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Earth Day: the perils of ecotourism

Science

Earth Day: the perils of ecotourism

Good intentions, bad outcomes.

As I watched the recently released Netflix documentary The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari, filmed in 2019 in New Zealand, there was one detail that continuously bothered me. Throughout the entirety of the movie no one, including the tour guides, seemed to understand they were in the crater of the volcano from the moment they stepped out of the boats. When Whakarri erupted, 22 people died and another 26 were seriously injured.

Sadly, it’s kind of surprising things like this don’t happen more often. Worldwide ecotourism was a $181 billion industry in 2021, and is projected to boom to $334 billion in the next four years.
'Volcano' shows the dangers of ecotourism

Ecotourism sounds like an amazing way to experience the world, touted as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves education of both staff and guests. The International Ecotourism Society has a list of principles that true forms of the practice should adopt:

  • Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates
  • Design, construct, and operate low-impact facilities
  • Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

This ethnocentric view seems to blind people to the reality of ecotourism’s impact, where danger can come in many forms. The Volcano showed the entire world just how under-trained and unprepared the employees were to handle an emergency of that magnitude. Not only did they not understand where they were, they seemed to be under the false impression there was no chance Whakarri would erupt. Many of the vacationers brought there were blissfully unaware of an eruption in 1914 that buried 11 miners, and the paper that was published just 8 months earlier regarding the 2016 overnight eruption, in which the authors warned, “These eruptions clearly pose a significant hazard to the tourists that visit the island.”

The same year Whakaari exploded, the Stromboli volcano in Italy killed a hiker, and but for timing would have killed 12 more. In the Netflix docuseries Aftershock, we see what happens when an earthquake strikes Nepal, leading to an avalanche on Mt. Everest. Not only were people killed by snow, ice, and boulders when the avalanche hit base camp, but even more people were trapped higher up the mountain. Rescuing them took valuable resources away from the local villages, some of which were completely leveled.

Risks to human health aside, ecotourism very often has the opposite effects of those dreamed of by the International Ecotourism Society. Most ecotourism destinations are in remote locations, and as such are not inexpensive adventures. The type of people who can afford these trips generally have a higher expectation of accommodation than the average vacationer, which has led to an increase in development of land in once natural spaces to build resorts, restaurants, airports, roads, stores, etc. This destruction of the natural environment has a huge impact on the local people and their culture. Their indigenous lifestyles are slowly being replaced with consumerism in order to entice more tourists to their areas.

This leads to massive exploitation of people who are no longer able to provide for their families in the traditional ways and now need to make money to survive. In his Netflix comedy special Son of Patricia, Trevor Noah mentions having an “authentic Balinese experience” where they literally walked through a man’s home as part of their tour. The indignity of having to put on a “song and dance” for tourists isn’t even the worst part; tribes of indigenous peoples are also frequently relocated for the sake of development, with the best land going to ecotourism operators. These consequences remain practically unknown to the people causing them.

The destruction of natural habitats for tourist destinations has also led to a decline in local wildlife populations, for species we know of as well as undocumented ones we might never see. Somewhat paradoxically, this movement into formerly wild spaces also means more unplanned interactions with wildlife, which can not only lead to injury and death for both animals and humans, but also raises the additional possibility of disease transfer.

The impact on wildlife goes beyond habitat loss. African safari tour jeeps frighten away prey animals lions and other predators depend on for food. Lions end up having to hunt during the hottest part of the African day, when they are more likely to die from dehydration and heat stroke. Prey animals can become accustomed to human interactions, potentially making them more dependent on humans for food, or worse, vulnerable to poachers. Coral reefs are damaged both accidentally and intentionally by divers, people feeling the need to “leave their mark” on what they don’t seem to realize are living creatures.

Earth Day: the perils of ecotourism

Jesse Langford survived the 2019 Whakarri eruption, but not unscathed.

If you are considering planning an exotic adventure of your own, keep these things in mind:

  • Beware of the hidden dangers you’re not informed of
  • Avoid excursions that exploit the local people
  • Don’t touch the animals
  • Leave NO trace
  • Your mere presence is going to impact the environment

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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