Ecotourism and Sustainability

Does the development and expansion of tourism inevitably lead to damage to the environment? This post is written by guest blogger “Katie H”, and contains a few examples with regards to sustainable tourism in Latin America.

The impact of humans visiting an area where previously they had not been will inevitably affect the environment at the travel destination. All tourist areas have been changed by the arrival of the visitors and examples show how devastating the consequences to the environment can be. On the other hand, in some cases it does appear that an environmentally friendly ‘sustainable’ tourism may have been achieved as an alternative. However, a decline of even these areas into environmental degradation may be inevitable.

The global damage caused by tourism, the world’s largest industry, can be severe. Sewage and water problems, litter, air pollution and unnecessary construction have all damaged the environment in many areas. Environmental damage is often most severe in resorts that were among the first to become tourist destinations and that now experience mass tourism. Cancun, Mexico, demonstrates how rapid, uncontrolled growth of an area to accommodate mass numbers can cause damage to the environment. Cancun was chosen as a growth pole for tourism because of the high quality of the natural environment but this has deteriorated significantly since the 1980s. Sixty thousand hectares of rainforest have been destroyed in the interest of building hotels and in these areas the effects of hurricanes have worsened due to the deforestation. The multiplier effect has also played a part in environmental degradation: migrants to the area seeking employment have built shanty towns bringing further problems of waste and water impurity. The key problem for Cancun and other older resorts is that tourism growth was unregulated and consideration of the consequences to the environment was not given.

It may possible for an area that has experienced rapid growth and mass tourism to solve some of the environmental problems caused. This may be done by new planning restrictions or initiatives designed to protect or enhance the natural environment as a resort enters the ‘rejuvenation’ stage [of the Butler model]. Although mass tourism may inevitably lead to environmental degradation, the rejuvenation stage of the Butler model might present a solution. On a recent field trip to Mallorca, we visited Magalluf where fifty-one hotels dominate the area and none of the original environment remains. However, the rejuvenation programme had improved the resort as tree planting and landscaping along the promenade had taken place, improving the environment. However, during summer it seems likely that the carrying capacity of the area would be exceeded and this would cause further environmental damage. In October the water pollution was measured as 300g/l so it is likely that during the tourist season the pollution would be exceptionally high. Environmental damage such as water pollution was considered so severe that in May 2002 the government introduced a controversial eco-tax for each tourist visiting the Balearic Islands. This is an example of how attempts are being made for environmental damage caused by tourism to be balanced by money being put towards solving the problems.

The difficulty of solving the environmental problems in Cancun and Magalluf suggests that environmental damage is an inevitable part of unplanned mass tourism. However, smaller numbers of tourists who are “environmentally aware” may be an alternative. Ecotourism, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people” (defined by Blangy and Wood), has been advocated as a solution. There is an incentive for conservation because if the environment is not preserved, then the resource base for ecotourism is destroyed. Some ecotourism projects are successfully accommodating visitors whilst ensuring that the environment, wildlife and resources are protected. This suggests that damage to the environment as a result of tourism is not inevitable.

Belize is one country promoting itself as an ecotourism destination, thus preventing environmental damage whilst benefiting from tourism. One of the countries top ecotourism projects, established in 1987, is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. [Editor note: The Toledo Ecotourism Programme is also an excellent example of ecotourism in Belize]. Each year 250,000 tourists visit the protected area which has become a honeypot site partly as a result of it being declared a nature reserve. The relative success of the protection of the fish and coral indicates that environmental damage is not inevitable. However, there are problems such as a lack of funding that has resulted in just two wardens being able to patrol the area, as well as pollution and sewage from the near-by resort of San Pedro. This shows that funding as well as improvements in other tourism destinations are necessary for this ecotourism venture to be successful and stop environmental damage.

