Ecotourism is tourism of the natural environment; nature-based tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of this largest civil industry. The value of the nature and heritage tourism market in developing countries is estimated to be in the range of US$5 to 10 billion a year. Evidence suggests that the number of nature and heritage tourists is growing by around 20 percent per year, and that they account for approximately 7 percent of all international travel expenditures. Each year, four to six million people travel from the USA alone for nature-related trips. It was estimated in 1990 that in a national park in Kenya, each lion is worth $27,000 per year and each elephant herd $610,000 in terms of visitor revenues per year. Also, each hectare of the park is estimated to yield $40 per year, which is 50 times more than the net profits expected from the land were it used agriculturally.
Given this, the tourist potential of the natural environment could be tapped, and may be lucrative enough to protect the environment for the purpose, thus preventing environmentally degrading development. Responsible management can maximize the benefits for local communities and the visitor. However, ecotourism may need to be regulated in order to prevent environmental degradation from tourist activities.
Investment in nature and heritage tourism development differs somewhat from investment in resorts because the needs are different: (1) access construction may be more costly as nature/heritage sites may be more remote; (2) the maintenance of the flora and/or fauna in parks, forests and wilderness is usually a significant cost, both capital and recurrent; (3) a visitors' centre is often needed, as are amenity facilities for day and overnight visitors; this may entail bringing water, power and other utilities to the site, but the requirements may be quite different from those for traditional tourism; (4) a significant component of the financing may have to be earmarked for the acquisition of land; and (5) the development of a natural area may require purchasing not only the land in the immediate vicinity but also the surrounding area that makes up the viewscape or defines the habitat.
Greenpeace is working in partnership with a company in Iceland to promote ecotourist holidays, and in the summer of 1995, a new cruise ship will be available to view blue, fin, sei and humpback whales.
National and regional development banks and commercial banks have traditionally been very supportive of tourism projects, but have not provided much assistance for nature and heritage tourism. They make no distinction between these and other tourism development projects; for example by making special concessions for longer grace or repayment periods.
Ecotourism is nothing more than a marketing tag for operations with no particular benefit to the local community or the environment of the tourism destination. It is bringing more people into sensitive areas and increasing the demand for facilities and services where there should be none.