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Ecotourism is often presented as the savior for wildlife and wild places — providing local communities with financial incentives to preserve nature while also reducing poaching and development pressure.

But, lately, some are questioning whether rich Westerners jetting around the world really helps much at all: They disturb animals, create demands for new development and only employ local people in low-paying jobs.

Some conservationists even consider tourism to be a significant threat to natural areas.

Which view is correct? Is ecotourism a problem, or a solution?

My biases up front: I’d rather travel for the purpose of seeing wildlife and enjoying various outdoor activities than just about anything. My wife has remarked it’s my drug of choice.

That aside, I still think the issue of ecotourism defies easy answers. Problem or solution?

It depends.

Certainly, the ecological havoc wreaked by tourists in places like the Galapagos is well documented. A fragile ecosystem, animals unafraid of humans and an increasing number of cruise ships has been a recipe for disaster.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see tourists behaving badly in nature.

People harass and feed wild bison, leave trash strewn across the Himalayas, demand resorts in places they shouldn’t be — the list is long.

And then there’s the whole carbon footprint issue. We all know that flying has tremendous impacts, so can we really justify flying off to some far-off corner of the world to see animals or scenery?

These are important concerns. Without a doubt, ecotourism can be a threat. But is it always?

After all, would there even be a Galapagos left as we know it if it wasn’t for tourism? Really?

Consider other island ecosystems and how difficult it is to conserve native island wildlife. If it wasn’t for those tour boats, the Galapagos would likely be a highly developed, rat-infested island devoid of wildlife.

Yellowstone may at times be crowded with tourists behaving badly, but would there still be herds of bison and packs of wolves and grizzly bears without those tourists?

The Serengeti faces issues, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the wildebeest population there continues to migrate, during a period of time when so many other large mammal migrations have disappeared.

Private ranches in places like Brazil’s Pantanal and Namibia still have large populations of wildlife, in part because many ranchers here now attract tourists. It seems naïve to expect that they will keep conserving wildlife if visitors quit showing up.

Ecotourism, ultimately, is a complicated issue. And in that way, it’s not so different from most other conservation issues.

Some conservationists have the tendency to declare activities as simply “good” or “bad” — whether it’s ecotourism, ranching, timber harvest, invasive species, hunting, fire or agriculture. All have their proponents and detractors.

However, we should make decisions based on the reality of our world, not on utopian fantasies where humans no longer have any impacts on nature.

We can work to make sure that ecotourism is done in appropriate ways that benefit wildlife and local communities.

And as the saying goes, conservationists can’t “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Ecotourism isn’t perfect.

In many cases, though, it’s the best solution we have.

--Text by Matt Miller, Cool Green Science Blog

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