Ecotourism is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. It is regarded as a crucial source of foreign exchange for many developing countries. 1.2 billion tourists cross borders every year, creating a wide-ranging and profound impact on society and the economy. Ecotourism also helps create jobs, offers incentives for environmental conservation, and reduces poverty to create a more resilient and inclusive economy (Urosevic et al., 2018).
For this, UNDP (United Nation Development Programme) and UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) have worked together to ensure tourism contribution in sustainable development via three Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):
- SDG 14 of ‘Life below water’,
- SDG 8 of ‘Decent work and employment’, and
- SDG 12 of ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’.
Although the sector contributes positively to growth, without a sustainable approach, there is an increase in pressure on the ecosystem and biodiversity due to the expanding tourism industry (Urosevic et al., 2018). This article explores the concept of ecotourism, understanding its emergence and determines the importance of ecotourism in today’s scenario.
Tourism is linked to the environment in four major ways as shown in the figure below.
Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people.International Ecotourism Society (TIES) in 1991
Recognizing this pattern, the concept of environment-friendly tourism emerged which is sustainably managed, conservation supporting, and environment-friendly. Ecotourism is nature-based tourism that is centred around the ecologically interesting exotic and endangered natural environment tourist spots (Redfern, 1992).
Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local population.World Conservation Union in 1996
Thus, ecotourism is a low-impact travel concept to preserve endangered and undisturbed locations. It involves educating tourists about the areas and generating funds to conserve the environment and economic development. For instance, Costa Rican rainforests in South America is a tourism hotspot due to their well-protected natural beauty. The tourism economy in the country has been developed to sustain the local eco-friendly way of life through sustainable hotels concept, recycling and resources conservation activities and activities for the protection of species (Lynch, 2021).
The emergence of environment-friendly tourism
Sustainable tourism and ecotourism emerged with the environmental movement during the 1970s and gained popularity in the late 1980s. This was due to a rise in awareness of people about the environment (Briney, 2020). However, this rise was restrained, making the presence of environment-friendly tourism felt only in some destinations. Furthermore, ecotourism was mainly driven by scientists, nature lovers and birdwatchers (Weaver & Lawton, 2007)
Gradually, financial empowerment and employment opportunities grew, along with an understanding of the negative impacts of conventional tourism (Fennell, 2014). By the 1990s, environment-friendly tourism spread across the world with a major role in cultural tourism, nature-based tourism, adventure tourism, and heritage tourism. Government and tourism authorities developed strategies in these protected areas for protecting undisturbed biodiversity and the natural environment. Some of the protected areas are:
- National Park Yellowstone and Grand Canyon in the USA,
- Serengeti National Wildlife Reserve in Tanzania, and
- Banff National Park in Canada.
Thus, along with supporting the recreational activities, the focus was on maintaining the protected areas to add value as an eco-tourist attraction (Faculty of Tourism and Hospitality Management, 2011).
The principles of environment-friendly tourism
Many governments and businesses were initially promoting ecotourism without an understanding of its basic principles. The International Ecotourism Society tracked stakeholder meetings and developed a set of principles for ecotourism which was also embraced by NGOs constituency (Briney, 2020; Wood, 2002). These are as follows.
- Negative impact on nature and culture which could damage the destination should be minimized.
- Travelers should be educated on importance of conservation.
- Importance of responsible businesses (ones which work cooperatively with people and local authorities for meeting needs) should be stressed on.
- Revenues should be directed towards management and conservation of protected and natural areas.
- Emphasis should be on need for regional tourism zoning and visitor management plans designed for regions or areas slated to become eco-destinations.
- Emphasis on social and environmental base line studies along with long term monitoring plans.
- Strive to maximize economic benefit for communities, local businesses, and host country especially for the people living adjacent or in protected or natural areas.
- Tourism development should not exceed social and environmental limit of acceptable change.
- Reliance should be on infrastructure developed in harmony with environment i.e. minimize fossil fuel use, blending natural and cultural environment, and conserving local wildlife and plants.
Importance of ecotourism in today’s scenario
Ecotourism serves as an effective tool for promoting endangered species conservation and providing financial empowerment to the villagers or their local communities by providing employment opportunities (Chettri, 2004). It is a viable way for the creation of social and economic benefits at the national and local levels. Its benefits include the following.
- Revenue generation for conservation: Through mechanisms like entry fees, concession fees, fees for use, license and permits, and voluntary donations, funds are collected which further support protection and conservation activities.
- Empowerment of local community: Participation of local people in planning processes or running a business is increased, hence empowering the host community.
- Contribution to environmental protection: Ecotourism supports environmental preservation by protecting natural areas from undergoing alternative development. It favours environment-friendly practices of resource utilisation and promoting heritage conservation for future generation.
- Environmental awareness and cross: Cultural exchange, promoting cross-cultural understanding between eco-tourists and host community, ecotourism generates awareness among destination stakeholders and visitors about environment.
Consequently, many developed and developing economies are improving their tourism practices and promoting ecotourism to minimize the negative impact of tourism on the environment.
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