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Ecotourism: Threat or Savior?

The concept of “ecotourism” has recently emerged and is largely regarded as a fantastic development in the world of tourism, from both an environmentally-conscious position and an economic perspective. This positive outlook on the new phenomenon praises ecotourism as a means through which environmental consciousness, knowledge of other cultures, and environmental conservation can be promoted and spread through society. Despite this, ecotourism has proven, like many things, to be good only in moderation and with restrictions. 

Firstly, we must define ecotourism. This form of travel is defined as “tourism directed towards exotic, often threatened, natural environments intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.” At its core, this concept has many benefits. It requires travelers to broaden their horizons and visit less-frequented locations. In doing so, not only do they expand their own knowledge of the world and their environmental consciousness, but they also provide opportunities for places of lower economic standing. In drawing tourists to areas with smaller economies, ecotourism creates opportunity for the people of those regions to support themselves and their communities. Unfortunately, ecotourism also poses threats to the environment when not properly, safely, and consciously carried out.

As the phenomenon of ecotourism has emerged, scientific studies have been conducted, revealing the negative effects of this practice. Ecotourism poses the risk of the spread of diseases between wildlife and humans in both directions, as well as the disruption and damage of ecosystems due to increased and unregulated human contact. A study conducted by anthropologist Michael Muehlenbein at Baylor University found that humans participating in ecotourism, particularly those involving contact with wildlife, knowingly carry diseases with them, from common colds to more dangerous viruses. Simultaneously, these same individuals are more than willing to touch and feed the animals they encounter. This ignorance and lack of protection for these animals poses a great threat to wildlife, as even a simple cold can be fatal for animals such as chimpanzees. Additionally, ecotourism results in the urge to develop the land in which it occurs in order to align it more with Western capitalist interests and forms of tourism. This results in the displacement of Indigenous peoples and local communities, as well as harming the ecosystems of the area. 

To conclude, while at its core ecotourism is designed to protect and promote endangered ecosystems, it has increasingly resulted in the damage and displacement of Indigenous communities and wildlife due to unregulated human contact. If tightly regulated and enacted as intended, ecotourism has the potential to promote the conservation and knowledge of various ecosystems while simultaneously supporting the economies of smaller regions. If left unregulated, ecotourism threatens to destroy the very communities and ecosystems it is intended to protect.

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