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CAN ECOTOURISM
SAVE THE RAINFORESTS?

Until recently, few vacationers would even dream of visiting a rainforest. But travelers are now abandoning the traditional beach vacation to visit remote, unspoiled areas all over the world. They try to avoid the fast pace and congestion of the traditional tourist centers, opting instead for more adventure, stimulation and a desire to learn while on vacation. This growing trend of travel has come to be known as ecotourism.

What is ecotourism?

Though there are many definitions of ecotourism, the term is most commonly used to describe any recreation in natural surroundings. The Ecotourism Society adds social responsibilities to define ecotourism as "purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people."

However defined, ecotourism is a force shaping the use of the tropical rainforests. This will be even more true in the future due to ecotourism's rapid growth. Global tourism is one of the largest industries in the world and ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the industry.

Do the rainforests benefit from ecotourism?

The forest and its dwellers do not directly benefit from the presence of many tourists. The forest benefits only if the tourists money can change land use patterns of local people or corporate destroyers of the forest toward more sustainable activities. In the tropics, exploding populations and widespread poverty have forced local people to exploit the forest as a source of sustenance. Tourism dollars can provide much-needed revenues for remote communities, improving living standards and thereby reducing pressure to degrade the natural environment.

In other instances the search for economic growth has led many governments and development-minded people into the rainforests. They exploit the forest for its resources, such as trees for timber or land for grazing or farming. Zimbabwe expressed this tendency at the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), that wildlife must "pay its way to survive." If money can not be made, it may become a "relic of the past." Earning money in the ecotourism industry can be a way for rainforests to pay their way within a society that is pressured to exploit nonrenewable resources. One of the most dramatic examples of direct environmental benefit of tourism is in the saving of the mountain gorilla from extinction in Rwanda. (see box)

TOURISM AIDS RWANDAN GORILLAS

Tourism is largely responsible for saving the gorillas of Rwanda from extinction. The gorilla was threatened both by poachers and by farmers whose land-clearing practices were destroying the gorillas natural habitat. Rwanda's Parc des Volcans, created by Dian Fossey as a wildlife preserve, has become an international attraction and the third largest source of foreign exchange for Rwanda. Revenues from the $170-a-day fee that visitors pay to enter the park have allowed the government to create anti poaching patrols and employ local farmers as park guides and guards. Even this success is in danger from the civil war that is encroaching and endangering both the forest and tourist industry.

If ecotourism is going to be influential in saving rainforests, income from tourism must reach the people who will ultimately decide the forest's future. Unfortunately, too often the money generated does not benefit these people. Instead it goes to developed countries, where the tourists originated, giving little economic protection to the forests. Profits leak back to the developed nations through tour operators, plane tickets, foreign owned accommodations and use of non-local supplies. The World Bank estimates that worldwide only 45 percent of tourism's revenue reaches the host country. In less developed areas the percentage is often lower. One study of the popular ecotourism destinations of the Annapurna region of Nepal found that only 10 cents of every dollar spent stayed in the local economy. Within the country the money may end up in the large cities or in the hands of the wealthy elite.Tourist dollars should help to acquire and improve management of conservation areas on which the tourism is based, but money from tourism does not often end up with the agencies that manage these areas. In Costa Rica the park services does not earn enough money from its entrance fees to manage and protect its numerous parks. Only 25% of its budget comes from fees; the other three-quarters must come from donations. Tourists often resent paying large sums of money on entrance fees. Although these fees are only a small portion of the money spent on a trip they can be the most important dollars spent in protecting the resource because they go directly toward protecting the site.

Can tourism harm the rainforest?

Because we know so little about rainforests, it is difficult to know how many people can visit a rainforest in a day without disrupting the forest ecology. There is some evidence that just the presence of travelers walking on trails through the forest changes the behavior of animals in the forest. But a larger impact on the forest comes from stresses on the environment in accommodating the physical needs and comforts of the tourists. Trash, fuel wood, living etc. all put a large stress on the ecology. In popular Himalayan tourist routes litter has been strewn along the trails and the alpine forest have been decimated by travelers looking for fuel to heat food and bath water. There is now an understanding that there is a limited number of people that can visit an area before that area is adversely affected. But deciding that number is often very difficult.

MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK,
COSTA RICA: VICTIM OF ITS OWN POPULARITY

In Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio National Park has become a victim of its own popularity. It is a popular tourist spot for both international and Costa Rican tourists who come to see its beautiful beaches and natural scenery. It is also the home of one of the last surviving populations of spider monkeys in the country. The popularity of the park has enticed developers to build many hotels in the area. This excessive building in the area combined with high visitation in the park has threatened the monkey population as well as other wildlife.

Half of the park has been closed to tourists to try to protect the ecosystem. It is necessary to severely restrict visitors to the entire park as well as enlarge the park to create a viable ecosystem. There is opposition to any further restriction to local land use and access to the park by the developing local tourist industry.

Costa Rica is caught in a bind of trying to enlarge its tourist industry and the need to limit the number of visitors so the environment is not damaged. Costa Rica is one of the few countries that has a national policy which tries to promote ecotourism as a non-consumptive use of their rich rainforest ecology as a way to save its vanishing forest. Indeed, the eleven percent of the country that is preserved in national parks is about the only major forest land left in the country. But the enormous success of the industry has overwhelmed the forest and prompted a call for a comprehensive study into methods to manage and limit tourist impact on the forest.

Does ecotourism adversely affect the people of the forest?

The stress of ecotourism goes beyond just the natural world. It can greatly disrupt the local people and social structure. In remote locations it is difficult to bring the benefits of tourist dollars to the more traditional people without disrupting their way of life. Even accommodations for a small amount of tourists can have profound effects on village life. In the forests of Peru some tribes will trade elaborate traditional cloaks, which take three months to make, for a machete or an ax. Tourists who will pay far more for the same item bring about a profound change in the economic makeup of the village.

Traveling Westerners bring their modern material comforts with them and, for local people, an unimagined wealth. Local people acquire a desire to have some of these expensive items but can not easily pay for them without major changes in the lifestyle. A quality tour center will reinforce to the local people the uniqueness of their culture, and teach the traveler about it as well.

Local peoples use of the forest for firewood, meat, agriculture, and selling exotic species sometimes comes in conflict with the tourists wishes to keep the land pristine. To protect the tourist industry, regulations are made that protect locals from using these forest resources. They are often unprepared for work in tourism or related industries and are left with no alternatives but impoverishment and resentment. Original inhabitants are pushed out of the area while outsiders move in to try to profit from the tourism.

A tremendous amount of planning and organization is needed to attract enough tourists to make money and still maintain the unspoiled forest and indigenous communities within them. Opening up an area to tourists without forethought can quickly destroy the forests upon which the tourism is based. Alta Floresta is one example of a tourist project that has been planned with care.

ALTA FLORESTA

Alta Floresta, a town in the Brazilian highlands, is the home of an innovative research center and ecotourist project. The research center is set up to study sustainable ways of using the forest and to teach people in the area how to use these new practices. The project is centered on community involvement, setting up schools, hospitals and training programs. Local people are trained in sustainable farming practices and the harvesting of non-timber forest products. In addition, instead of being forced out of the economy, they are trained to work in the tourist center and lodge becoming an integral part of the whole project. The tourist center also educates travelers on the biology of the rainforest and causes of its destruction. This project is a positive example of how an ecotour center can be set up.

How do you pick a tour?

Many tour groups are trying to cash in on the growth of ecotourism by slapping "ecotour" or "nature travel" on to their name. Many of these groups have made no effort to try to make their tour ecologically sound or to help the people of the forest. The responsible traveler must decide what tour is going to be a helpful or a harmful one before s/he leaves home. Taking the time to choose a good responsible tour will not only ensure that you will not be damaging the rainforest and its inhabitants, but it will also mean the travel experience will be more fulfilling. The major factor in choosing a responsible tour is finding a group or company that takes the care needed in designing a good tour. But how do you know which groups have the best-designed tours? At the end of this fact sheet are some helpful guidelines which will help you in your search. There are also many books written on the subject.

