What is Ecotourism
Ecotourism is, at its heart, a means to fund conservation projects worldwide and enhance the economies of local villages. Ecotourism attains this goal by encouraging tourists to visit some of the most remote, pristine natural areas on Earth. However, while the basic definition may simply reference tourism to natural areas, the overarching magnitude of what ecotourism accomplishes goes much farther than simple tourism.
This type of tourism has been going on for a very long time, but it has had a number of different incarnations over the generations. Originally, ecotourism was little more than wealthy businessmen traveling the world with a rifle looking for heads to mount on their walls. As tastes have changed and global perspectives have developed, ecotourism has developed into a much more refined enterprise that encompasses a broad range of activities. While there are still many that utilize hunting as a form of ecotourism, the majority of ecotourists go simply to take pictures and see the sights.
It was only fairly recently that the term "ecotourism" was coined, however the specific timeframe of the name's genesis is somewhat contested. Most believe that the term was first used by Mexican conservationists with PRONATURA while leading tourist expeditions in the Yucatan. While trying to save wetlands in the Yucatan peninsula, they made the case that their conservation could lead to greater economic gains through tourism than would be gained by their destruction. By attempting to put a long-term monetary value on the natural world, PRONATURA laid the framework for what would later become known as ecotourism.
Since then, ecotourism has grown into a multi-billion dollar international industry. It has helped to fund some of the most ambitious conservation projects in the history of the world, and it has significantly contributed to the economies of many small, disenfranchised communities. However, despite these many benefits, there is a darker side to ecotourism that all tourists should be on the lookout for.
With the exponential growth of this industry over the past two decades, large corporate interests have made their way into the fold. These large companies create massive lodges and resorts that they call ecotourism centers, but they are really just giant hotels that plan activities for patrons. According to UNWTO, roughly five percent of the monies made at these corporate resorts actually makes its way back into the communities they work in. Almost ninety percent of the money is funneled out of the country to fill overseas corporate coffers. The issue here is that this flies in the face of what all international tourism bodies define as "ecotourism". These large corporations pirate the image of ecotourism as a sales pitch to their prospective clients, without living up to any of the other components of what ecotourism promotes.
While ecotourism is basically tourism in ecologically sensitive or important areas, there are some internationally accepted definitions that take things a step further. By all international accounts, ecotourism is meant to be small scale, with the term "underdevelopment" being used quite often. Also, ecotourism is supposed to primarily benefit the finances of the communities that are local to the activity. This means that the majority of the money made must be pumped into the local economy. Finally, ecotourism is supposed to promote conservation initiatives in threatened areas that would otherwise be subject to the wanton mismanagement of industrial robber-barons.
The majority of ecotourists hail from the United States, with over five million people engaging in an ecotourism vacation at least once every year. This is a substantial majority of the worldwide ecotourism client-base. Some of the most popular ecotourism activities are hiking and fishing, but wildlife watching is also extremely popular. In many countries throughout the world, foreigners are generally not allowed to actually hunt animals while in-country. Even if they are allowed, the restrictions are often so great that only very wealthy patrons can actually engage in the activity. In response to this, many "photo safari" groups have popped up on places like Africa where game animals are readily visible. Of the many countries engaged in ecotourism, Kenya, Australia, the United States, and Sweden all see some of the highest numbers of ecotourists flocking to their natural areas every year. Throughout this site you'll find a wealth of information about ecotourism by country as well as by type.