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Ecotourism: Conflict or Opportunity?
By Mariah Mund
Ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular: it promises educational opportunities and
sustainability while tourists vacation, but is ecotourism really as beneficial as it seems? In
October 2015, the Daily Mail published an article that questioned the ecological benefits of
ecotourism. More specifically, it reported findings made by Daniel Blumstein, a professor in the
USA. He asserts that ecotourism could dramatically change the makeup of ecosystems – causing
changes that we cannot predict.
One potential change he hypothesizes is that small animals will habituate to predators
because of increased exposure to humans. If habituation occurs for humans, Blumstein believes
that these small animals could habituate to actual predators, and face a higher risk of being killed
by animals they previously managed to avoid.
If his hypothesis is true, it means that ecotourism is flawed. It means that an idea that is
meant to help the environment, can help to destroy it. The lack of research into ecotourism and
the uncertainty involved in ecosystems has created a platform for controversy. Many believe
ecotourism does not benefit Earth, while others support the idea that ecotourism benefits are vast.
As the name implies, ecotourism is an attempt to become more environmentally friendly.
This means that ecotourism companies need to reduce depletion rates and overexploitation of
natural resources (Donnelly et al., 2011). From my own experience, eco tourist destinations pride
themselves on displaying pristine natural environments and an abundance of wildlife. This trend
towards ecological exposure could create a cultural shift from overuse, ignorance, and luxury
towards sustainable awareness.
Another goal of ecotourism is to educate tourists on the natural world surrounding them.
Educational opportunities are common in Costa Rica. Hotels often provide access to educational
nature walks and animal sanctuaries. Furthermore, ecotourism educates guests on how to be
sustainable in their own life. In Costa Rica, ecotourism hotels promote good environmental
behaviors: leaving the air conditioner off, reusing your towel, etc. These types of practices could
potentially result in lifelong attitudes changes for guests.
While ecotourism attempts to change the behaviors of tourists, it is also influential at
driving economic stability. Wunder (2000) explains that ecotourism helps diversify local
economies to become less reliant on staple goods, while creating new employment opportunities.
For many nations tourism is a vital industry that supports their economy which is why tourism is
inevitable. Fortunately, with ecotourism nations experience the economic benefits of tourism
while also supporting the ability of the environment to survive and flourish.
Supporters find that the ecotourism industry benefits local communities in other
ways. Stronza and Gordillo (2008) report that ecotourism leads to increased sustainability for
local communities. They found locals chose to work for the eco tourist industry instead of
unsustainable industries like mining or forestry. Furthermore, locals who recognize that a
beautiful environment will result in more tourists and money become more sustainable in their
personal lives to ensure that the natural environment remains unblemished (Stronza & Gordillo,
Many communities also experience improvement to their social structures. Because
international visitors expect safe health care and modern transportation, the ecotourism industry
develops these structures within communities – and the locals are able to access them (Stronza &
Gordillo, 2008). Educational opportunities increase because of job training and globalization
(Stronza & Gordillo, 2008). Stronza and Gordillo claim that increased globalization teaches
women living in male dominated societies that subordination is not the norm anymore.
If all these benefits exist, why is there continuing debate on the benefits of ecotourism?
One major concern is the economics of ecotourism. In many instances, the ecotourism industry is
owned and controlled by external companies (Wunder, 2000). The relationships formed between
the owners and the local communities are not based on mutual respect or long-term
collaboration; instead, the native people often agree to stay away from the eco tourist areas in
exchange for financial compensation and resources (Wunder, 2000). This system, in which
external forces have the power, usually guarantees that local communities are kept out of the
decision making process and see very little economic benefit from ecotourism (Wunder, 2000).
For some local peoples, the involuntary change in their way of life has become an
increasing concern (Stronza & Gordillo, 2008). Stronza and Gordillo explain that an
introduction of external companies results in a shift towards a money-based culture. This shift
means that communities value jobs and money over traditional cultural activities. Stronza and
Gordillo also found that local communities often fall prey to the boom bust cycles that are
associated with tourism. These cycles result in family separation as parents are forced to leave
home in search of work.
Another issue regarding ecotourism is how fast it has become popular. This popularity
means that the tourist industry must adapt to consumer demand quickly. Unfortunately, to remain
popular, many hotels and travel companies claim they practice ecotourism, but they do not
(Wunder, 2000). These companies are able to operate under the ecotourism title because the
definition of ecotourism is vague, and most governments have limited power and resources to
monitor the tourist industry (Wunder, 2000). Because of these false claims, many tourists who
want to be environmentally friendly choose the wrong company, hotel, or destination.
Finally critics have found that ecotourism has been ineffective at shifting the behaviors of
tourists. Tourists have a certain psychological mindset the moment they leave their house with
luggage in tow (Sharpley, 2006). Sharpley explains that tourists often let their good habits fall
away: they spend more money, they eat more food, and most importantly, they practice
unsustainable behaviors. Sharpley found that tourists splurge excessively while on vacation, and
ecotourism does not prohibit these actions.
After examining this controversy, one might conclude that the division between sides
cannot be reconciled. But I believe reconciliation is possible. Firstly, it could be the case that
examples of poor ecotourism implementation have come from the companies claiming to be
ecofriendly, but are not. Secondly, Donnelly et al. (2011) explain that ecotourism is, as of right
now, ill-defined and under researched. If this is the case, maybe the controversy stems from lack
of knowledge, rather than fundamental flaws in ecotourism.
Finally, it is important to note that both sides have the same goals. They want a tourism
industry that protects the environment, enhances the lives of tourists and local communities, and
strengthens the local economy. Because they have the same goal, a resolution could be possible
if they all sit together and create a plan and system in which everyone benefits.
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