Ecotourism should be a learning experience. The travelers should learn about the rainforests and the indigenous people as well the causes of rainforest destruction. The rainforests are being destroyed at such a phenomenal rate that by the end of the next decade all but a few major tracts will be gone as well as much of the world's biodiversity. Only large-scale involvement by the general public will affect corporations, lawmakers, international banks, and governments to influence them into making more ecologically sound decisions. A visit to a rainforest will provide a more personal incentive to motivate people than just seeing television documentaries or magazine articles. With a large enough group of knowledgeable travelers, we may be able to convince people to act in a more responsible manner with respect to tropical rainforests and indigenous cultures.

Sensitivity and Honesty

  • Are people and destinations depicted respectfully and realistically in brochures?
  • Is the emphasis placed on conservation and educational opportunities or food and lodging?

    References and Research

  • Ask for and follow-up on references from past clients.
  • Look for sensitive companies in environmental publications i.e.. Audubon, Sierra, Buzzworm
  • Ask environmental organizations or societies for general advice.
  • Compare companies based on knowledge, attitude and promotional materials.

    Pre-Trip Preparation

  • Ask for and expect complete itineraries, company information, what you will learn about the people and country, reading lists, hints for traveling in the host country on religious attitudes, acceptable behavior, picture-taking, and reaction to North American tourists.

    Guidelines

  • Does the tour operator provide and enforce visitor guidelines?
  • Are passengers briefed on ethical and legal responsibilities as well as restrictions and regulations?

    Environmental Impacts

  • Does the company evaluate and seek to reduce the environmental impact of the tourists, lodges, roads, and transportation?
  • Are you using a scarce fuel source and where does your garbage and waste go?
  • Do their business practices encourage local ecology and community during the tour?

    Cultural Impacts

  • Does your tour respect customs, dress, and behavior patterns, and discourage begging?
  • Does the tour allow opportunities to meet with local people?

    Economic Impacts

  • Who benefits from the cost of your trip?
  • How much of your money stays in the US or large foreign city and how much in the community?
  • Does the company donate profit percentages to the local environmental organizations?
  • Do they use locally-owned hotels, restaurants, and service people as well as work with national airlines and tourist boards?

    Advocacy

  • Does the company explain how to protect distant lands and cultures by joining appropriate environmental and human rights groups or writing to politicians, newspapers, international development and conservation agencies?

    Staff and Guides

  • Qualified guides from the company should know the language, have lived in the region for several years, and be well informed on local environmental issues.
  • Is the group small? What is the staff to passenger ratio?

    Ambassador

  • Does the operator offer ways to share your experiences at home, to maintain contact with people you met, to keep informed about the country you visited, and to continue to protect that area?

    Code of Ethics for the Responsible Travelerby the Center for Responsible Tourism, P.O. Box 827, San Anselmo, CA 94979 (415) 258-6594

  • Travel in a spirit of humility and with genuine desire to meet and talk with local people.
  • Be aware of the feelings of the local people; prevent what might be offensive behavior.
  • Cultivate the habit of listening and observing rather than merely hearing and seeing or knowing all answers.
  • Realize that other people may have concepts of time and have thought patterns, which are different from yours.
  • Instead of seeing the exotic, discover the richness of another culture and way of life.
  • Get acquainted with local customs; respect them.
  • Remember that you are only one among many visitors; do not expect special privileges.
  • When shopping through bargaining, remember that the poorest merchant will give up a profit rather than give up his/her personal dignity.
  • Make no promises to local people or new friends that you can not implement.
  • Spend time each day reflecting on your experiences in order to deepen your understanding. What enriches you may be robbing others.
  • If you want a home away from home, why travel.

    Written by: Kenneth McCormick, with thanks to Bonnie Frey and Arlene Otani - Rainforest Action Network . (RAN) works to protect the Earth's rainforests and support the rights of their inhabitants through education, grassroots organizing and non-violent direct action.


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