Since the rise of ecotourism in the 1980s, there has been a shift in travel habits — a move from the all-inclusive resort to seeking out natural environments to witness natural wonders. In addition to being sure your travel excursions are culturally respectful and economically ethical — supporting the local economy and its employees — a crucial factor to keep in mind is one’s physical impact on the natural environment. This is especially important for ecotourism in fragile ecosystems. Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know:

What makes an ecosystem fragile?

Fragile ecosystems are ones that are extremely sensitive to environmental changes and shifts that result from outside influences and presences. They commonly suffer from the loss of biological diversity, climate change, poverty and human infringement. Examples of fragile ecosystems include wetlands, deserts, mountains, coral reefs and certain coastal areas. Instances of suffering fragile ecosystems include the desertification of semi-arid lands and the significant reduction of coastal wetland areas.

Photo courtesy of jo Crebbin via Shutterstock.

Post-earthquake Haiti has been a fairly recent area of concern. The country’s rainforests contain more endangered species than any other location on earth, and yet because its citizens continue to face dire poverty, the forest is mined for its resources, long-term effects coming second to immediate need. As a result, reforestation efforts are being made, among other key projects.

How does tourism impact fragile ecosystems?

Human interactions with fragile ecosystems often lead to pollution, trampling/physical harm to the environment and the introduction of harmful invasive species that disrupt or permanently damage ecological homeostasis.

Just look at Antarctica, considered by many to be the “last frontier.” A 2014 report published in PLoS Biology states that between scientific programs and recreation tourism, both of which have spurred the construction of necessary infrastructure, noticeable harm has been done to this ecosystem:

Growing instances of unintentional damage are also being recorded, such as the establishment of harmful nonindigenous species, sewage spills, point source pollution, and destruction of vegetation. All human activities, be they tourism- or science-related, have increased considerably over the last 20 years and are predicted to continue to do so.

Photo courtesy of Volodymyr Goinyk via Shutterstock.

Coral reefs are another fragile ecosystem impacted by human infringement, including tourism. According to the International Coral Reef Initiative, unsustainable tourism can negatively impact this ecosystem in a variety of ways:

Tourism generates vast amounts of income for host countries. Where unregulated however, tourism pressures can cause damage to the very environment upon which the industry depends. Physical damage to the coral reefs can occur through contact from careless swimmers, divers, and poorly placed boat anchors. Hotels and resorts may also discharge untreated sewage and waste water into the ocean, polluting the water and encouraging the growth of algae, which competes with corals for space on the reef.

What is/can be done to protect fragile environments in regards to tourism?

The Global Development Research Center lists financial contributions, stronger environmental management and oversight in environmental tourism, and stronger regulatory measures for protection and preservation as the broad strokes solutions to the issue of fragile ecosystem destruction.

Put in more concrete terms, it is up to responsible travelers to think critically, do their research, and refrain from unsustainable ecotourism, which, according to Responsible Travel, can include irresponsible hiking, biking and wildlife watches. In their “Responsible Tourism” guide, the team at Responsible Travel says it well when they write:

A responsible tourism holiday also means being switched on to our impact on the landscapes and seascapes we visit. Recycling and renewable energy are par for the course now, but few people know about the damage that can be caused by downhill skiing, large cruise ships, golf, jet skis and even irresponsible hiking and mountain biking. The good news is that for all the baddies, there are beauties. Cross country skiing and husky sledding in Finland is more exciting than packed pistes and overused snow cannons. Spending a week on board a traditional gulet boat in Turkey is so much cooler than disembarking in Marmaris en masse. And cycling in Croatia is so much more exciting, and indeed Croatian, than doing a day trip on a crowded coach.

Essentially, the key thing that responsible travelers can do is be mindful of their choices, do their homework to ensure the choices they make are responsible, and encourage fellow travelers to do the same.

Get Involved

Because “eco” and “green” are trending marketing terms, travelers should always read the fine print of organizations that present themselves as environmentally-friendly but may have unsustainable practices. Further, Responsible Travel recommends travelers seek opportunities to travel by low-carbon means, from hiking to biking to kayaking in environments that will not suffer from such physical interactions with nature.

Photo courtesy of Jolanta Wojcicka via Shutterstock.

The International Ecotourism Society also has concrete recommendations for planning a responsible trip, including doing research on your accommodations and the efforts they make to be sustainable, supporting conservation efforts by paying to visit protected areas and national parks, and never buying crafts or products made from endangered or protected animals. From home, we can all support initiatives to protect fragile environments via monetary support, volunteer work, and community engagement. To find a protected refuge near that would benefit from your support, check out the directory at the National Wildlife Refuge System’s website.

Ultimately, it boils down to the “common sense” factor, as Responsible Travel says: “The reality is that we can all be responsible tourists – it is easy. If you are camping in Kent, cruising in Croatia or chilling in the Caribbean, as long as you support local people, respect their culture and go easy on their homelands, you are being responsible. It’s easy because it is just common sense.”

For more information, see their guide to responsible ecotourism.

How do you think travelers can more responsibly explore fragile environments? Please share your opinions in the comments below.

By Paige Sullivan

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Paige Sullivan

Paige Sullivan is currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at Georgia State University, where she also works as a composition instructor and the poetry editor of New South, a literary journal. Her poetry appears or will soon appear in Qu, the American Literary Review, Mead, and others. In her spare time, she loves to write about foodways, animal ethics, creativity, and the city of Atlanta.

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  1. Love this! Awesome read. It’s so important to understand our environment and the ecosystem as a whole. When you travel, it’s only just to show the unique environment around you respect and leave a positive impact wherever you go. Nice work! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Your description of a fragile ecosystem as one which is especially vulnerable to environmental shifts from outside influence and presence is an informative one. With this perspective becoming more known, it’s no wonder the rise in ecotourism, which you mentioned, has occurred.

  3. Research and stick to resorts and guides that have taken it upon themselves to be more Eco friendly to fragile environments.

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