Biodiversity hotspots threatened by tourism

Posted: 16 September 2003

Tourism has increased by more than 100 per cent between 1990 and 2000 in the world's Biodiversity hotspots, regions richest in species and facing extreme threats, according to a report released by Conservation International (CI) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism's Global Footprint reports that over the past decade, tourism has increased by more than 2000 per cent in both Laos and Cambodia, nearly 500 per cent in South Africa, over 300 per cent in the countries of Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and 128 per cent in the Dominican Republic.

Tourism generates 11 per cent 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 conservation efforts.

Cultural disruption

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.

"At this time in our history, 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."

Way forward

The report 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.

It also illustrates how tourism development guided by the principles associated with ecotourism - environmental sustainability, protection of nature, and supporting local peoples - can have a positive impact on biodiversity conservation and provide important economic alternatives for local communities.

With the growth of international tourism expanding from 25 million in 1950 to more than 450 million today, tourism's reach into the last unspoilt 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.

Related links:

Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism's Global Footprint

Conservation International (CI)

The United Nations Environment Programme Division of Technology, Industry and Economics