Tourism has increased by more than 100 percent between 1990 and 2000 in the world's biodiversity hotspots, regions richest in species and facing extreme threats, according to a report released today by Conservation International (CI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism's Global Footprint is the most comprehensive study of its kind focusing on the impacts of tourism on biological diversity. In some places the growth has been staggering. Over the past decade, tourism has increased by more than 2000 percent in both Laos and Cambodia, nearly 500 percent in South Africa, over 300 percent in the countries of Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and 128 percent in the Dominican Republic.
Tourism generates 11 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), employs 200 million people and transports nearly 700 million international travelers per year – a figure that is expected to double by 2020. It is considered one of the largest, if not the largest, industries on the planet. With nature and adventure travel one of the fastest-growing segments within the tourism industry, the Earth's most fragile, high biodiversity areas are where most of that expansion will likely take place. While tourism has the potential to provide opportunities for conserving nature, tourism development, when done improperly, can be a major threat to biodiversity.
"We are at a crossroads in the Earth's last strong holds for biodiversity, where nature, struggling communities and the expanding world of tourism meet," says Costas Christ, Senior Director for Ecotourism at Conservation International and lead author of the report. "By linking tourism development with biodiversity conservation and the well being of local communities, we can develop strategies that both conserve Earth's most endangered ecosystems and help make a significant contribution to alleviating poverty."
Poorly planned tourism development in the biodiversity hotspots has a range of negative impacts. These include removing pristine forests for infrastructure development, pollution, introduction of invasive species, water shortages and degradation of water supplies.
In addition, tourism development is increasingly linked to the economies of the world's developing countries, which are often home to high biodiversity areas. Tourism is a principal export of the 49 least-developed countries and number one for 37 of them. While economically significant, tourism can also prove to be volatile to local communities. Tourism development can uproot indigenous peoples, cause local goods and services to increase, force currency fluctuations and cause social and cultural disruption.
"Tourism has huge potential for good or evil. It is in everyone's interest, particularly the industry's, that the economic power of 21st century tourism is harnessed for the benefit of local people and wildlife," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP. "Tourism relies on stable and healthy communities and environments. It cannot prosper in areas of environmental decay. So it cannot ruin the very wildlife and landscapes the visitors pay to see and then move on. Otherwise we will rapidly run out of the biologically and culturally rich locations that underpin the profits of the holiday and vacation business. Fortunately, there are many sparkling examples where tourism has balanced the needs of the industry and the visitor, with the needs of wildlife and people. We need to encourage and extend these across the globe so that they do not become islands of good practice in a sea of environmental decline."
Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism's Global Footprint includes maps that chart tourism's growth across the planet's most biodiversity rich environments and provides guidelines for governments, private businesses, donor organizations and local communities for supporting more sustainable tourism development.
The report illustrates how tourism development guided by the principles associated with ecotourism – environmental sustainability, protection of nature, and supporting the well being of local peoples – can have a positive impact on biodiversity conservation and provide important economic alternatives for local communities.
"Integrating biodiversity conservation into tourism planning can result in better business for the industry, while destroying the environment would be considered synonymous with killing the goose that lays the golden egg," said Russ Mittermeier, President of Conservation International.
With the growth of international tourism expanding from 25 million in 1950 to more than 450 million today, tourism's reach into the last pristine areas of the planet has brought the industry onto the agenda of conservation groups as well as the United Nations Environment Programme. Based upon two years of research, the report aims to help chart a positive way forward for tourism development.
Materials provided by Conservation International. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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