Kate on Conservation

Ecotourism as a Philosophy for Conservation


This guest blog was written back in early March, just before the full force of Covid-19 and lockdown took hold across the globe. Ash Card of  TourTheTropics.com, explores the future of travel as ecotourism, and looks at how — when viewed as a philosophy for conservation — this kind of travel and exploration plays a vital role in species conservation. It has perhaps become even more important to look at travel through this lens in the months since the piece was first written.

Tourism is the world’s largest industry. The United Nations World Travel Authority reports that there were around 1.4 billion international travellers in 2018. This number is expected to grow as the years go by. 

Although there are many reasons why people travel, they often centre on relaxation, visiting family and friends, adventure, culture, shopping, nightlife and nature. 

The trend continues to show that people are becoming more and more interested in experiencing the natural world for wildlife and adventure. With this interest, it’s expected that the percentage of people travelling for nature will continue to grow. 

Habitat Loss

Unfortunately, the destruction of natural habitat with deforestation is also increasing as the years go by. In 2018, the world lost a Belgium-sized area of primary tropical forest, which happens year after year. 

These tropical forests are some of the most species-rich habitats on Earth. With them go the countless animals and plants that call these forests home.

To put this into perspective, rainforests cover just 6% of our planet but contain 50% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

This habitat loss is threatening many species with extinction. Conservation is not only important to protect the animals and plants for their own sake and for future generations, but with the extinctions go many unknown cures to diseases. Around 40% of prescription medicines are from plant, animal, fungi or micro-organisms. 

Tourism for Conservation

As a solution to slow and even reverse deforestation, properly managed tourism is an important tool in the conservation toolkit. Tourism can help relieve poverty by creating entrepreneurial opportunities (i.e. employing locals in non-extractive jobs) and can be used directly for habitat protection.

The number of tourists interested in nature and adventure is growing and it’s these visitors in particular that are important in conservation. 

Already, there are many cases where properly managed tourism has helped stop deforestation, provided locals with alternative employment to logging, oil or other destructive careers, and even helped bring animals back from the brink of extinction.

To separate tourism that harms communities and the environment, the Nature Conservancy defines ecotourism as: ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.’

Not only beneficial for conservation, ecotourism is also profitable. For example, Conservation International acquired a tract of land in Brazil’s Pantanal now drawing more revenue per acre for tourism than surrounding land used for cattle ranching.

Tourism is also now the largest source of revenue in Costa Rica.

Lessons from the Amazon & Africa

Staying in the Americas, the Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest tropical forest and deforestation for agriculture, oil, logging and settlement is happening here at an alarming rate.

On the other hand, tourism in the Amazon is already showing promise in Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Colombia. Operators employ guides, managers, cooks, and cleaners who otherwise worked in oil or logging industries.

Lodges can also protect wildlife-rich private reserves, which are attractive destinations to tourists. For example, there are Amazon tours in Peru and rainforest lodges in Ecuador, which are either certified by Rainforest Alliance, within their own private reserves or operated in-part, or entirely, by members of the community itself. 

For the most celebrated example of tourism for conservation, however, we look to Africa and the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. 

silverback gorilla photo by Dan Richardson
Silver back gorilla in Rwanda. Photo by Dan Richardson

Mountain gorillas were once at the edge of extinction threatened by habitat loss and hunting. In the 1970s, only 400 individuals were living in the wild.

Coupled with direct conservation, gorilla tourism was introduced in the 1980s. The population has now grown to 1,063 individuals.

Not only helping the gorillas directly, gorilla tourism raises most of the budget for Rwanda’s national wildlife authority providing the bulk of the funding for conservation for the entire country. And in neighbouring Uganda, each gorilla brings in USD 1 million of revenue each year.

Ecotourism for Conservation

To add the ‘eco’ to the name, tourism needs to be well managed and there is a balancing act to perform. (Discover how to be an eco-tourist here) .

As an example from gorilla tourism, because gorillas are very closely related to us, we can easily transmit disease to the groups if not monitored.

baby gorilla sitting on the grass
Baby gorilla photo by Dan Richardson

The number of tourists should also be tightly controlled to cause minimal environmental impact, minimise changes in behaviour, and reduce stress to wildlife.

With correct management, tourism can be used in many cases to help conservation of a diverse range of species and habitats.

But the negative impacts when tourism isn’t properly managed shouldn’t be underestimated. These include too many tourists in one area, stressing the wildlife, and introducing disease and invasive species.

With this in mind, ecotourism should be viewed as a philosophy with principles to guide areas of tourism where people are in contact with the natural world.

This would adapt to the area’s unique challenges and environments. When widely adopted in this way, there is massive potential for tourism to aid international conservation objectives and benefit wildlife.

Like this post? Read my prize-winning entry to the Travel Blogger of the Year 2020.

About the author:

Ash is passionate about tourism for conservation. Founder of TourTheTropics.com, a collection of the best tours on Earth for the tropical realm, Ash has an MSc in Zoology with published research in the Journal of Behavioral Ecology and the Australian Journal of Zoology. He is widely traveled with a soft spot for the Amazon Rainforest and Galapagos Islands.

You can read more of Ash’s posts about ecotourism at TourTheTropics.com

Check out these 10 Tips to Ensure Responsible Wildlife Photography.

2 thoughts on “Ecotourism as a Philosophy for Conservation

  1. Surely eco tourism is a good alternative source of utilisation of natural resources than oil rigging, mining and similar industries. But giving too much access to natural areas specially preserved forests or core conservation areas of forests even to tourism development is harmful in a lot of ways. Poachers can make inroads as tourists and buy off the hospitality staff/tour operators (to which almost always is the strategy with poachers in lesser developed nations where citizens don’t mind earning few extra bucks for helping out a foreignor). Not to mention, human interference in any form disturbs the natural environment, be it pollution of land and water. Tourism itself is one of the most polluting industry. In my opinion, best policy is to pass stronger regulations to keep natural habitats of animals untouched. It is a right of the animals to live peacefully.

    1. Hi Nupur, thank you for your thoughts. It’s always helpful to hear and consider other opinions. You certainly raise some important points here.

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