One of the greatest joys of traveling is experiencing the unique beauty of natural environments all over the world. Unfortunately, when those fragile areas start to receive a lot of traffic from tourists, it can negatively impact their ecosystems. Ecotourism developed to create an environmentally responsible way to visit natural areas. On ecotours, visitors can experience and learn about endangered environments while promoting their conservation. However, this sector of travel has both pros and cons.

Positive Impacts

The main idea behind ecotourism is to educate tourists about conservation efforts, sustainability, environmental awareness, and research developments in fragile natural areas, while also offering travelers a chance to experience those areas firsthand. Ideally, the efforts work for both the travelers and the environments they visit. Ecotourists gain knowledge of ecosystems, biology and geology of specific natural locations, which in turn informs their conservation efforts. Some of the money that goes into tourism development also goes to conservation efforts, such as repopulating endangered species and reforestation.

Many of the most beautiful tourist destinations around the world also happen to exist in impoverished and developing countries, such as Ecuador, Nepal and Madagascar. Sustainable tourism efforts in these countries help provide economic growth there – even more than typical tourism. Where regular tourism efforts return about 20 percent of revenue to local communities, almost all the revenue generated by ecotourism programs goes back into those communities. This case study can be an example of benefits of ecotourism.

Negative Impacts of Tourism

Tourism inevitably leads to development – even in ecotourism efforts. When natural areas and protected areas become popular in the travel industry, they usually become the site of hotels, excavations and other tourist industry activities. These activities sometimes displace indigenous groups and local people from their homelands, which not only damages the integrity of those local communities, but prevents its members from benefiting from the economic benefits of a growing tourism industry in the local economy.

On top of ecotourism’s potential negative effects on locals, the industry can also take a toll on surrounding wildlife like in national parks. It’s ironic, given that ecotourism aims to educate ecotourists and promote the conservation of natural habitats and natural resources, but, for some species, the increased presence of humans may by default negatively impact their natural behaviors. Increased foot traffic can also affect soil quality and plant life in general, damaging the area’s overall ecosystem and could possibly lead to deforestation and increased emissions.

Finally, not all travel organizations that market themselves as ecotourist programs are actually environmentally friendly. These organizations know ecotourism is growing in popularity and may take advantage of that fact by parading as ecotouristic when in reality they ignore eco-friendly practices. For that reason, it’s important that would-be ecotourists do their homework before giving an organization their business.

How to Be an Eco-Tourist

If you want to contribute to the ecotourism industry while having as little negative impact on the environment and local communities as possible, you should take some precautions. The most important is to only give your money to genuine ecotourism programs, which should adhere to the following standards:

  • Commitment to protecting ecosystems’ biodiversity
  • Support for the basic rights of local communities and indigenous people while contributing to their economic development
  • Respect for local cultures and a commitment to educate tourists on those cultural heritages.

To help your search, look into member programs of the International Ecotourism Society (TIES). TIES partners with ecotourism organizations to help promote ecotourism activities that conserve the environment, protect cultural diversity and spur community development and livelihoods. You can find TIES members on the organization's website, under the "Find Members" tab, which allows you to search by region and organization category.

Also make sure to research your accommodation options to choose one that practices environmentally friendly policies, and recycle whenever you can. Reuse towels, water bottles and silverware as often as possible, and pack toiletries that won’t harm the environment. Finally, read up on the rules and regulations of the natural environments you visit, and make sure to adhere to those rules.