At the end of September 2011, the occasion being the World Tourism Day (27th September), the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), an organisation of which the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is also a member, promoted its view on the positive influence that ecotourism has on forestry. Moreover, an increasing number of governments are considering ecotourism as a means to promote sustainable forestry management and support local communities.
Despite the grave economic situation in the last couple of years, according to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), international tourism has demonstrated healthy growth, with almost 5% in the first half of 2011, setting a new record of 440 million arrivals, according to the UN WTO. Moreover, in the UNWTO long-term forecast, Tourism Towards 2030, released in October 2011, international tourism is expected to continue to grow in a sustained manner in the next two decades. Ecotourism, as a niche within the larger tourism industry, is one of the fastest growing segments of tourism worldwide, according to the FAO. Therefore, the perspective for long-term sustainable economic growth has the potential to stimulate also forestry funds to participate on the forest ecotourism market. In addition, through forest ecotourism, private companies will have the opportunity to make profit out of socially responsible investments.
Ecotourism involves responsible travelling to natural areas, with the purpose to educate the traveller without the environmental and cultural impact that may come as a negative consequence of traditional tourism. By definition, the more preserved a tourist site or object is, the more attractive it will be for potential visitors. And as forests and their wildlife are among the primary settings for ecotourism activities, it is only natural to assume that promoting forest preservation and investing in ecotourism would be the way to attract more ecotourists.
Forest ecotourism may be particularly beneficial in developing countries, which generally experience more difficulties in promoting sustainable forest management and obtaining much needed investments through forestry funds or other sources of financing. According to Edgar Kaeslin, Forestry Officer in Wildlife and Protected Area Management at FAO, “Ecotourism has a far greater potential for contributing to income and livelihoods in poor rural communities than what is realised”. Therefore, the possibilities that ecotourism provides in terms of forest preservation and local economy need to be looked into, especially considering the extent to which some indigenous communities depend on forests for their livelihood. In addition, ecotourism brings more income to local population than commercial conventional tourism that relies mainly on mass hotel chains and large tourist companies.
One of the most famous examples of ecotourism in developing countries is the interest attracted by the endangered mountain gorilla species in Uganda. Ecotourism activity surrounding the gorillas significantly helped to boost the economy of the country and at the same time led to a rise in the numbers of mountain gorillas. Another African country where forest tourism is likely to benefit from increased governmental support is Tanzania, since the Ministry of Natural resources and Tourismrecently introduced the Tanzania Forest Fund among whose purposes is to support sustainable utilization of forest resources.
Despite its indisputable benefits, however, ecotourism still poses certain dangers to natureand local communities. A lot of activities which are advertised as eco-friendlymay lead to damage of natural sites and there is always the risk that due to the growing popularity of ecotourism, possible participation of forestry funds and involvement of larger tourist companies may diminish the financial benefits to local communities.
Nevertheless, at present, the benefits of ecotourism seem to outweigh the risks, specifically with regards to forest tourism, which has turned into a successful way of promoting forest conservation. One of the ways to further increase the positive influence of ecotourism is to ensure the involvement of local population into ecotourism services, which may be achieved through training and education. In addition, income from forest tourism should be used in order to promote sustainable forestry management.
In the last few years, the UN FAO has been providing technical assistance to various countries such as Laos, the Philippines and Tunisia to develop ecotourism as a sustainable forest use and recently started implementing an $18 million programme in collaboration with Pacific islands (Fiji, Niue, Samoa and Vanuatu) aimed at developing ecotourism as a major component of sustainable forest management. This is undoubtedly a clear sign for the potential benefits of forest tourism.