Is ecotourism a non-wood forest product?
Chile's wildlife


With the renewed attention placed on non-wood forest products (NWFPs) in recent years, efforts are now being made to define and classify them more clearly. A lingering question is how to classify and address such forest-derived aspects as watershed protection, climate regulation, carbon sequestration, religious and cultural significance, aesthetics, and nature-based tourism. Are these intangible products and services non-wood forest products? Should they be classified and supported alongside other NWFPs such as pine resin, rattan and Brazil nuts, or are they better dealt with by another branch of forestry?

In the case of nature-based tourism, or "ecotourism", the phenomenal growth of the industry means that whether it is considered to be a NWFP, or something else, it is important for foresters to give it due consideration and attention.

Nature-based tourism has emerged as the fastest growing segment of one of the world's largest growth industries. Spending on domestic and international travel and tourism currently contributes about 6 percent of the world's gross production, or about US$3.5 trillion. The tourism industry as a whole employs approximately 130 million workers worldwide, making it the largest industry in the world in terms of employment. Overall, the industry is expected to double by the year 2005.

In 1994, more than 400 million people travelled outside their home countries. Worldwide, more than one-fourth of all international tourism expenditures - or about US$60 billion each year- is spent in developing countries. Nature-based tourism probably contributes somewhere between US$2 billion and US$12 billion of this total, depending on how broadly or narrowly one defines nature tourism. It is important to recognize that these estimates of nature tourism revenues are not significantly less than those generated by the international trade of all tropical timber products combined, which are currently valued at between US$10 billion and US$15 billion annually.

Nature tourism is still a relatively small component of the world's huge travel and tourism industry, but it already generates significant incomes for many developing countries. Kenya's game parks and protected areas, for example, are credited with generating nearly US$500 million in direct and indirect revenues, or about 30 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings. In Nepal, trekkers accounted for over 27 percent of the country's tourism revenues, or US$24 million in 1988. In the decade prior to the disastrous recent internal warfare in Rwanda, tourism increased tenfold, mainly because of visitors who came to see mountain gorillas in the Parc National des Volcans. Rwanda's gorillas annually earned the country US$1 million in revenue from park fees, and up to US$9 million in related tourist expenditures.

In its theoretical ideal, nature tourism serves several national and local objectives. It provides an economic incentive to protect natural resources such as forests, wildlife and waterways. It offers jobs and the potential for economic advancement to residents of impoverished rural communities.

Although ecotourism affords numerous favourable prospects for economic development and environmental conservation, it also suffers a number of drawbacks. There are obvious risks of environmental degradation and "social and cultural pollution" caused by intrusive tourists. There are difficulties in reducing "economic leakages" that deprive local communities of the economic benefits of ecotourism. Limited infrastructure and visitor facilities in many parks and natural areas constrain the expansion of nature tourism.

It is clear that ecotourism will not succeed in all areas, but the rapid growth and potential of nature-based tourism means that foresters will be making a serious mistake if they do not become involved in developing and managing this growing phenomenon. (Contributed by: Patrick B. Durst, Regional Forestry Officer for Asia and the Pacific, FAO Bangkok, Thailand. Fax: +662 2800445.)


One of the four principal operational programmes of Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF) of Chile is wildlife heritage. The other three are forest management and development, forest control and fire management.

Through the wildlife heritage programme, CONAF directs its efforts towards the ecological sphere. It directly administrates the National Protected Wildlife Areas System, which has 30 national parks, 35 national reserves and 11 natural monuments and covers a total of 14 million hectares, equivalent to 18 percent of Chile's continental area. It has been reported that the Chilean land fauna has 50 representatives in the endangered category, 92 in the vulnerable category and 101 in the rare category. Furthermore, it is believed that among the trees and shrubs in continental Chile, 11 species can be categorized as endangered, 26 vulnerable and 32 rare. CONAF is involved in carrying out studies and projects on species affected by conservation problems.

For more information, please contact K. Thelen, Regional Forestry Officer, FAO Regional Office, Santiago, Chile. Fax: +56 2 2182547.

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