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Eco-tourism, or nature-based tourism, is conservation’s greatest paradox.

Touted as ‘responsible travel’, nature-based tourism describes leisure travel that brings the traveler to natural areas, in an effort to conserve the natural environment while improving the welfare of local or indigenous people. The thing is, nature-based tourism tends to have the opposite impact in reality. And the growing popularity of this type of travel is beginning to have a dire impact on the natural world and its communities. According to the  International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism has grown between 20 and 34 percent per year since 1990. By the year 2000, it was found that ecotourism was bringing in $154 billion annually, and that “more than two-thirds of US and Australian travelers, and 90% of British tourists, consider(ed) active protection of the environment and support of local communities to be part of a hotel’s responsibility.”

By drawing crowds of people to natural attractions, pristine environments and remote communities for them to engage in birdwatching, stargazing, camping, hiking, fishing, or photography, among other activities, nature-based tourism is having unintended environmental and social consequences on the local environment and its people – despite that it is premised on precisely the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong. Nature-based travel is epic and unforgettable for the traveller, and is a great deal more considerate and responsible way of travelling than choosing to stay at a foreign-owned hotel in a big city and spending one’s money on goods cheaply produced in overseas sweatshops. But to join a nature-based tour naive of the potential environmental consequences is doing a disservice to yourself and to the planet.

Take recently increased tourism to the polar regions, for example. Travel to these parts of the world has greatly expanded in recent decades, due to improved access and cheaper tourist packages. So much so, that the number of ship-borne tourists has increased by 430 percent over the last 14 years and land-based tourists by 757 percent in 10 years. Oil spills are just one of the unintended impacts of this type of travel. In November 2007, for example, the Explorer sank, dumping 48,000 gallons of marine diesel fuel into Antarctic waters as well as thousands of items that went on to become marine debris, polluting the waters and local environment.

The areas that tend to attract swarms of eco-tourists are those that have been recognised as having exceptional environmental values, such as high biodiversity and aesthetic value. At the same time, those places are heavily reliant on the financial support of tourists and visitors in order to maintain conservation efforts. That such visitation often lead to environmental impacts like the trampling of soil and plants, propagation of resilient invasive species like weeds, road and infrastructure construction and interference with local fauna, is the paradox that has conservationists, landowners and wildlife authorities scratching their heads, wondering how to minimise those impacts while keeping finances flowing in.

Without visitors, landowners and managers cannot garner goodwill and support from local governments and communities, nor can they attract the financial revenue sorely needed for them to be able to protect natural areas and prevent them from more destructive types of land use. But with visitors come not only a whole host of environmental impacts, like those mentioned above, but also the negative impacts that come from over-reliance on tourists. You know, inadequate funding for programs on “quiet” years, corruption from local authorities who want in on the action, insufficient monitoring and evaluation of programs when they are welcoming too many participants, and so forth.

Unfortunately, it is beginning to become apparent that ecotourism is just not the answer to sustainable tourism. For tourism to truly be sustainable, it must leave absolutely no trace of human impact. I’m talking no physical remnants whatsoever, no unintended social impacts (from emptying a grocery store of its fresh produce, to introducing a new religion to a community), and no impacts on local wildlife whatsoever. To do this, however, would require going to great lengths to mitigate one’s impact, through the planting of trees, reprovisioning of local commodities, carbon-offsetting, and so forth.  Alternatively, travelling must be completely restricted in those areas that are the most precious or fragile from a conservation perspective.

Many would argue that neither option is realistic, and even if the latter was, what is the point of protecting land if none of us are able to see that land in our lifetime? Well, there are two environmental concepts that I believe we all need to become a lot more familiar with. The first is ‘intrinsic value’ – the perspective that nature has value in its own right, independent of human use. The second is directly linked to that perspective; it is a philosophy known as ecocentrism, which places intrinsic value on all living organisms and their natural environment, regardless of their perceived usefulness or importance to human beings. The only truly way for travel to be truly sustainable is if we all adopt an ecocentric perspective and take complete responsibility for ourselves and our actions. Do we really need to travel to that remote jungle in Panama or Brazil? Is it purely for our own happiness, even to the detriment of the flora and fauna that reside within that jungle? By asking ourselves this question each and every time we travel, we might start acting a little less selfishly as tourists, and give the natural world a small chance to recover…

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