TOURISM has demonstrated resiliency in the face of the global economic downturn. Globally, the tourism industry generated more than $1 trillion in 2010, according to the World Tourism Organization (WTO). And the share of tourism in developing countries is steadily rising, up from 31% in 1990 to 47% in 2010.

“Sustainable tourism has proven one of the most effective ways of providing economic and employment opportunities for local communities while protecting the world’s natural resources,” said Taleb Rifai, WTO’s Secretary-General.

Ecotourism, characterized by responsible travel to natural areas that promotes conservation of the environment, is one of the fastest growing segments of tourism worldwide, and is growing at a pace of more than 20 percent annually – two to three times faster than the tourism industry overall.

“For many people, there is an attitude of “we had better see it while it is still there to see” when it comes to visiting threatened forests or endangered wildlife,” said Patrick Durst, a senior forestry official with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), working in Asia.

Local benefits

Ecotourism can provide local communities with motivation to maintain and protect forests and wildlife. When local people get income and employment from ecotourism, they are far less likely to destroy the natural resources through unsustainable exploitation.

“Ecotourism has a far greater potential for contributing to income and livelihoods in poor rural communities than what is realized,” noted FAO’s Edgar Kaeslin, Forestry Officer in Wildlife and Protected Area Management. “It is crucial that local people are fully involved in the activities and receive sufficient benefits.”

The benefits of ecotourism flowing to local businesses are dramatically higher than those from mass tourism. Standard all-inclusive package tours typically deliver just 20 percent of revenue to local companies, while the rest is captured by airlines, hotels and large tour companies, whereas locally-based ecotourism operations that hire locally and are based locally can return as much as 95 percent of earnings into the local economy.

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