According to the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), 83% of developing countries rely on ecotourism as a major export while others, such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nepal, Kenya, Madagascar and Antarctica, also rely on ecotourism as the major contributory factor in their gross domestic product and employment level calculations.
With the tourism industry now experiencing growth rates of 7%, the current rebound is not only good news for these aforementioned countries, it is also good news for the protection of natural resources and ecosystems. But, with the ecotourism industry growing 5% annually worldwide (representing 6% of the world gross domestic product and reflecting 11.4% of all consumer spending), are other countries really prepared for rising consumer expectations with respect to ecotourism?
The answer largely depends on the level of consumer awareness concerning ecotourism certifications, cultural and family ecotourism experiences, host community poverty alleviation measures, and mitigation of environmental damage.
A high-level analysis of the eco-destinations that have the most to gain (or lose) with the rapid rise of ecotourism includes:
- Costa Rica – has a well-established ecotourism market and voluntary ecotourism certification program. Most of the tourist attractions are nature and wildlife focused family ecotourism activities (e.g. bird watching, flora and fauna) that are run by local residents and by most criteria, the country has a decent environmental record except for some deforestation controversies.
- Ecuador – has the fortunate distinction of being the easiest gateway to the Galapagos Islands, which is well known for its distinct wildlife. Along with a booming community based tourism trade, its highly regarded ecotourism certification program focuses on environmental education and tourist waste management though there are some issues with deforestation.
- Nepal – although one of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal is a popular tourist destination known for trekking expeditions. While there are some government initiatives to add tourist attractions, there is no eco-certification program in place to distinguish ecotour operators nor many community based ecotourism programs to help with alleviating poverty.
- Kenya – is in the midst of an image problem. It was showing increasing ecotourism gains with a thriving safari tourism industry until consumer concerns about pirate activities off the coast of Somalia and other violence began to distribute tourists to other African countries. For its part, the Kenyan government has developed an ecotourism certification program, but environmental issues include deforestation, soil erosion and degraded water quality need attention.
- Madagascar – is labeled as one of the most unique places on earth for flora, fauna, culture, and food. But, its political situation results in consistent safety warnings for travelers. For its part, the government has developed a certification program to begin combating the environmental issues of deforestation and soil erosion.
- Antarctica – is widely considered to be one of the last tourism frontiers. Yet, tourism is growing to become the main commercial activity on the continent (replacing scientific research) which coupled with the introduction of alien species continues to have a great impact on the fragile environment. There is no eco-certification program in place, but there is an association of tour operators which aims to promote environmentally responsible travel to the continent.
Only consumer awareness of both the true meaning of ecotourism as well as the benefits and challenges that ecotourism brings to a community, will result in the greater preservation and protection of natural resources and ecosystems.