According to the world tourism organization tourism encompasses the activities of people traveling to and staying at places outside their normal environment for not more than one consecutive year for relaxation, business and other objectives not related to the exercise of an activity paid for within the place visited. Ecotourism as a word is short for ecological tourism. As the name suggests ecotourism is conscientious travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people (TIES, 1990). This therefore means that ecotourism is primarily about bringing together conservation, communities and sustainable travel.
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Tourism as a whole accounts for $ 3.6 trillion in economic activities and 8 percent of all jobs worldwide. Within this industry, ecotourism is by far the fastest growing sub-sector; it is expanding by 20-34 percent per year since the early 1990s. It’s considered more environmentally sustainable than the other sectors of tourism. This means that it is viewed as a form of tourism that can maintain ecological balance: it exploits natural resources without destroying the ecological equilibrium of an area (Fennel, 1999).
Principals of ecotourism
To unite conservation, sustainable travel and communities those practicing ecotourism should follow the principals of ecotourism. The first is that ecotourism has to do with travel to natural destinations. These places/ destinations are more often than not remote areas and can either be inhabited or uninhabited. Usually these areas are under environmental protection of some kind at international, national, communal or private level.
Ecotourism should strive to minimize impact. This is because tourism as a whole causes damage. To minimize impact, ecotourism endeavors to minimize the harmful effects of hotels, trails, along with other infrastructure by making use of available local building materials or recycled materials, renewable sources of energy, safe disposal of waste and recycling, and culturally and environmentally sensitive architectural designs (Font & Buckley, 2001).
Ecotourism is meant to enable or encourage environmental awareness. This means that ecotourism should provide education for both residents of communities living in the neighborhood and the tourists. Before departure, tour operators should provide travelers with reading materials concerning the environment, its local people and a code of conduct- both for the tourist and the industry itself. This information serves to prepare the traveler to minimize their negative impact as well as learn about the places and people visited. Ecotourism projects should help educate members of the neighboring community, schoolchildren and the larger public in the host country. To do this they should offer reduced entrance and lodge fees for nationals as well as provide free educational trips for local students and those living near the tourist attraction (Honey, 2008).
Ecotourism should provide direct financial benefits for conservation. This therefore means that ecotourism should help raise funds for environmental research, protection and education. This should be done using a variety of means which include: park entrance fees, hotel, tour company, airline, and airport taxes along with voluntary contributions.
The tourism should afford financial benefits and empowerment to the local people. For their survival, national parks and other conservation areas, should strive to have “happy” people around their perimeters. To do this the local community should be involved with along with receiving income and other tangible benefits from the conservation area and its tourist facilities. This means that lodges, campsites and other concessions should be run by or in partnership with the local community. For ecotourism to be viewed as a tool for rural development it should aid in shifting the political and economical control to the local community. This is difficult and time consuming but must be observed by foreign operators (Hudspeth, 2005).
Ecotourism should show respect for local culture. This means that it should be less culturally intrusive than conventional tourism. It strives to have a minimal effect on both the natural environment and the human population of the host country. Part of being a responsible ecotourist is learning the local customs, dress codes and social norms beforehand and respecting or following them. Ecotourists should also not intrude on communities unless invited or as part of a planned tour.
Ecotourism should support human rights and democratic movements. It demands its participants to respect, learn about and try to benefit both the local environment and communities. Giving economic benefits and showing cultural understanding to local communities cannot be separated from appreciating their political circumstances.
Benefits of Ecotourism
Ecotourism has its advantages and these can be as an impact to the tourist, the local community or even the host country. Ecotourism is educational to the tourist. By traveling to new places the tourist learns about local plants and animals that he’d otherwise not have encountered. The traveler also gets to get a deeper understanding of the local culture this ensures that one learns to appreciate and respect other people’s beliefs. Ecotourism brings the tourist closer to nature, open up the tourist’s mind to new ideas along with new perspectives on life and other people. It takes them to places less traveled and gives them a wonderful new experience without harming the environment (Newsome, Moore & Dowling, 2002).
