Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ecotourism: Part Two

By Alexia Eanes, Operations Manager

A couple months ago I wrote a blog focusing on ecotourism abroad and how it can ultimately distinguish your community amongst the rest. As promised, I’ll elaborate more about the pros and cons relating to practicing ecotourism and what this means for tourism in your community.

First off, what is ecotourism? There are many interpretations but the best one that I think represents the practice is from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). TIES defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Naturally, this type of tourism is vying for minimal impact on the environment, as well as the opportunity to gain cultural and environmental awareness while providing a positive economic impact on the region. In the most basic sense of the term, visiting a national park for a day is a form of ecotourism. Digging a little deeper, I’ve highlighted a two pros and one con typical of ecotourism.

Benefit: Preserving the environment while reaping the financial reward

While people usually think of lush forests and cascading waterfalls in foreign destinations such as Costa Rica, Belize, Madagascar, etc., the practice is not only dominate abroad. Ecotourism is heavily practiced in the United States with communities leveraging their natural resources where available. Places like Alaska, California, and Oregon all have practices in place to preserve their natural surroundings. Destinations such as The Great Smokey Mountains to Denali National Park in Alaska to the Florida Everglades have sustainable tourism practices in place which ultimately preserve their natural assets. These communities understand that their natural resources are special with distinct surroundings that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Even Chambers of Commerce are getting in on the action and partnering with local vendors to promote ecotourism in their community. A great example is this program by Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau in San Mateo County, California. Enjoying Half Moon Bay’s natural features and spending money with local vendors keeps revenue local and helps maintain its environment, it’s a win-win.

Benefit: Job creation

While creating an ecotourism hot-spot is no easy feat, once it’s established, job creation will naturally follow. Local efforts to maintain, manage, and leverage natural resources will create jobs locally which is great for the surrounding community. Since ecotourism can also bring people to the area, many other tourism-related businesses will also benefit. While there’s no exact record of total ecotourism employment within the United States, approximately ten percent of jobs nationally are categorized in the leisure and hospitality sector. The change toward eco-conscious travel has been gaining popularity since 1980 with an increase in notoriety within the last 20 years. With awareness spreading across the national about preservation of natural resources, the “greening” of jobs is bound to continue.

Disadvantage: Mismanagement

When jumping on the ecotourism wagon you have to be careful not to fail when it comes to conservation. Without proper precautionary measures, the ecotourism can quickly spiral into something that wasn’t meant to be. The most common disadvantage is the degradation on the natural asset caused by everyday tourism. This degradation can range anywhere from increased pollution caused by vehicle traffic to disturbing natural habitat in the area. Even day-to-day tourist activities such as hand washing can weigh heavily on the environment. All of this can lead to an eventual environmental decline which in the end defeats its ultimate purpose. The disappearance of the Monarch butterfly in Mexico is a known case of ecotourism disturbing natural habitat along with a number of other factors.

With effective leadership ecotourism can lead to economic prosperity. Through marketing your community as an untouched, preserved, and unique destination unlike any other, your community can build national brand awareness - one that may not have been evident before. Of course, in the ecotourism world, successfully balancing economic growth and environmental quality is paramount.