Does ecotourism help or hurt nature?

Some people worry that nature-loving tourists might be loving nature to death

It's fair to fret about such things, but a new study suggests otherwise.  At least in Costa Rica, ecotourism is good for nature and helps local people--a lot. 

  Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Start 'em young (photo by William Laurance)

Those are the conclusions of a study just published in the top-flight journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Economists Paul Ferraro and Merlin Hanauer found that local communities near Costa Rican conservation areas had considerably lower poverty than those in other locations.  They attribute most of the benefit to ecotourism, despite the fact that deforestation was reduced near reserves. 

Overall, the authors concluded that two-thirds of the poverty reduction associated with protected areas results from tourism.

Other studies have suggested another big benefit of nature lovers: illegal poachers and encroachers avoid places with tourists and also scientists.  "They don't dare show their face," says veteran ecologist John Terborgh, who has spent decades working at Manu National Park in Peru.

One recent analysis suggested that "no other sector spreads wealth and jobs across developing countries like tourism does". 

With ecotourists now spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually, it's gratifying to know that local communities and nature are also seeing some real benefits.