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What is Ecotourism?

Ecotourism is ecology-based tourism, focused primarily on natural or cultural resources such as scenic areas, coral reefs, caves, fossil sites, archeological or historical sites, and wildlife, particularly rare and endangered species.

The successful marketing of ecotourism depends on destinations that have biodiversity, unique geologic features, and interesting cultural histories, as well as an adequate infrastructure. In the United States, national parks are perhaps the most popular destinations for ecotourism, particularly Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Yosemite National Park. As of 2010, more than 280 million people visit U.S. national parks each year. Some of the leading ecotourist destinations outside the United States include the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador; the wildlife parks of Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa; the mountains of Nepal; and the national parks and forest reserves of Costa Rica.

Ecotourism is not a new phenomenon. In the late 1800s railroads and steamship companies were instrumental in the establishment of the first national parks in the United States, recognizing even then the demand for experiences in nature and profiting from transporting tourists to destinations such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. However, ecotourism has recently taken on increased significance worldwide.

Although ecotourism has the potential to produce a viable economic alternative to exploitation of the environment, it can also threaten it. Water pollution, litter, disruption of wildlife, trampling of vegetation, and mistreatment of local people are some of the negative impacts of poorly planned and operated ecotourism. To distinguish themselves from destructive tour companies, many reputable tour organizations have adopted environmental codes of ethics, which explicitly state policies for avoiding or minimizing environmental impacts. In planning destinations and operating tours, successful firms are also sensitive to the needs and desires of the local people, for without native support efforts in ecotourism often fail.

Another major concern regarding ecotourism is the effect that using bait to attract endangered wildlife has on the natural environment. Many scientists assert that the use of bait circumscribes the natural habitat of animals and leads them to rely on humans instead of hunting or foraging. In 2012, however, a group of U.S. scientists conducted a study on the use of chum to attract tiger sharks for ecotourists. The scientists found that chumming did not restrict the natural range of tiger sharks. The environmental impact of using bait to attract other marine or terrestrial animals remains unknown.

In June 2012, Australia announced that the country is establishing the world's largest network of marine reserves (protected conservation areas), which will include the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea. Australia plans to increase its number of marine reserves from twenty-seven to sixty, covering 1.2 million sq. miles (3.1 million sq. km) of ocean. The reserves will restrict fishing, fossil fuel drilling and exploration, and other potentially harmful activities near coral reefs and sensitive marine habitats. Australian officials hope that the reserves also will boost ecotourism.

Ecotourism can provide rewarding experiences and produce economic benefits that encourage conservation. The challenge upon which the future of ecotourism depends is the ability to carry out tours that the clients find rewarding, without degrading the natural or cultural resources upon which they is based.

"Ecotourism." Environmental Encyclopedia. Gale, 2011. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

Community Capitals and Ecotourism for Enhancing Amazonian Forest Livelihoods

This article examines ‘whether’ and ‘how’ ecotourism functions to strengthen Amazonian livelihoods in remote areas and community capitals as well helping to protect the environment in rural planning and development. It focuses on the role of ecotourism as a possible enhancer of human, social and natural capitals in the Maripá community. Capitals are believed to be the mainstay for group-oriented practices, harmony, dissemination of knowledge, and maintenance of a healthy and sustainable environment.

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Questions Travelers Should Ask

Here are the questions experts say travelers should ask their tour firm or the operator of the destination:

  • Do you have an ethical ecotourism policy?

  • What steps have you taken to reduce waste and water use?

  • Do you practice recycling?

  • How do you minimize damage to wildlife and marine environments?

  • What community members do you employ and do they have opportunities for advancement? What local products do you purchase, and do you use local produce whenever possible? What community projects are you involved in?

  • Do you donate to community organizations and/or conservation programs?

  • What energy-saving activities do you practice?

  • Are your buildings built with locally available materials?

  • Do you use environmentally friendly products?

    Cox, Rachel S. "Ecotourism." CQ Researcher 20 Oct. 2006: 865-88. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.