27 September, 2011, Rome - The continuing boom in ecotourism has the potential to save endangered forests or destroy them, depending on how effectively tourism expansion is managed, an international partnership for forest conservation and improvement cautioned today.
The Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), comprising 14 international organizations and secretariats, including FAO, issued its view on the relationship between ecotourism and forestry today as the world celebrates the World Tourism Day and the International Year of Forests.
Ecotourism and livelihoods in developing countries
Tourism has demonstrated resiliency in the face of the global economic downturn. Globally, the tourism industry generated more than $1 trillion in 2010, according to the World Tourism Organization (WTO). And the share of tourism in developing countries is steadily rising, up from 31% in 1990 to 47% in 2010.
"Sustainable tourism has proven one of the most effective ways of providing economic and employment opportunities for local communities while protecting the world's natural resources," said Taleb Rifai, WTO's Secretary-General.
Ecotourism, characterized by responsible travel to natural areas that promotes conservation of the environment, is one of the fastest growing segments of tourism worldwide, and is growing at a pace of more than 20 percent annually - two to three times faster than the tourism industry overall.
"For many people, there is an attitude of "we had better see it while it is still there to see" when it comes to visiting threatened forests or endangered wildlife," said Patrick Durst, a senior forestry official with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), working in Asia.
Ecotourism can provide local communities with motivation to maintain and protect forests and wildlife. When local people get income and employment from ecotourism, they are far less likely to destroy the natural resources through unsustainable exploitation.
"Ecotourism has a far greater potential for contributing to income and livelihoods in poor rural communities than what is realized," noted FAO's Edgar Kaeslin, Forestry Officer in Wildlife and Protected Area Management. "It is crucial that local people are fully involved in the activities and receive sufficient benefits."
The benefits of ecotourism flowing to local businesses are dramatically higher than those from mass tourism. Standard all-inclusive package tours typically deliver just 20 percent of revenue to local companies, while the rest is captured by airlines, hotels and large tour companies, whereas locally-based ecotourism operations that hire locally and are based locally can return as much as 95 percent of earnings into the local economy.
Excessive ecotourism poses dangers
However, failure to limit tourist numbers at popular sites can quickly overload ecosystems and damage fragile natural resources, sometimes permanently.
Also, as with most economic endeavors, when profits are to be made, there is a risk that powerful players will dominate and squeeze out smaller local operators. Under the guise of "ecotourism" less scrupulous enterprises sometime have wittingly or unwittingly introduced negative influences to local people, disrupted local economies and tarnished unique indigenous cultures. In some of the worst instances, indigenous peoples have even been displaced or dispossessed of traditional access to natural areas.
Ecotourism as sustainable forest management
The best ecotourism programmes strive to regulate against such abuses and guide it toward maximizing local benefits. Training for local people is crucial to ensure they can compete successfully for desirable ecotourism jobs.
Training for local people is crucial to ensure they can compete successfully for desirable ecotourism jobs. One prominent example is the ecotourist trade involving critically endangered Mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tourism in those countries generates significant incentives for governments and local communities to conserve their rich environment instead of choosing unsustainable pathways to development, said Doug Cress, coordinator of the UNEP led Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).
"Mountain gorillas are the only species of great ape that are actually rising in numbers," Cress said. "There is no question that is a direct result of the careful commitment to responsible tourism in East Africa that respects the gorillas and their habitat."
In recent years FAO has provided technical assistance to a number of countries, including Egypt, Hungary, Laos, the Philippines and Tunisia, to develop ecotourism as a sustainable forest use. With support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), FAO recently began implementing an $18 million programme in collaboration with Pacific islands (Fiji, Niue, Samoa and Vanuatu) aimed at developing ecotourism as a major component of sustainable forest management.