ECOTOURISM AND PROTECTED AREASThe significance of protected areas for ecotourism
Worldwide there are currently ca. 209 thousand protected areas, which span almost 15,4% of the land area and 3,4% of the ocean area (32 million km2 according to 2014 United Nations List of Protected Areas, UNEP, 2014). Ecotourism is a form of travel that aims to protect the most valuable natural areas on Earth. It stands for a new form of symbiosis between humans and the natural environment. Nature brings us tourists joy and in exchange we have to make sure it is protected and can be preserved for future generations.
Ecotourism can make a difference in protecting the natural environment, because it:
- increases environmental awareness, both among tourists and among local residents, who begin to appreciate natural assets and participate in their protection when they see the level of interest in the region by visitors and new job opportunities;
- builds grassroots support for protected areas, without which the chances for maintaining them are next to nothing;
- provides funds to support conservation programs and environmental education.
Managing the development of ecotourism and other related forms of sustainable tourism in protected areas should above all involve skillful control over the flow of tourists across time and space, including setting up zones which serve different types of tourist concentration and designing the necessary tourist infrastructure for a protected area that is tailored to its individual characteristics. Tourists usually end up visiting those areas which already have a network of hiking trails, nature trails, overnight accommodations and other amenities. Areas with especially valuable flora on the other hand do not have the same network of foot, bike and horseback riding trails, but are set up as strict nature reserves. Organizing tourist traffic and minimizing its impact on the natural environment to a large degree comes down to adequate planning and management of tourism flows by authorities overseeing protected areas who work closely with local government agencies and the local community.
The proper development of ecotourism in protected areas should address three categories of objectives: environmental, community and economic. Environmental priorities involve ensuring nature and landscape protection over the long run and building a climate of support for protected areas among the local community and visitors. Green tourism can also fulfill community goals by ensuring that tourists have an interesting and worthwhile stay in nature, improving the livelihoods of local residents, spreading the principles and support for sustainable tourism and making sure that various groups in the community and society at large can reap the benefits and pleasures which come from protected areas.
Economic objectives deal with building the case for sustainable economic development in the most fragile, pristine and valuable regions of the world, which helps boost the national economy, tackle unemployment and raise funds for nature and landscape protection. Town and local government authorities lying within the boundaries or in buffer zones surrounding protected areas increasingly see the benefits for the local economy and community that come from making the most of being in a unique location. Ecotourism developed in parallel with other forms of sustainable tourism and in combination with organic food production, traditional and artistic crafts can be a powerful impulse for reinforcing the strategy of environmentally-friendly economic growth.
In 1994 the World Council of Protected Areas, which is part of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature developed an action plan for protected areas in Europe called “Parks for Life”. The action plan, which was founded on the premise that protected areas can only properly function if their management, is tied and interlinked with regional, national and international socio-economic and political developments. Protected areas as the basic tools essential for protecting biodiversity cannot be run in isolation from regional development strategies and broader policies supporting sustainable development and spatial development that impact regions where these areas are located. Managing protected spaces has to go hand in hand with creating opportunities for and meeting the needs of local communities and the society at large, which benefits indirectly from the existence of legally protected areas.
In the first part of the „Parks for Life” publication, one can read about the important piece of the puzzle represented by ecotourism, because it is this form of tourism which offers „tangible benefits, if sensibly developed on or near protected areas, especially since it embraces widely recognized natural and cultural values. A healthy and attractive natural environment is essential for the sustainability in the long-term of any form of tourism”.
Ecotourism is also the subject of a report issued by the EUROPARC Federation (formerly, the Federation of Nature and Natural Parks of Europe) entitled “Loving them to death?” which deals with the need to develop the principles of tourist policy in protected natural areas. It includes a set of tips for managers of protected areas on how to best advance sustainable forms of tourism. The report outlines the various stages involved in the process of drafting development plans for environmentally-friendly tourism, with a special focus on ecotourism. “Loving them to death” formed the basis for the drafting of the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas (1999, updated 2002), which defines the standards for the development of environmentally-friendly tourism, and in particular ecotourism, in protected areas.
As it turns out, protected sites which are part of the Europe-wide Natura 2000 programme offer great potential for ecotourism. Natura 2000 represents a network of areas designated according to common criteria across the entire continent which have been set up to protect and preserve ecosystems, flora & fauna species considered to be of major importance to all of Europe and endangered in all of Europe. The Directorate-General for the Environment of the European Commission notes that sustainable tourism, including ecotourism, may be an important support tool for preserving the most valuable natural habitats and fauna & flora species. It lists four main reasons why Natura 2000 sites should be linked to the development and promotion of environmentally sustainable tourism:
- delivering economic benefits to local communities, which in turn drives public support for establishing and managing Natura 2000 sites;
- improving management of tourism, mitigating the negative impact on nature from an increase in tourist inflow;
- increasing understanding and appreciation for an area’s unique natural features, which leads to reinforcing support for its protection among local communities and tourists alike;
- lowering negative impact on the natural environment by existing and potential tourist development projects by encouraging businesses to promote and use the area in a way that is benign and of advantage for the natural environment.