Triple Bottom Line: The Double-Edged Sword of Ecotourism

When I’m home for winter break, there’s nothing better than unwinding after a long day of doing nothing by watching some HGTV. For those of you in need of recommendations, some of my go-to shows include Fixer Upper, Property Brothers, House Hunters International, Flip or Flop, Hawaii Life and my latest discovery, Island Hunters. 

I have to admit that I’m somewhat ambivalent about Island Hunters, the visuals and locations are undeniably stunning, and the premise is simple — a perfect show to indulge in without expending too many brain cells. The host Chris Krolow takes his wealthy buyers to three different island properties with the goal of buying one for themselves. However, it gets a little more complicated. Oftentimes, his clients aren’t just searching for their own private getaways — many enterprising millionaires are also hoping to establish boutique hotels and eco-resorts on these virgin parcels of tropical land. 

Krolow’s clients are flown in on helicopters or sail to private beaches by yacht, talking casually about developing land in South America, the Caribbean, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and (to a tech bro’s excitement and my chagrin) even a completely untouched island off the coast of Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. 

While the purpose of ecotourism is to educate visitors about the conservation and preservation of the environment, it’s utterly hypocritical of entrepreneurial multimillionaires and their developers to construct lavish resorts on immaculate — and in some cases, protected — pieces of land. A line needs to both exist and be drawn. Is it really necessary to build excessive, questionably sustainable villas and getaways in the middle of pristine nature sanctuaries, supposedly in the name of environmentalism? 

Ecotourism, if practiced correctly, has many upsides. Recent years have led to increased popularity in traveling responsibly to fragile and rare ecosystems off the beaten path, staying in low-impact hotels and hostels and interacting with protected environmental areas in ways that encourage cultural immersion and environmental stewardship.

Increased traffic to remote areas guarantees more economic flow and increased employment opportunities for locals. Additionally, it incentivizes the need for both governments and locals to protect fragile habitats or natural landmarks that are attractions and be proactive about natural resource management so that it continues to be a source of income. Additionally, ecotourism allows for more money that can be put towards the management and protection of such delicate ecosystems. However, as the industry expands, so do the problems that come along with it. 

While more tourist traffic brings wealth and opportunities for employment and empowerment to local communities, it also puts the environment and indigenous populations at risk, which begs the question — are increased pollution and habitat disruption a fair price to pay for ‘educating’ wealthy visitors about the natural world and its inhabitants? 

The ecotourism industry’s exploitation of local culture is also a big issue. Oftentimes, tourism companies and corporations profit the most, using locals for cheap labor and their cultural traditions for entertainment value. There is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and as more travelers reach far-off destinations, Westernization can cause changes in cultural traditions and everyday life. While maintaining truly authentic cultural awareness is no easy process, the preservation and celebration of local cultures, traditions and history should be an integral part of the ecotourism experience. 

Governmental designation of land as nature reserves and conservation areas has also caused indigenous displacement. This was the case with the land of the Maasai tribe in Africa. Claimed by the government for private ownership, protected natural space, hotel construction and resource excavation, the Maasai were not adequately compensated for the lost land or benefitting from employment opportunities, which were instead being offered to ranchers, developers and educated professionals.

As the struggle between the Maasai and East African governmental institutions shows, there are often significant external costs that aren’t necessarily factored into the price of the environmental experience. This is true of the ecotourism industry in general; money buys experiences but fails to account for the far-reaching consequences of increased foot traffic to far-to-reach destinations. 

For example, Mount Everest has become more accessible than ever before, and Sherpa guides are in high demand. However, the tallest place on earth has been polluted by decades of climbers’ trash, and evidence has shown accumulation of microplastics at the very top of the mountain, as well as accumulation of discarded equipment and even human waste left by climbers. At Base Camp, those who are altitude-training use melted snow as drinking water, which has the potential to be contaminated with germs if people aren’t properly disposing of their waste on the mountain. 

Much of Everest’s problems stem from increased permits for the climbing season issued by the Nepalese government. More climbers means more money for the country and more employment opportunities for Sherpas. On the contrary, more climbers also means more inexperienced adventurers who are underprepared for the exertion of the climb, putting the lives of themselves and the Sherpas at risk.

While destinations around the globe are being celebrated for their unique geographic features and cultures, the growing ecotourism industry is currently at a crucial crossroads. It’s imperative that stricter government regulations are enacted at existing eco-resorts, camps and retreats. Greater effort should be made to limit visitors, so as to not strain local resources and preserve local traditions and ways of life, while still bringing in a sustainable amount of proceeds from tourism. The more limited spots there are, the higher the demand will be to visit exotic locales, bringing more revenue in for locals and indigenous groups. 

There is also a need for clearer requirements of what makes a place a true ‘sustainable’ destination. As I’ve discussed in previous columns, “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” are often used as buzzwords to attract customers and clientele. There are many frameworks and certifications available for aspiring eco-destinations, but there is not one overarching set of guidelines for what makes a company or hotel truly environmentally sustainable. Instead, ambitious green travelers must do the research on their own and investigate the sustainability practices of potential destinations.

In the case of previously undeveloped land, countries need to enact more stringent restrictions for buyers. It’s unrealistic to expect to preserve every single island, mountain and beach in its natural state forever, but unregulated construction, even in the name of sustainable development, needs to be managed and minimized. The value of these destinations is not purely monetary; they are vital in indigenous livelihoods, cultures and religions and should be preserved for the use and appreciation of future generations. 

Ecotourism as an industry has the potential to be both informative and fun, educational and enjoyable. It’s imperative that environmental tourist destinations enact stricter measures now to ensure long-term sustainability of their natural attractions, cultures and ways of life. While there is no shortage of incredible places to visit around the globe (post-pandemic, obviously!), it’s important to be a conscientious traveler and visit places that not only prioritize the conservation and protection of their environmental attributes but also the sociocultural and economic well-being of permanent residents.