Ecotourism's Hidden Cost

Ecotourism's Hidden Cost

. 3 min read

Mason Barnard. Originally published in the HIR Fall 2013 Issue.

Golden rays set on the verdant canopy of the Amazon—a sea of green stretching across the horizon. But it is a beautiful scene that is increasingly under threat. Deforestation, mining, and agriculture destroy over 78 million acres of forest each year. Although the most destructive and the most visible, they are not the only threats to nature's remaining sanctuaries. Tourism, the product of Western consumerism and Western capitalism, just as hungrily consumes the wildlife that sustains it.

A concept growing out of the environmental movement during the 1980s, ecotourism rapidly rose to the fore of the sustainable development debate. By minimizing the environmental and cultural impacts of tourism and reinvesting tourism dollars into the local community, it appeared to be a panacea to developing countries' ills. Each ecotourism development seeks to accomplish two basic goals: to alter the relationship between local peoples and their natural resources and to simultaneously improve the socioeconomic wellbeing of those local people. To accomplish both goals, ecotourism must alter the relationship between local peoples and their natural resources. In traditional economic development, resource extraction and use provides the fastest—and most widely utilized—approach to improving the socio-economic welfare of a people. In ecotourism, that relationship is reversed, with preservation of natural resources providing an effective avenue for development, making the opening of a sustainable hotel within a nature reserve more financially advantageous than leasing land to a lumber company.

When managed correctly, ecotourism works. Rainforest Expeditions, a for-profit company dedicated to conservation, leads the way for sustainable business. By sharing both management and 60 percent of the profits with the local Ese-éja people of the inner Amazon, the company carved out a  consistent source of dedicated labor and a consistent profit margin. As the money flowed in, the local community's socioeconomic status experienced a rapid transformation. Literacy rates skyrocketed, health improved, economic output increased—all while maintaining the environmental and cultural integrity of the local people.

Success stories like that of Rainforest Expeditions are no stranger to the conservation community. Each year, thousands of enterprising, socially conscious companies seek to make a profit through responsible capitalism, making ecotourism the most rapidly growing sector of the tourism industry. But outside appearances are often misleading. Ecotourism carries significant hidden costs for both the environment and the indigenous peoples it claims to protect. The industry's rapid growth challenges policy makers to standardize the industry and control the hordes of tourists tramping through wilderness reserves. The West's demand for "eco-friendly" products, hotels and tour companies promotes the rampant spread of capitalism, often threatening the survival of local culture. As ecotourism ages with the conservation movement that inspired it, the control of these counterproductive forces will play a greater and greater role in determining its success.

Costa Rica—long the source of innovative conservation programs—stands as a testament to the problems of implementing ecotourism on a wide scale. As the tourism industry grew in size, publicity and reputation, a new wave of visitors flooded the country's rainforests, reefs and beaches. Unwilling to sacrifice preservation for profit, businesses refused to implement limitations on the number of tourists able to visit Costa Rica's most spectacular sights, initiating a positive feedback loop of habitat degradation as increasing numbers of tourists promoted faster and more expansive development. Although local rainforests were physically preserved, the ecosystems within were not. The influx of careless tourists weighs heavily on the carrying capacity of local ecosystems, prompting organisms to feed off human food waste. Even after tourists return from their eco-friendly ventures abroad, problems remain. Hundreds of invasive species are introduced to Costa Rica each year on the footsteps of tour groups, disturbing the natural predator prey relationships of many areas. Since the initial growth of large-scale ecotourism in the 1990s, the federal government has struggled to control the spread of pests. They have so far been unsuccessful.

Latin America is not alone in its struggles to find a suitable model for sustainable ecotourism development. The same problems cast the same doubts upon the effectiveness of ecotourism across the globe—but particularly in underdeveloped Africa. With instability, corruption and a dependence on Western finance, ecotourism schemes across the continent often prove a boon for the West and a detriment to local economies and cultures. Rather than provide an opportunity for indigenous peoples to improve their livelihoods and socioeconomic statuses, ecotourism often places them into a bind between Western capitalism on one side and conservation practices on the other. Near Kenya's Maasai Mara Reserve, communities too far off the beaten path to receive the benefits of tourism suffer from the economic restrictions imposed on their activities by conservation policies. Populated by Maasai tribes with little influence in the electorate, these communities often express a sense of dissatisfaction with such policies. Unable to enter customary hunting grounds due to wilderness preservations, and isolated from the service industry by educated urbanites, many tribes live in stagnation.

Unless ecotourism's problems, concealed by a haze of optimism, are addressed, both wildlife and the indigenous people that the industry aims to save may become lost—trapped in tradition and locked out of the future.