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This article was inspired by many things – having seen islands change, knowing what they were like, what they are like now and what they might become. Also inspiring were photographs in a dive magazine of a “new” area, totally unexplored. The reef was so beautiful and solid, not one dead coral anywhere, that I wondered how long it would take to ruin it because of promotion. Everyone has to see this perfect reef – and trash it. Not intentionally but now boats go over it, an occasional drop of oil, a tin can, a dragged fin…

From breathtaking to polluted ecosystem

Two hikers trek through a previously unexplored region of a vast forest only to stumble upon a lake so beautiful that they both are lost for words. It is surrounded by mountains that take their breath away. A waterfall built by an angel cascades down into the lake. The animals, never having seen or smelled man, are not petrified of his presence. So impressed are the hikers that they tell their friends, who tell other friends. Soon the area has a steady stream of hikers. New paths are trampled into the forest and lake shore. Charcoal is left behind by some campers along with an unintentional piece of litter.

The area becomes famous within a small group but not easy to get too. Always out to make a profit, a travel agency starts helicopter trips making it available to everyone, not just the physically fit hikers. The noise and sight of this huge machine causes many animals to permanently leave the area. Other animals are fed by campers which causes an unnatural relationship. The lake, whose abundance of fish never saw a fishing line, has monofilament “growing” around underwater branches. A few more pieces of litter appear. No one liking litter, the helicopter brings in a few 55 gallons drums so the litter can be piled in one area only. One camper, seeing that the drums are too full, burns them. Another seeing that burning seems to be acceptable burns them again, weakening the drums. After a time, they rust and collapse spreading garbage everywhere.

Soon other agencies are promoting the area and more people arrive. Articles appear in the travel section of major newspapers. Larger campsites are cleared to handle the ever-growing numbers. Sections of land are sold off with a promise of “limited development”. It does not take too long before the first small lodge is built. Still difficult to get to, a small road is cut through the forest and another log cabin lodge goes up. These become very profitable, so another larger lodge is built which is more like a hotel. Limited development is allowed to increase- to a new limited level.

A few people begin to comment that nature is being disturbed and the area is changing. Toilets are flushing every day, the smell from the lodges’ restaurants fills the air and off-road vehicles can be heard all day long. Not wanting to lose their investment and with others knocking at the door to get in, a confrontation begins between conservationists, the lodge owners and those who specialize in vacation travel. Most travel agents and hotel owners never paid much attention to the radical conservationists, so they were at a loss as how to fight. A clever person came up with some ammunition and called it “Ecotourism”. There, that would keep everyone quiet. We have developed this lake under the name of eco-tourism. Has it helped the lake? Not at all. Has it returned it to its natural state before those two original hikers discovered it? No, and it never will.

Effects of Eco Tourism

With ecotourism, new hotels open calling themselves “green hotels”. The pollution in the area has grown out of hand. Boats are now motoring on the lake and there is talk of the largest hotel yet to be built by a huge chain. It has only been 20 years since man first set his eyes on the lake but now it is totally dominated by him. The animals have all left and much of the lake shore is covered in homes, condominiums, and hotels. The lake is now chemically polluted and most of the fish are gone. What have we done?

Were jobs desperately needed in this area? Were new jobs created for local people who were starving? There were no local people, so no jobs were needed. It was a simple case of developers and profit seekers who came and have long gone. They don’t have to see the lake anymore. They are looking for new lakes.

Caribbean islands are the same. They have suffered heavily from over development. One island, which was world famous for its pristine reefs and excellent diving, attracted so many divers, that the reefs suffered and now, the very thing that attracted everyone in the first place has been nearly ruined by those people who came to see it. The destruction was not caused by direct contact as much as the need for more hotels, which in turn means more sewage and garbage. Unable or even unwilling to pay for a sewage treatment plant, more and more pollutants found their way to the reefs.

As the popularity grew for the island, its limited local population was unable to fill the jobs being created. Foreign workers arrived. Housing was needed. More foreign workers came to help build houses for the foreign workers. The schools were filling too quickly with this influx, and soon more were needed. Who would build these schools? More foreign construction workers. Population nearly doubled in a very short time. Little things like traffic, which were never even thought about, suddenly became a problem. Crime increased. With all the different backgrounds, clashes in social norms and customs cropped up. The local population began to lose its identity, and many did not like it. This dislike was expressed openly both through words and in many cases physical actions.

As the population of the world grows and travel becomes routine, the old favorite places have become so overdeveloped and overcrowded that many people won’t go there anymore. The travel industry, in order not to lose any money, must open up new areas for people to exploit. And the same thing happens again. It’s a domino effect. So, unless we can vacation on Mars soon, there will be little left of the earth as nature intended it.

All of this development was done in the name of progress. Are progress and growth synonymous? Progress does not always equate with development and development cannot be done ecologically. No matter how careful one proposes to be, a bit of nature is always lost. Expansion, development and growth do not guarantee success. A pond can function perfectly for centuries without ever getting larger. It does not stagnate because of lack of growth. If man comes along and unnaturally dredges the pond, removes tons of earth from its boundaries and makes it 4 times as large, it may be the end to that entire ecosystem.

Ecotourism As A Teaching Tool

Ecotourism is not the opening of vast new areas under the guise of keeping them clean or educating the public. If we are to even use the word Eco Tourism, it must be defined as an educational process and applied only to areas where tourism is already established. Education for both the citizens and for the visitors. It is participation in the preservation of our earth and more specifically our own lands and homes. To simply say “here is a whole new region you can all visit now but be careful”, will not work. Everyone must realize that our world is a natural resource that in some cases is being abused and even in our children’s children lifetime might not return to its natural state.

Unfortunately, greed causes money too far outweigh any concern for ecology. Once we have disturbed this very well-balanced nature it is a long process to revive it. Nature always has had methods of checks and balances. It has not been until modern man that these balances have been disturbed and, in some cases, sadly enough, destroyed. If man does destroy himself through neglect, the plants, the other animals and the minerals will all continue without us.

The importance of using eco-tourism as a teaching tool cannot be emphasized enough. Here exists a great opportunity to show people how important our earth is and how they can help while having fun and enjoying a vacation. Ecotourism is not a licensee to drive our four wheeled vehicles where no man has gone before and make sure we take our beer cans back with us. Far from it. Ecotourism is saying don’t drive your car there at all. Leave these areas alone. Leave them for nature. Eco tourism is saying drive where you used to drive but look at it from a different point of view. Help erase what man has done. Help clean up. Help preserves. This is not only so we and our future generations can enjoy it but so every living thing can go undisturbed.

Perhaps ecotourism is not even the right word. Maybe words like respect, concern and care are what we should use. Maybe even fear, fear of what could happen to our fragile earth. It is not only keeping our environment clean and undisturbed but to start to clean up where we have gone wrong.

After all the development and increase in population, will it all be worth it? Perhaps the current generation, who went to that lake for the first time, could argue they enjoyed seeing nature at its finest, for a short time. One could also argue that some people made lots of money by risking their investments, so they deserve a profit. But what about generations to come? Nature will return itself to its original condition and begin again with whatever it takes. Will man still be around to see it?

When a drug addict overdoses, unless he gets proper treatment, death is the result. Once in the hospital the treatment is usually swift and positive. When nature is overdosed, there is no hospital, and the recovery can be hundreds if not thousands of years. In the case of the drug addict, the symptoms are obvious. Nature’s problems can go unnoticed or worse, left to fester due to apathy until it is too late.

Bruce Bowker