Ecotourism is an activity ever increasing in popularity that brings tourists into natural areas, like rainforests or marine preserves, including coral reefs, in an effort to promote awareness and provide an economic stability for the area without causing damage to the ecosystem. A key aspect is that visitors don’t just visit, but also gain an education and appreciation for the ecosystem. The effects of ecotourism depend widely on how well the tour is run.
Many areas sought as ecotourism destinations are fragile environments filled with plants and animals that we know relatively little about. Rainforests and coral reefs are the most biological diverse systems on earth but they have been relatively unexplored and not visited by many humans. Such areas make for great adventure and allure, but caution must be exhibited to protect and not overstress the ecosystem.
The tour typically involves staying in a remote lodge (or even on a boat anchored at sea in the case of reefs) and eating traditional, local foods. Many newer lodges are very environmentally friendly. They may have cut a plot of land to build their buildings, but they use the trees that they cut. Their footprint is small and vegetation is left to grow around the lodging and dining facilities. In the ideal situation, guides and as many employees as possible are be hired from the surrounding communities, or at least from within the region. This not only brings much experience and knowledge, which can be shared with guests, but it also brings a sense of pride and love for the surrounding forest or reef that is best achieved by people who call the area home. The guides should be well trained to always bear in mind conservation and how to best protect the environment.
Finally, guests must be properly educated before they are able to explore the rainforest or marine preserve. Depending on the situation, the facilities may require that guests be with a guide. It must be emphasized that visitors must be careful to stay on trails, not touch or step on the reef, not harass any animals, and in general, leave a low impact.
If the above precautions are initiated and always followed, ecotourism can have a positive effect on the ecosystem, whether a rainforest or coral reef. The money from the tourists can help sustain many local people in conservation-oriented work. The local people further protect the environment because their livelihood now so closely depends on the health of the ecosystem. Guides are well trained and learn a lifestyle that is good for the environment and they pass these ideals on to their children, friends, and neighbors.
From the side of the visitors, they learn about the fragile ecosystem and explore it first hand, giving them something real and exciting to remember. This up close and personal experience is the sort of thing that changes the lives of people; the individual will surely share photos and stories from their trip with family and friends and may post on social networks like Facebook or write a blog, which others will see. Some people will be so moved that they will donate money to help further research and conservation. Others may offer to volunteer or may begin their own awareness group about the need for protection of the ecosystem. All of these actions will help conservation and education.
The above are all positive effects. There can be some negative effects if the tour is not well run or if guides are not educated and passionate about the protection of the ecosystem. Tourists may come who are very uneducated, rude, or simply ignorant. They may wander off from trails (or cut new trails with their newly purchased machete), they may pick up and even try to take a piece of coral, or they may simply not listen to instructions given by the staff. This carelessness, if even conducted by a small number of visitors, can be detrimental to a stressed or very fragile ecosystem, like many coral reefs and rainforests.
In other situations money is not well managed and may not remain local to help conservation efforts or local people to work at the facilities. This can be detrimental to conservation and may turn ecotourism into something that does not fit the role it should for the visitor and environment.
In short, ecotourism can be very, very good for the environment, the local people, and the visitor. However, the tour and lodging must be managed well so that money is allocated to the appropriate programs and people. Education is the key to conservation and advancing conservation must include an appreciation for and by humans. If you would like to participate in an ecotour, research the company, location and reviews of the tour before you book. Check around and try to find one that focuses on conservation and education. Not only will you help the environment, but you will probably learn more and enjoy your tour more.
One important point to notice is that eco-tourism may involve the greenest most natural experience, but in most cases, people are arriving to these destinations on planes. Planes are far from sustainable and this should be taken into account on an eco-travel vacation.
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