More than fifteen years have passed since ecotourism first enchanted environmentalists with its promise to stem the destruction of wildlands while providing jobs in developing countries. Bringing tourists to ecologically important places, they figured, would create an economic incentive to protect these vital ecosystems. People who once poached, felled, farmed, or supported the development of wilderness in order to survive would instead become its ambassadors, making an income as to host to visitors from around the world.

In many cases, the dream has been realized. Since 1990, ecotourism has grown between 20 and 34 percent per year, according to the International Ecotourism Society (TIES). The group also reports that, “more than two-thirds of US and Australian travelers, and 90% of British tourists, consider active protection of the environment and support of local communities to be part of a hotel’s responsibility.” In a 2000, a Worldwatch Institute study found that ecotourism brought in $154 billion.

But as the adage goes, too much of a good thing can turn bad. In some notable places, the onslaught of nature-loving visitors is steadily eroding the very ecosystems ecotourism intends to protect. Tourists are trampling, polluting, and gobbling up scarce resources in fragile habitats. It’s a distressing trend given the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) estimate that most “of tourism’s expansion is occurring in and around the world’s remaining natural areas.”

Perhaps one of the best-known destinations for nature tourism, the Galapagos Islands, is suffering the most from its success. Situated in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America and made famous by Charles Darwin, UNESCO deemed these islands a world heritage site in danger in June 2007. Increased cruise ship traffic and movement between the archipelagoes’ 19 islands is responsible for a rise in invasive species, a trend that can alter the natural balance of an ecosystem. The Darwin Foundation calculates “tourism visitation has grown from 40,000 to 145,000 visitors in 15 years; in the same period the numbers of registered introduced species has grown from 619 to 1,321.”

Meanwhile, the impact tourists have on indigenous wildlife is also under question. A 2005 study published in Conservation Biology found that Megellanic penguin chicks in Punta Tombo Argentina were stressed by their encounters with tourists. Each fall some 68,000 visitors come to watch the adult penguins lay eggs and nurse hatchlings. The study revealed that chicks watched by tourists experienced corticosterone, a steroid induced by stress, considerably earlier in life as compared to unobserved chicks. Nonetheless, the chicks appeared healthy; the concern is the long-term significance of early stress. And because Megellanic penguins can live for up to 40 years, we may not know of any implications for decades.

Travel to polar regions has also wildly expanded in recent decades. UNEP says the number of ship-borne tourists has increased by 430 percent in 14 years and land-based tourists by 757 percent in 10 years. Among concerns, the greatest is more frequent oil spills. Last November, the Explorer sank, dumping 100 tourists and 48,000 gallons of marine diesel fuel into Antarctic waters.

These kinds of accidents—and the mounting number of tourists—beg the question, what is ecotourism and does it help the environment? TIES, the industry’s oldest organized group established in 1990, defines it as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

For TIES, this means limiting the number of tourists in some places. “They need to consider the capacity of the destination,” says Ayako Ezaki, director of communications for TIES. “Companies that are calling themselves ecotourism, but hurt the environment or communities…our response is that it’s not ecotourism.”

Story by Victoria Schlesinger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008