What is Ecotourism?
Ecotourism is a specific type of sustainable tourism that focuses on rural and relatively undisturbed natural areas. As opposed to the standard form of mass tourism, ecotourism is marketed as a low-impact alternative that educates travelers about conserving the environment, promotes sustainable economic development within local communities, provides funding for environmental conservation, and cultivates a greater appreciation for lesser-known cultures. As many nations around the world are starting to embrace more environmentally conscious industries, the countries surrounding South America’s Amazon rainforest have been struggling with a choice to either support ecotourism or the expansion of the fossil fuel industry.
The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biologically rich portions of the world. In addition to supporting a diverse array of plants and animals, the Amazon is also home to many indigenous ethnic tribes, including some of the last people left in the world that are living in voluntary isolation. Beneath the pristine wilderness of the western Amazon are massive reserves of largely untapped oil and gas reserves. As the developing nations of South America try to implement plans for economic development, ecotourism and fossil fuel extraction have been at the forefront of many economic development proposals. While many environmentalists would be quick to choose ecotourism over oil and gas production, both industries could ultimately have an adverse impact on the environment.
The International Ecotourism Society
The International Ecotourism Society claims that ecotourism is a responsible form of travel that limits adverse impacts on the environment, conserves natural areas, and enhances the well-being of local people (Simm, 2017). The concept of ecotourism was created as a result of the global environmental movement of the 1970s. By the late 1990s, it became one of the fastest-growing sectors of tourism (Simm, 2017). While there are numerous advantages of ecotourism, there are also some adverse impacts that need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the benefits.
The International Ecotourism Society presents many of the benefits of ecotourism, but it fails to highlight how it can also have a negative impact on both the environment and a community. Ecotourism advocates stress that this form of tourism helps to raise money for environmental conservation, fosters an appreciate for natural resources, and provides an alternative form of employment in the developing world, which helps keep locals from participating in some potentially environmentally detrimental industries, such as forestry or fishing (Simm, 2017).
Is Ecotourism Actually Harmful?
Critics say that ecotourism actually harms wildlife and damages the environment by inviting crowds of tourists into pristine and untouched wilderness areas (Hill, 2010). Bringing a large influx of tourists into natural areas degrades the natural environment and often leads to the pollution of delicate ecosystems (Kennedy, 2017). The picture-perfect representation of pristine beaches and diverse wildlife tours conceals the underlying damage that occurs when opening up these areas to international tourists.
In terms of the cultural impact, ecotourism can help expose tourists to local lifestyles and customs while also preserving a region’s heritage through the revitalization of traditional festivals, cuisine, and art forms (Simm, 2017). On the other hand, the conversion of traditional pieces of a localized culture into commodities disrupts the cultural fabric of a community (Kennedy, 2017). Additionally, an influx of tourists can adversely alter the pre-existing relationships within a community.
Proponents of ecotourism also claim that it enhances the physical and economic development of a community. Ecotourism can deliver a higher standard of living to a developing community through infrastructure improvements, new health clinics, and utility development. However, some people think that the idea of ecotourism delivering economic development is a fallacious belief. In fact, ecotourism can even prevent local communities from escaping poverty by focusing priorities on the environment rather than local populations (Kennedy, 2017). Moreover, hotel construction and the accompanying infrastructure in rural areas can inadvertently displace local communities. While ecotourism enhances environmental awareness, it’s vital to evaluate the costs and benefits to local communities and the natural environment prior to advocating for more of this type of tourism.
An Ecuadorian Case Study
Ecuador is one of the South American countries that is weighing the costs and benefits of both ecotourism and fossil fuel production. For many decades, Ecuador has struggled to find a balance between its natural environment and economic development. After Venezuela and Brazil, Ecuador holds South America’s third largest reserves of oil with 8.3 billion barrels of proven crude oil (EIA, 2017). Prior to 2020, Ecuador was the smallest member of the 14-nation Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Consistent political turbulence with OPEC led the country’s political leaders to develop a plan to leave the oil cartel. Plans were finalized during the fall of 2019 to allow Ecuador to officially exit on January 1, 2020.
In addition to being one of the largest oil producers in South America, Ecuador is home to immense biological diversity that spans across the Andean highlands, the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands, and the western portion of the Amazon rainforest. Furthermore, because of unique cultural amenities, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated several World Heritage Sites in Ecuador. These cultural and environmental resources have led some of the country’s leaders to advocate for increasing support for ecotourism over oil production.