Some ecotourism projects have actually managed to benefit the environment. Locals may see be inclined to help conserve the environment when they experience the economic benefits of the tourists it attracts; entrance fees for attractions may be used for conservation purposes, such as ranger patrols to stop illegal hunting or fishing; and sanctuaries for wildlife can increase endangered species’ numbers. ‘Bermudan Landing’, a protection centre for black howler monkeys in Belize, has successfully attracted over three thousand tourists each year as well as increasing the monkey population by thirty per cent. This project has been very successful and shows how tourism can bring benefits to the environment. However, it is a new resort, only in the early stages of the Butler model. As it has not yet reached the stage of “mass tourism” like Magalluf or Cancun, it is difficult to say whether this and other such thriving ecotourism ventures would succeed in continuing to protect the environment, perhaps at the expense of economic gain. However, if the normal pattern of the model were not followed, it may be possible to keep tourist numbers low and controlled, thus making tourism and protection of the environment both possible.

Although it is clear that with mass tourism often comes damage to the surroundings, it can be argued that ecotourism or tourism involving fewer people is less environmentally disruptive. Comparing tourist destinations such as Magalluf and Bermudan Landing, it is clear that fewer people in the latter it is easier to predict and measure the amount of waste produced and damage caused. This makes control, prediction and prevention possible. However, even ecotourism can cause environmental problems. Most projects work towards keeping visitor numbers below the carrying capacity of the area, but it is very difficult to measure what the carrying capacity is. It may be argued that even one tourist will have a detrimental effect on the area, especially if the environment being visited is sensitive to disturbances, such as a coral reef or an animal park during mating season. In addition to this, a tourist using air, land or sea to reach the destination will have a negative impact on the environment while travelling, even if an ecotourism holiday is being undertaken.

In the past, development and expansion of tourism seems to have inevitably caused environmental damage because planners made decisions based on economics rather than the environment. More recently there has been an appreciation of the problems brought by mass tourism to the environment. Some resorts are now undertaking the difficult task of trying to solve some of the environmental problems caused by mass tourism. The increasing popularity of ecotourism indicates that in the future, damage to the environment may not be inevitable. However, so far ecotourism in a niche market and may not succeed in diverting its course off the usual path to mass tourism. At present it seems that environmental damage is unavoidable so I agree to a large extent with the above statement. The problems of environmental damage can only be solved by finding an alternative to mass tourism..

One Response to “Ecotourism and Sustainability”

  1. My name is Giulia Rolandi, born in Buenos Aires Argentina, age 23, my husband is a Chilean man born in Valparaiso, name Manuel Rodriguez, age 33. After travelling through south and central America, he for a more than a decade, and since I turned 18 together with me, who joined into the journey. Many webs were thread during the course of these adventures we lived and everywhere we found a place to stay and rest in between roads and buses was a place of 100% beutifull nature, culture, traditions etc that could be maximized by sharing the in these way of ecotourism holistic centers and this is what we have been doing in every place that our tent was set. Me through my translations skills contacting international tourists in the city nearby and inviting them to share a few days in nature with us, and my husband by having ready the activities with regards to permaculture, horsebackriding, lombriculture, holistic medicinal practices, etcetceetc. After living in this way as a nomadic experience we decided to come back to Chile, his home land and build a definite place with some “funding” that I recieved in that moment. Now it has been 1 year and 7 moons that we are settled in one place of GREAT ecoturistic attraction, at the feet of a mountain called Alto Cantillana, which has recently been declared by the WWF and the UN one of the 9 hot spots in regards in biodiversity in the world. The chilean governement will be receiving funding from these two big international orgs. during the course of the next 4 years. Recently the municipal gov. near us came to invite us to a meeting together with all the eco-turistic related proyects around this high peak called Alto Cantillana, in order to inform us about this funding reality.
    The truth is that we have not paid much attention to the matter, since much as you also express in your blog on travel trips, we do not believe that funding or money is in any way the most important part of an ecoturistic proyect, although it would do us no harm to receive some money especially now that we are go through the most difficult moment of this initial part of building something so holistic and ecopowerfull as we are doing. The reason that I am writing to you is because I would like to share this proyect that we have been working on for more than a year now. It is TREMENDOUS to realize how much has been done in the place itself where we live, with regards to food at this moment we are 99% self sustainable. And this is all thanks to the hard working spirit that my husband has and the LOVE for nature that we all share. But with regards to Public Relationships, Diplomacy (fundings, paper work) international contact with other organisations or groups of people interested in visiting ecoturism in chile and the web page and all these” modern ” aspects are my responsability. And as a young woman I must be honest to say that I have been doing as much as my young heart can do, but there are many aspects of those topics I mentioned above that I am just starting to deal with. This email for example is one of the 10 first steps that I gave this weekend. I joined 5 ecoturism groups in yahoo, 3 in english and 2 in spanish, I have finished writting the text and I am now selecting the best pictures for our web page, I am contacting many graphic designers to know how much a web page with good attractive interactive graphic design can cost, I am translating the web page into english soon, I am writing this letter to you, etc. etc.
    so in reality what I see is that this is the moment in which all the work that we have done building, planting, cleaning, giving love to this place called “Los Lagartos” Eco LIFE this is the moment in which I must take hold of the ship and take it out into the sea of this world wide web. The reason I did not start any sooner is because this nature sanctuary that we found in the middle of chile at the feet of the Alto Cantillana does not have good phone signal and internet is almost obsolete. We are now two steps away from buying a solar eolic system in order to have energy in our house and this will obviously help us advance considerably with all these web buildings. But in the mean time one of my first good steps is to start writting emails to people like yourself and many other NATURE LOVING BROTHERS AND SISTERS AROUND THE WORLD and letting you all know that you have a home in CHILE you have a place where you can come and make love with nature breathing sun bathing river bathing eating organic powerfull foods etcetceetc
    and that as soon as becomes a living reality and begins to surf the web I will also let you know so you can share some beautifull pictures with your loved ones too.
    If you are interested chris in participating in this adventure with us, by sharing more advice and ideas, by visiting or in any other way it would be a great joy for us. In this moment the only pictures that I have uploaded to the web are a few in my facebook so that I could share with friends and family world wide so I also invite you to see them, it is just a climps of what we are doing since I am reserving the FULL POWER pics for the web page. but my facebook info is Giulia Rolandi-Rodriguez email
    Once again I give thank your advice and attention
    hoping that we can continue to build stronger webs since there are MANY MANY brothers and sisters in southamerica scattered everywhere dreaming together that this will be our future, ONE AIM ONE GOAL ONE DESTINY
    BLESSINGS to you and your loved ones
    Giulia and Kalule in LOS LAGARTOS


