If you love both nature and traveling, then you’ve definitely heard about ecotourism. It is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” It sure sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, ecotourism has both its advantages and disadvantages. It creates many jobs for locals, brings in money for local economies, supports conservation efforts and raises awareness about cultural and environmental issues. It has also helped to preserve some species; yet it threatens others by causing animals to be stressed due to human presence.
Some may even argue that ecotourism is an oxymoron. It aims to preserve certain environments and wildlife, but actually destroys them in the process. Because ecotours have become such a trend, many natural areas are seeing hundreds of thousands of tourists per year. This is unfortunately wreaking havoc on these destinations. Tourists are disrupting wildlife, polluting and bringing in invasive species to areas which have previously been untouched.
Many so-called “ecotour operators” have become greedy, too, luring tourists in without actually taking care to be eco-friendly. Among other things, they do not inform tourists of the proper procedures for wandering about fragile environments and continue to build more infrastructures to accommodate tourists (which ultimately disrupts the ecosystem). Of course, this is not true ecotourism (it’s more like regular tourism wearing an ecotourism mask).
Don’t be discouraged, though. There are ways to minimize your footprint, should you decide to visit an ecotourism destination. The most important things you can do are research the various ecotours being offered and be mindful of how your actions may affect the environment or wildlife.
Tourists only began visiting Antarctica in the 1950s. Back then, only a few hundred would visit each tourist season. But, these days, thousands of tourists flock to the icy continent from November to March to see the penguins, seals, and whales. People also go hiking to get breathtaking views of the landscape. And the land is absolutely beautiful, as it’s virtually untouched and different from what we’re used to seeing elsewhere in the world.
Although ecotourism brings awareness to the environmental issues threatening Antarctica, it may be doing more harm than good. Just think about how the tourists get to Antarctica. That’s right—usually by cruise ships, which produce hundreds of thousands of litres of wastewater and oily water per day. This contaminated water is dumped into the local waters, potentially harming the marine life. On top of that, tourists may accidentally bring in invasive species on their boots, clothes or in their cargo. These invasive species may potentially disturb the ecosystem. The most solid evidence of tourists destroying Antarctica is that the penguins have been getting infectious diseases and dying in mass numbers. Further, the penguins are stressed by human presence.
If you do decide to go on an ecotour in Antarctica, make sure you are going with a company that is aware of these potential risks and takes measures to prevent any damage to the wildlife or environment.
14. New Zealand
There’s so much to do in New Zealand! It really is a paradise for thrill-seekers, nature lovers and photographers alike. Ecotours in New Zealand often offer seal watching, guided tours through the rainforest, snorkeling, beach walks, and sailing. It sounds fun, but is it really benefiting the native wildlife populations? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Fisheries are already threatening the sea lions and ecotourism actually gets in the way of the survival of sea lion pups. This is because tourists disturb the mothers when they’re feeding their young. It is predicted that if ecotourism continues at these levels in New Zealand, the sea lions may go extinct. That’s definitely something no one wants to see happen, so it’s worth reconsidering your itinerary before visiting New Zealand.
13. Yucatán, Mexico
In Yucatán, ecotourism activities include bird watching, cave diving, kayaking, mountain biking and more. However, one of the most popular activities to do in Yucatán is whale shark watching. Whale sharks are the largest sharks in existence, so you can only imagine how awe-inspiring it must be to see them in their natural habitat. Currently, whale sharks are endangered and it seems like ecotourism is only threatening their status even more. The sharks have migrated further east, closer to Cancun. Not surprisingly, agencies in Cancun are taking advantage of this. The tour boats now outnumber the whale sharks, resulting in injuries to the sharks. If this keeps up, it could be the end of the whale shark population in this area.
Tanzania has many ecotourism opportunities and some are really great. The Jane Goodall Institute, for example, is working to ensure a future for chimpanzees. Other organizations offer scuba diving, snorkeling and safaris. These activities provide income for locals and add to the country’s economy. The revenue from ecotourism even goes towards conservation efforts. Ironically, though, ecotourism is harming the wildlife in Tanzania. Tour jeeps going across the savannah scare off lions’ prey. This means that lions can no longer hunt in parts of Tanzania during the morning when the tour jeeps are out. Instead, they have to wait until the hottest part of the day to hunt, which is draining for them.
Luckily for nature-lovers and those dreaming of visiting Africa one day, there are some true eco-friendly organizations out there. For example, organizations such as The Multi-Environmental Society, offer safari alternatives which include hiking.
11. Punta Tombo, Argentina
Punta Tombo welcomes 70,000 visitors each year. They come to see the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins, which come to the reservation in Punta Tombo to breed. It seems like a perfectly safe ecotourist activity. The tourists don’t appear to cause any harm; after all, they’re only observing the penguins. Though the penguins don’t seem to mind the tourists, research shows that they (and their chicks) have chronically high stress levels. This has negative effects on the penguins, such as a weakened immune system and reduced growth.
10. Banff National Park, Canada
When you look at photographs of Banff National Park, you may think that it’s surreal. The mountains, crystal lakes, and lush trees really make this destination a magical one. It’s understandable, then, that this area was protected and named a national park. The right intentions were there at the time, but the results are not as expected. Because the Trans-Canada Highway runs through the middle of the park, the number of collisions with animals has increased. As the number of tourists increase, the amount of garbage near the campground has also increased. This has attracted more bears, which are a danger to the public and end up being killed. This completely defeats the purpose of the national park, doesn’t it?
9. Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A.
Yellowstone National Park holds the honor of being the United States’ first national park. It truly is a beauty, with moose, bears, wolves and hundreds of different species of birds. The park even has waterfalls and geysers. But, just as is the case with Banff, ecotourism may be hurting Yellowstone more than helping it. Roads and buildings were built to accommodate tourists, resulting in a negative impact on wildlife. For example, the wildlife can either become used to the visitors or change their behavior to avoid people. This can result in decreased survival for the animals. Several examples of this have been seen over the past few years. Essentially, by trying to protect wildlife, the high traffic tourism in Yellowstone National Park is actually doing the opposite.
8. Shenandoah National Park, U.S.A.
Shenandoah National Park is really just hundreds of thousands of acres of natural beauty. Tourists can hike, view the waterfalls, see deer, go bird-watching and so much more. But, the park’s wetlands may be in danger because of tourists. Big Meadows, located in the center of Shenandoah National Park, has the highest concentration of rare plants in the park. However, the plants are being threatened by tourists, who frequently go off the trail.
Now, by no means are national parks a bad thing. As previously mentioned, they were created to protect certain areas and the wildlife which inhabits them. They also create jobs, boost our economy and raise awareness of environmental issues. If you do want to visit a national park, you can do so without leaving a big footprint. Instead of taking a car, use public transportation to help reduce traffic congestion and the need for bigger parking lots. Also, don’t litter in the parks, stay on the designated trails and enjoy the wildlife from a safe distance. In short, being mindful of your actions will make a difference.
7. Kona, Hawaii
Tourists are drawn to Kona, Hawaii to observe and interact with manta rays. They are attracted to such activities because they believe they are helping the animals involved. But, as we’ve seen countless times, human interaction with wild creatures is not natural or beneficial. Due to the increased number of tour boats in Kona, both corals and manta rays are being hurt. The anchors from the boats often drag along the reefs, destroying them. This results in a chain effect: the plankton, which live on the reef, are affected and so are the manta rays, which feed on plankton. Even the anchor lines have been shown to directly harm the mantas, tangling and injuring them.
6. Galápagos Islands
A few decades ago, the Galápagos Islands were like a paradise on Earth. Now, it is a paradise being destroyed by humans. The Galápagos are absolutely beautiful and is home to species found nowhere else in the world. This is precisely what has attracted tourists. But, with tourists comes boats and infrastructure, which destroy the land and waters that animals call their home. Many species have been declining since tourism started increasing in the islands. Airplanes and cars have been running over animals, too. Additionally, invasive species are being introduced through tourists’ bags and boots and on boats. This poses a serious threat to the fragile ecosystem on the Galápagos.
Belize is another paradise on Earth, with its gorgeous waterfalls, ancient Mayan ruins, caves and wildlife. So, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the most popular ecotourism destinations in the world. But it’s also one of the most fragile. Something as simple as swimming in a cave may seem totally harmless; however, most people may not be aware that even the natural oils on their feet can prevent stalagmites and stalactites from growing in caves. Tourists also go off trails, causing the displacement of wildlife and plants. These potentially harmful actions highlight the importance of doing your own research and choosing a well-managed company before heading on an ecotour.
4. Costa Rica Coastlines
Costa Rica is pretty much the poster child for ecotourism. There’s no doubt that the industry has been beneficial in many aspects for the country. Fortunately, there are also many companies which practice sustainable tourism. But, there are a few which are not as eco-conscious as they advertise themselves to be. While it may be a stretch to say that ecotourism is destroying Costa Rica, we will say this: ecotourism is directly hurting Costa Rica’s sea turtle population. In 2015, thousands of tourists crowded Ostional Beach in Costa Rica, where sea turtles (which are classified as vulnerable) go to lay their eggs. When the sea turtles encountered the tourists, they headed straight back into the water. Thankfully, the turtles managed to lay some eggs at night, after the tourists went home. However, this is a prime example of humans disrupting a natural process.
3. Machu Picchu, Peru
Mystery and beauty surrounds Machu Picchu, an ancient Inca ruin in Peru. It’s not hard to understand why many people would take the long journey to see this site. But the large amounts of tourists are creating a big problem. The pollution on the Inca Trail, which leads to Machu Picchu, is shocking. There are water bottles and toilet paper everywhere. Tons of garbage is thrown into the river or burned each day. Fortunately, restrictions have been set in place to limit the amount of tourists on the trail each day. But more still needs to be done to prevent Machu Picchu from becoming a wasteland.
2. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Millions of tourists visit the glorious, religious complex of Angkor Wat each year. Unfortunately, these tourists are walking all over and touching the monuments, risking irreparable damage to these ancient structures. The area is also being polluted beyond belief. But that doesn’t mean you must stay away from this site altogether. It is possible to make a positive impact as a tourist, by joining an eco-tour which helps to clean up garbage, volunteering, making a donation and patronizing locally-owned restaurants.
Similar to Tanzania, there are many ecotourism opportunities in Kenya. These have been a real boost to the economy. However, high-volume tourism is becoming an issue. For example, on the Masai Mara reserve, there are now over 3,000 beds in 25 permanent lodges. This has caused the Masai people to lose their farmlands. Their livestock is also no longer able to freely roam the plains and this has affected the wildlife. The wildlife has also been affected by human presence. Baboons, for example, have turned into garbage feeders. But, just as it is in Tanzania, there are true ecotourism operators, who do their best to reduce the footprint on the environment; you just have to look for them.
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