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Sierra Magazine
Last Words

Is Ecotourism Good For The Planet?

Ecotourism has been hailed as a win/win proposition for conservation, the host country, the traveler, and the industry. The reality is more complex. Much of what is marketed as environmentally responsible travel is "ecotourism lite"-simply nature or adventure tourism with a new name, or conventional cruise or beach holidays with "add-ons" (a short hike in the rainforest, a day's whitewater rafting). Properly practiced, ecotourism is multifaceted: it's low-impact, small-scale nature tourism that educates the traveler, provides funds for conservation, helps empower local communities, and fosters respect for different cultures and human rights.

Martha Honey, author of Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Controls Paradise?

Many private reserves in Costa Rica are used for ecotourism and provide valuable buffer zones near national parks, increasing animal habitat. Lodge owners also often report poaching, logging, and hunting to the authorities. On the negative side, luxury beach hotels in Guanacaste Province lure tourists with phony ecotourism, promising the chance to see turtles laying their eggs, when in reality tourist development is endangering these ancient animals. These hotels also exploit the environment by offering golf courses and huge swimming pools where water is very scarce. A rule of thumb: stay away from the large beach hotels that tout ecotourism. There are plenty of small, responsible lodgings that cost a lot less, are warm and comfortable, and are run by people who love and want to protect nature.

Beatrice Blake, coauthor of The New Key to Costa Rica

People who earn their living from ecotourism are more likely to defend their natural resources against destructive activities, such as logging or mining. In Bolivia, the Quechua-Tacana villagers of San José Uchupiamonas developed the Chalalan Ecolodge to protect their land from oil and mining interests and to create jobs that would help keep the rainforest standing. Approximately 40 community members manage, staff, and own the business. Since the project began, poaching in the area is down, and the community's living conditions have markedly improved.

Russell A. Mittermeier, president, Conservation International

With the most remote corners of our delicate planet easily accessible by modern transport, how can we both protect and enjoy our world? In Maui, travelers on Sierra Club Service Outings have helped collect data on humpback whale behavior. This research contributed to a change in Hawaiian law that restricts winter parasailing in the Lahaina Roads area, ensuring humpback calves uninterrupted time to breach, swim close to the surface, and gain strength for their annual migration to Alaska.

Lynne Simpson, Sierra Club Outings leader and Partners in Responsible Tourism representative

The stress of ecotourism goes beyond the natural world to disrupt traditional ways of life. Indigenous people's use of the forest for firewood, meat, and agriculture sometimes comes in conflict with tourists' wishes to keep the land pristine. To protect the tourism industry, regulations preserve these forest resources; meanwhile, locals, unprepared for work in tourism, are left with no alternatives but impoverishment and resentment.

Randy Hayes, president, Rainforest Action Network

It is impossible to visit an environment and not have some deleterious effect. But the eco-traveler fights to keep the wild places wild, as he has been personally touched by their magic and beauty. This worked dramatically with the Tatshenshini River in Canada and Alaska, which runs through one of the wildest and most inaccessible corridors in North America. When a giant open-pit copper mine was proposed along the river, it was rafters who built a grassroots movement to stop the atrocity. In 1993, the plug was pulled, and the region was declared an international park, due in no small part to the eco-travelers who chose to act.

Richard Bangs, cofounder, Mountain Travel/Sobek, and editor-at-large,, an online travel magazine

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