    South America


    Asociación Argentina de Ecoturismo y Aventura (AAETAV)
    El desafío de crear una Asociación representativa que valorice y defienda los intereses del sector, iniciado por un grupo de operadores de diferentes regiones del país, se vió realizado a fines de 2006, luego de casi dos años de arduo trabajo.


    Asociacion Ecuatoriana de Ecoturismo (ASEC)
    ASEC fue fundada en 1991, por un grupo de empresarios, conservacionistas y catedráticos con una clara visión del desarrollo de la actividad en Ecuador y en el mundo. La misión de ASEC es: Promover la Armonía entre el Turismo, la conservación y la sociedad. Uno de los principales objetivos de ASEC es generar herramientas útiles que apoyen al desarrollo de sus miembros, y al mismo tiempo al desarrollo del turismo sostenible en el Ecuador.


    EcoBrasil, a Brazilian Ecotourism Association is a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation founded in 1993 by ecotourism professionals. EcoBrasil was the first national NGO to focus on ecotourism. Our vision is to forward ecotourism and sustainable tourism through building knowledge networks and participate in and/or develop projects that helped advance the knowledge about good ecotourism practices and planning in Brazil.

    So in chile there is no important organization helping us to link into the BIGGER WEB of ORGANIZATIONS WORLD WIDE. Also every page that I have visited in the last couple of hours about ecotourism like and many many more I have looked in english to see how much people know about what works are being done here in chile THERE IS ZERO LIKS NONE AT ALL So I wonder why we havent been able to create something that breaks walls and distances and unites us all? Since I know that we are not alone projects are arising and being born all the time continously and we must we need unite and let everyone know about these giants pilars of nature protecting entities in order that the project may trully become sustainable and thus permanent in time LIVE ON CONTINUE TO EXIST because alone we are nothing. We, Los Lagartos, need to let the world know that we exist because it is something really beautyfull really worth CONSERVING TAKING CARE OF, IT IS 500 has. hectares of PURE AUTOCTONOS FLORA AND FAUNA.

    We need to know where and how join and unite with international organizations, groups nets people individuals families companies related to these subjects ECO TOURISM ECOLOGY ECOVILLAGES ECOWEBS

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