Ecotourism: Is it doing more harm than good?
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Written by Yaffa Segal '25
Edited by Lisa Liong '25
Have you ever wanted to visit the Amazon Rainforest? Or go on safari? Imagine visiting the rich landscapes our natural world has to offer. Feel the breeze on your face, the grass between your toes! If you have the time and the means, pack your bags and hop on the next plane to go as far away as you can get for a fun getaway. If you find yourself preferring to visit a national park over a bustling city, you may just be an ecotourist.
Ecotourism can be broadly defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sunstains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” . More simply, ecotourism describes the travel to remote places for people to appreciate the ecological beauty of the planet, ideally untouched by humans. While a traditional tourist might choose to visit art museums in Paris, an ecotourist might opt for something more rugged like a safari in Tanzania. What distinguishes ecotourism from regular travel is that it is specifically intended to be a smaller-scale alternative to commercial tourism. Traditional tourism, generally, is practiced without the interests of the planet in mind, whereas the intent behind the ecotourism industry is educational and enriching to everyone involved. Ecotourism, at its best, is meant to be a means of cultural exchange and education. The flow of tourists to pristine environments can be a major source of income for indigenous communities, and the resulting experiences can be instrumental in promoting conservation efforts . In order to determine the true effect of human activity on these environments, data must be collected on the specific details of human disruption.
A group of scientists at the Houhe National Nature Reserve (HNNR) conducted a study regarding the effect of ecotourist trails on mammal diversity in the area. While the HNNR is not a particularly popular tourist attraction on a global scale, it can serve as a model system to elucidate the subtle effects of human presence on mammal interactions. The focus of this study was aimed toward the potential ramifications of human presence on the behavior of native animals. The experiment was designed to analyze the different types of trails used by tourists to explore the environment. Trails were classified from one to five: type one trails being the most developed, being paved with the most human and vehicular activity, and type five, barely-noticeable grassy paths. The purpose of this experiment was to see if the trail type and amount of activity on the trail had an effect on three biodiversity indices. The indices used were Taxonomic Diversity (TD), Functional Diversity( FD), and Phylogenetic Diversity (PD). TD describes the species’ “evenness and richness”, FD describes the ecological relationships of species to their environment and specific niches, and PD describes evolutionary relationships between species, the way they interact with each other. This study is one of few to use all three indices to analyze forest mammal activity at once. By collecting animal sightings and trace evidence (scat, footprints, nesting, etc.), the HNNR group was able to assemble a strong correlation between the different types of trail and the biodiversity indices .
Their first hypothesis was that the larger, more active trail types would cause lower biodiversity indices. Based on the surveys, this hypothesis was supported. Wider, more active trails like types one and two had lower diversity indices than the less active trails. The second hypothesis was that more active trails would have the same level of deficiency across the biodiversity indices. This hypothesis wasn’t supported by the data, but we can conclude overall that human presence has a negative effect on the number and type of subtropical mammals found. Research such as this is important because it generates precise data to help inform trial management for ecotourist access.
At HNNR it was observed that visitors would leave litter and food waste scattered along the sides of the more active trails, (type one and two). If you’ve ever had raccoons go through your trash, you’ll see where this is going. Species more comfortable around humans like rats and boars were more likely to forage near the paths, while more fearful and skittish animals, especially larger ones like panthers, deer, and bears would stay far away. This causes an uneven distribution of animals, throwing off the natural predator-prey relationship [3, 4]. The slightest amount of disruption to the food chain can allow for one animal’s population to grow unchecked, subsequently destabilizing the ecosystem. This research has significant implications for the future of ecotourism destination management and practice. It is apparent that the continued human presence in protected areas like HNNR pose a threat to biological diversity and environmental function. This could mean that travel to these exotic locations may need to be limited in order to maintain the health of the ecosystem.
In order for ecotourism to be limited via legislative restriction or general disencouragement, its contributions to local livelihoods must also be acknowledged. It is important to note that Ecotourism is a major source of income for certain groups. A great example of a lucrative ecotourist destination are rainforests . Countries with rainforests like Ecuador, Malaysia, and Republic of Congo to name a few, make a significant sum off of their rainforest ecotourism. Offering activities like nature observation, hiking and camping, ecologically rich countries make a large part of their tourist income from ecotourism attractions specifically. If certain regulations were put into place on ecotourist attractions, the specific economic effects would be difficult to predict . The answer is not completely clear, but when you’re planning your next vacation, try to keep these ideas close, and leave only footprints behind.
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