Ecotourism benefits the local community as it enables the provision of employment and infrastructural development. The locals surrounding the national parks or whatever conservation project can benefit from them as the government or foreign investors require services which can be provided by the locals. This in turn also ensures that fewer people migrate to the cities. The local population gains new skills which guarantee that they are not totally dependent on the limited natural resources. Some of the areas may be remote and tourism ensures that infrastructure facilities like water supply and schools are provided in order to keep the locals happy and ensure good services.
Ecotourism offers new opportunities for small-scale investments and also increases national responsibility in the protection of biological resources. It therefore acts as a means of socio-economic and environmental uplifting especially in developing countries for which the ecotourism acts as a major source of foreign exchange.Visiting the protected areas such as national parks and reserves contribute towards maintenance of the parks or reserves. This is possible by the collection of entrance fees and other charges which go towards paying for improvements and salaries for the staff taking care of the facilities. Sufficient amounts of revenue are therefore re-invested in protecting natural habitats (Sindiga, 1999).
Disadvantages of ecotourism
Ecotourism may lead to an increase in population around an area; there may also be excessive building of resorts in areas where park popularity is very high. While this ensures high revenues, it also increases pressure on land, reducing opportunities for local people to make a living off the land. This is because things like energy sources can be depleted so as to accommodate the hordes of tourists visiting an area.
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When putting up facilities such as resorts and camp sites, people may be displaced in an example being the Maasai community of Kenya. Habitats may also be destroyed to clear the way for this tourist facilities. Local people’s land may also be expropriated at inequitable prices because of deals made between governments and multinational companies (Newsome, Moore & Dowling, 2002).
Overcrowding in tourist venues may endanger protected areas. An example of this is instances where excessive viewing of wildlife can disturb animals’ feeding along with their breeding. Unusual species of plants can also be trampled on or picked by tourists and since vehicles and planes do pollute, the micro climate may change leading to death of various plants and in some instances animals.
One of the major reasons why local communities do not support ecotourism in developing countries is the human-wildlife conflict. 70% of wildlife live outside protected areas and feed on people’s livestock and land Honey (1999). This can be the case due to marking off of incomplete ecosystems for protected areas. As a result, wild animals have been responsible for deaths of people and destruction of property. On the other hand, due to this conflict death of some animals has been as a result of people being fed up and killing them (Honey, 2008).
Demand for rare birds, animals, animal parts or for souvenirs can promote trafficking of endangered species. This is because sometimes locals do not benefit very much from the reserves leading them to poaching a good example is the elephant tusk trafficking from Kenya to china which initially involves killing the animals illegally (poaching). This can also be as a result of unemployment in the local communities in cases where the staff is brought in from overseas.
Ecotourism as in all other forms of tourism may lead to degradation of local culture. This is because locals through interaction with foreigners may adapt some of their behavior and practices leading to a disintegration of their own.
Outstanding Issues in Ecotourism
Inadequacy of information is one of the issues plaguing ecotourism. An increased amount of quality information is needed about actual and potential economic contributions from nature tourism ventures and practices.
The risks associated with ecotourism are also issues that plague it, these risks include poor management which may lead to unregulated nature tourism which may in turn corrode local culture and damage the environment.
The perception of locals is also a problem facing ecotourism. The locals in developing countries are sometimes afraid that their parks and protected areas become a playground for tourists instead of benefiting them through farming (Font & Buckley, 2001).
Activities involved in ecotourism are therefore those activities that while making use of natural resources ensure a minimal impact on the ecological balance of an area. Examples of such activities are visiting national parks and reserves, bird watching, hiking through conservations among others.
In conclusion, the role of ecotourism is to promote and preserve natural environment and both large scale and small scale attractions play an important role in the economy of the surrounding area. It involves the preservation of natural areas, environmental education, and cultural tolerance all geared towards economic growth. It should therefore be encouraged as it is designed to benefit the tourist, the host population and the environment.
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