Ecuador’s diverse assortment of cultural and environmental amenities has long been at odds with the country’s extractive industries, particularly fossil fuel production. Ecuador’s oil sector also accounts for more than half of all the country’s exports and roughly 25 percent of government revenue (EIA, 2017). As a result of Ecuador’s massive reliance on oil for both economic development and government revenue, the country has been at the center of debates about resource nationalism and the cultural and environmental impacts of the fossil fuel industry. Critics of the country’s oil industry also say that it has not been a successful industry to propel economic growth.
A Struggling Economy
Even as the third biggest producer of oil in South America, Ecuador still struggles to bolster its economy. Increasing deficit levels paired with increasing levels of foreign debt have created an extended period of tight economic liquidity within the country. In February 2019, Ecuador’s political leaders reached a $4.2 billion agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide a vital loan of of $652 million, while it also set up an opportunity for the country to seek an additional $6 billion in supplementary credit (Valencia, 2019). These funds may ultimately be used to alleviate some of the economic pressure that Ecuador has experienced because of low oil prices.
As Ecuador has struggled to turn a profit from its oil industry, some leaders have called for the money from the International Monetary Fund to be invested in ecotourism-related initiatives rather than continuing to dedicate funds towards the expansion of its oil industry, which has failed to bring fiscal stability to the country. While there are environmental risks from ecotourism, the risks from oil and gas production are more well known, especially in Ecuador.
According to research published in the Journal of Ecology and Evolution, more than 29,000 barrels of crude oil were spilled throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon between 1994 to 2001, much of which was never recovered (Lessmann et al, 2016). Regardless of the environmental risks tied to oil production in this isolated region, the government of Ecuador has continued to green light more oil and gas production in this region rather than making investments in ecotourism.
Throughout the greater Amazon region, communities and governments are split between supporting tourism or the fossil fuel industry. It’s clear that the two economic sectors are in opposition of each other. One industry vies to take advantage of the natural environment and cultural resources to support economic growth and jobs, while the other relies on extracting the resources that lie beneath the rainforest. While ecotourism can be an extremely complicated industry to manage effectively, many pro-tourism groups say that the alternative will ultimately destroy the rainforest. On the other hand, oil industry executives say that extracting fossil fuels has become increasingly safe and can be a viable method to support economic growth.
A Green Light for Oil
In 2013, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa sided with the fossil fuel industry by abandoning a historic “keep it in the ground” initiative and instead issued permits for oil and gas drilling in sections of the Yasuni National Park. In 2007, Correa had asked the international community for $3.6 billion in return for leaving the oil underneath the ground (Brown, 2019). However, after only receiving less than ten percent of the originally anticipated funding goal, Correa pulled the plug on the movement, paving the way for the oil and gas industry. This represented a major blow to the ecotourism industry since the Yasuni National Park has long been a favorite destination for tourists to explore the natural wonders of Ecuador’s section of the Amazon rainforest. Allowing oil infrastructure to move into the natural landscape not only threatened the rich biological diversity, but also threatened the viability of future ecotourism investments.
As the Petroamazonas oil company entered into the Yasuni National Park region in late 2013, the Ecuadorian government promised that local communities would experience much more economic growth in comparison to ecotourism alone. While some economists say that the oil exploration created new economic opportunities, many say that the oil drilling initiatives ultimately failed to deliver the number of high-paying jobs that were originally anticipated. Instead, revenue has fallen for ecotourism in the region, as oil and gas infrastructure has diminished the experience for tourists.
Given that the Yasuni National Park oil drilling failed to deliver on the promise of economic development, many locals in the region are convinced that the future solution still lies in ecotourism. A growing number of Amazonian communities are seeking the autonomy needed to make their own decisions related the economic development in their respective regions. When left up to larger governmental organizations, the oil and gas interests have almost always been selected over local preferences for ecotourism.
A Battle for Survival
The overall destruction of the Amazon rainforest by the oil and gas industry has severely threatened the ability for the region’s ecotourism industry to survive. While regional and national governmental organizations had repeatedly promised low-impact oil and gas exploration, the local media reports about the exploration efforts have painted a very impactful picture. For example, oil and gas exploration in the Yasuni National Park involved a process where upwards of 30,000 acres of rainforest were cleared and explosives were detonated every 100 to 250 meters (Brown, 2019). The vibrations from the explosions were evaluated by high-tech machines to decipher where oil and gas reserves were located beneath the ground. Based on the current battle between supporters of ecotourism and the fossil fuel industry, the future is likely to continue to be tumultuous in the Amazon.
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