Is Ecotourism Sustainable?

Giant Tortoise Galapagos Islands

Last year I actually won a sweepstakes (one of those that no one ever wins) for a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Beyond Darwin, I knew nothing of the archipelago and went only because it was free. However, my week touring this eco-wonder changed my life and perception of ecotourism forever.

The staff and crew of the Lindblad/National Geographic ship Endeavour quickly stepped in to fill the massive knowledge deficiencies I had regarding the Galapagos. Before arriving the only thing I knew was to expect very large turtles and to never, ever touch anything lest it become extinct and bring about the end of the world. Almost immediately though, the biologists onboard began an immersion course into all things Galapagian and we even took a nature hike that first afternoon.

Blue Footed Boobies

Over the course of several days, my ability to be completely overwhelmed by nature was surpassed by every new experience. Everyone knows that the wildlife on the islands have no fear of humans, but to experience this unique phenomenon in person is quite another thing. To be able to stand inches away from blue-footed booby hatchlings and listen to them cry for their parents etched a sensory memory that can never be erased. This endemic trait does have its drawbacks, more than once an angry pelican tried to take a nip and seeing spitting iguanas crossing the path ahead is certainly an eye opening experience.

Sleeping Sea Lion
Sleeping Sea Lion

At the end of the week, we said our teary eyed goodbyes and took with us memories and experiences to last a lifetime. As I watched the group of islands disappear from the airplane window, I began to think about our responsibility to preserve such natural wonders.

The ability to keep areas such as the Galapagos pristine is a delicate balance between much-needed tourist dollars and limited access. I began to wonder if our presence there is really a benefit or not. Fifty years ago, the Galapagos was an all but forgotten island chain with just a handful of inhabitants. Today more than 20,000 people call this tiny place home and many more visit each year. Following in the wake is the expected pollution and general ecological maelstrom in one of the last untouched biospheres on the planet.

However the presence of these scientists and visitors has also accomplished the impossible. The Charles Darwin Foundation and other notable organizations have brought back several species from the brink of extinction, including the giant tortoise, ensuring their presence for centuries to come. Their research has also allowed biologists to better understand these endemic creatures, which in turn adds to our collective scientific knowledge and abilities.

Ecotourism and sustainable travel are oft used and very trendy travel buzz words, but most of the experiences do little to protect the designated areas. As with all things, there are both good and bad actors. I have encountered organizations, companies and properties that truly “get it” and do offer a sustainable experience. However, I fear that there are many more bad actors who are ruining the utility of the terms for everyone else. These terms are being used everywhere as a way to describe travel to important and delicate natural areas. Unfortunately though these are areas which, because of that very tourism, may very well cease to exist past another generation or two.

What do you think? Does ecotourism really preserve the habitat, or are many of the operators destroying that which they profess to protect? Companies and operators are free to comment, but no advertisements, please.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

14 thoughts on “Is Ecotourism Sustainable?”

  1. I think the ecotourism model would benefit from the the model Bhutan is using. Limiting the number of tourists. If they slap the ‘ecotourism’ name on something and a cruise ship pulls up, they may have set up the their program as ecotourism but when inundated with large numbers of tourists I don’t think it’ll hold up to well.

    Limiting the number of tourist entries is the only way to make sure you protect it. Now Bhutan has gone to a monetary model which some decry the exclusivity due to the expense. But it seems to be working.

  2. I can’t comment on whether ecotourism operators are destroying environments, but I think tourism of any kind wears away at the native flora, fauna, and culture. Perhaps all ecotourism can do is lessen the impact since people will go wherever they can.

  3. Coming from the perpective of limited experience and knowledge of ecotourism. I would say that ecotourism, in general, is doing more harm then good.

    The reason why I believe that, as you stated, it seems to be used as a marketing buzz word.

    It’s like the companies that throw some recycled paper in their toilet paper and call themselves “green”. Are they really “green”? No, they’re just capitalizing on the buzz. When the next buzz word comes along they’ll change it again.

    I have no problem whatsoever with companies making money through ecotourism, as long as they live up to what they are promoting. Having truly sustainable businesses, that get it, around such things is the most effective way to have a positive impact, I believe.

    If they use terms like that to promote only their interests, then their true motives become very obvious and that is unsustainable.

  4. Erica @ Nonstop World Travel

    This is a tough question. I’m a pretty avid environmentalist that has been stricken with the travel bug. Sometimes they don’t seem to go hand in hand. My general thought though is that the more people see of the world, the more they fall in love with it and the more they become aware of their impact and their place in it. That has to be good for the environment as a whole in the long run. The short run is a different question…

    1. It’s true, there is no easy answer, but you’re right, traveling is a good way to help people realize how important their actions are.

  5. I actually think ecotourism is a good, local sustainable tourism which benefits not only the local environment but also the local people. But I can see the rank hypocrisy which many travellers suffer from. We love to travel but travelling (for the most part) is incredibly un-environmentally friendly, the question is how do we travel without leaving a negative impact?

  6. Sustainable tourism is an oxymoron. It is simply impossible to have someone travel to see something and call it sustainable. It’s not just the travel, it’s the inevitable degradation of the very environment that we go to see caused by those that have gone. It’s the desire for growth of business that drives companies to bring more people.
    On the other hand, it’s the people that come to see something they likely would not have seen on their own that spurns awareness, interest and in some cases desire to preserve.

    1. There’s no easy answer, that’s for certain. I’ve always learned a lot since first writing this piece and now think about sustainable tourism in terms of social and economic sustainability as well.

  7. I think the eco tourism industry needs to be self policing, with self imposed standard of operation. That way the government doesn’t have to get involved or the UN, ecotourism could have a governing body that issued something like a seal of approval, a program like builders have the LEEDS program. Green travel and ecotravel are good ideas.

  8. I think the groundswell of awareness and education that comes along with the buzz is helpful. It the situation perfect? Of course not, but what alternative do we have.

    “We only love that which we know”, right? There us a much greater sense of conservation today that stems from travel. Conscientious travel operators do make a difference.

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