats that conservationists want to save, wildness, that provides the incentive for travelers to visit and for local people to preserve.

Tourism is arguably now the world's largest industry, and ecotourism among its fastest growing segments. But mass ecotourism is a relatively new phenomenon, the name itself being coined only recently, during the 1980s. In fact, as recently as the 1970s, tourism and the preservation of natural habitats were viewed largely as incompatible pursuits. One of the first and best examples of ecotourism lies in Africa . Some adventurers, of course, have always traveled to wild areas of the Earth, but the contemporary history of popular ecotourism probably traces to the East African nation of Kenya . Ecotourism, by one name or another, has traditionally been a mainstay industry in Kenya, land of African savannah and of charismatic, flagship, mammals such as elephants, leopards, and lions - species upon which to base an entire ecotourism industry.

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During most of the European colonial period in East Africa , wildlife was plentiful. However, by the end of colonial rule ' in the middle part of the 20th century, continued hunting pressures had severely reduced animal populations. Wildlife was killed with abandon for sport, for trade (elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn, etc.), and simply to clear land to pave way for agriculture and development. By the 1970s it was widely believed in newly independent Kenya that if hunting and poaching were not halted, many species of large mammals would soon be eliminated. The country outlawed hunting and trade in wildlife products, and many people engaged in such pursuits turned, instead, to ecotourism. Today, more than a half million people per year travel to Kenya to view its tremendous wildlife and spectacular scenery. Local people and businesses profit more by charging ecotourists to see live elephants and rhinoceroses in natural settings than they could by killing the animals for the ivory and horns they provide. Estimates were made in the 1970s that, based on the number of tourist arrivals each year in Kenya and the average amount of money they spent, each lion in one of Kenya's national parks was worth $27,000 annually (much more than the amount it would be worth to a poacher who killed it for its skin or organs), and each elephant herd was worth a stunning $610,000 (in today's dollars, they would be worth much more). Also, whereas some of Kenya 's other industries, such as coffee production, vary considerably from year to year in their profitability, ecotourism has been a steady and growing source of revenue (and should continue to be so, as long as political stability is maintained). Thus, the local people have strong economic incentive to preserve and protect their natural resources.

Current popular ecotourists destinations include Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa in Africa; Nepal, Thailand, and China in Asia; Australia; and, in the Western Hemisphere, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Belize, Guatemala, Ecuador, and the Amazon Basin. Costa Rica , with more than half a million tourist arrivals annually and about 300,000 visits of foreigners to their national parks, is among the best and the most popular ecotourism destinations in the world; the reasons are explored in the book's chapter two: Cost Rica: Travellers Wildlife Guide, by Les Beletsky; published by Interlink Books, 2005.

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