Ultimately, since the rise of ecotourism in the 1980’s, there has been a shift in travel habits — a move from the all-inclusive resort to seeking out natural environments to witness natural wonders. In addition to being sure your travel excursions are culturally respectful and economically ethical — supporting the local economy and its employees — a crucial factor to keep in mind is one’s physical impact on the natural environment. This is especially important for ecotourism in fragile ecosystems. Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know:
What makes an ecosystem fragile?
Fragile ecosystems are ones that are extremely sensitive to environmental changes and shifts that result from outside influences and presences. They commonly suffer from the loss of biological diversity, climate change, poverty and human infringement. Examples of fragile ecosystems include wetlands, deserts, mountains, coral reefs and certain coastal areas. Instances of suffering fragile ecosystems include the desertification of semi-arid lands and the significant reduction of coastal wetland areas.
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Post-earthquake Haiti has been a fairly recent area of concern. The country’s rainforests contain more endangered species than any other location on earth, and yet because its citizens continue to face dire poverty, the forest is mined for its resources, long-term effects coming second to immediate need. As a result, reforestation efforts are being made, among other key projects.
How does tourism impact fragile ecosystems?
Human interactions with fragile ecosystems often lead to pollution, trampling/physical harm to the environment and the introduction of harmful invasive species that disrupt or permanently damage ecological homeostasis.
Just look at Antarctica, considered by many to be the “last frontier.” A 2014 report published in PLoS Biology states that between scientific programs and recreation tourism, both of which have spurred the construction of necessary infrastructure, noticeable harm has been done to this ecosystem:
Growing instances of unintentional damage are also being recorded, such as the establishment of harmful nonindigenous species, sewage spills, point source pollution, and destruction of vegetation. All human activities, be they tourism- or science-related, have increased considerably over the last 20 years and are predicted to continue to do so.
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Coral reefs are another fragile ecosystem impacted by human infringement, including tourism. According to the International Coral Reef Initiative, unsustainable tourism can negatively impact this ecosystem in a variety of ways:
Tourism generates vast amounts of income for host countries. Where unregulated however, tourism pressures can cause damage to the very environment upon which the industry depends. Physical damage to the coral reefs can occur through contact from careless swimmers, divers, and poorly placed boat anchors. Hotels and resorts may also discharge untreated sewage and waste water into the ocean, polluting the water and encouraging the growth of algae, which competes with corals for space on the reef.
What is/can be done to protect fragile environments in regards to tourism?
The Global Development Research Center lists financial contributions, stronger environmental management and oversight in environmental tourism, and stronger regulatory measures for protection and preservation as the broad strokes solutions to the issue of fragile ecosystem destruction.
Essentially, the key thing that responsible travelers can do is be mindful of their choices, do their homework to ensure the choices they make are responsible, and encourage fellow travelers to do the same.
Because “eco” and “green” are trending marketing terms, travelers should always read the fine print of organizations that present themselves as environmentally-friendly but may have unsustainable practices. Further, Responsible Travel recommends travelers seek opportunities to travel by low-carbon means, from hiking to biking to kayaking in environments that will not suffer from such physical interactions with nature.
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The International Ecotourism Society also has concrete recommendations for planning a responsible trip, including doing research on your accommodations and the efforts they make to be sustainable, supporting conservation efforts by paying to visit protected areas and national parks, and never buying crafts or products made from endangered or protected animals. From home, we can all support initiatives to protect fragile environments via monetary support, volunteer work, and community engagement.
How do you think travelers can more responsibly explore fragile environments? Please share your opinions in the comments below.
By Paige Sullivan