Oct 4, 2010

Eco-tourism: the missing link

Sustainable tourism ensures economic profitability and protection of natural and cultural resources

By Muhammad Niaz

Realising the significance and threats confronting biological entities, the General Assembly of the United Nations has declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity with an objective to ensure a significant reduction in the rate of bio-diversity loss.

Every year the United Nations World Tourism Organisation celebrates the World Tourism Day (WTD) on 27th September. This year the theme is Tourism and Bio-diversity. It is an outcome of the social, economic, environmental, and cultural factors and issues contributing to the loss of bio-diversity and non-achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The thematic event underscores the importance of sustainable tourism initiatives linked directly to the conservation of bio-diversity which promote and sustain the available recreational and natural resources. It focuses on providing a unique opportunity to raise and enhance public awareness of the importance of relationship of the two domains -- biodiversity and tourism.

It serves as a platform for all stakeholders to adopt approaches that contribute to local and global responsibility of safeguarding biological entities for their continuous benefits.

Natural beauty attracts visitors to the most remote and enthralling parts of the world. However, in most cases, massive tourism causes both terrestrial and aquatic pollution, destruction of ecosystems, and degradation of local environment.

Besides, the prominent lurking threats to the ecological and natural order that require urgent solutions include: climate change, desertification, and loss of bio-diversity. Urgency has developed among environmentalists and conservationists over the globe because of ever-increasing magnitude of threats that accelerate the loss of bio-diversity.

Studies reveal that globally 22 percent of mammals, 31 percent of amphibians, 14 percent of avian, and 27 percent of reefs are threatened or face danger of extinction. Therefore, besides other driving forces, tourism is one of the potential sectors that relates to and affects biodiversity in one way or the other.

There are numerous areas of human activity that largely contribute to these changes, one of them being tourism. Tourism and bio-diversity have concomitant links with reciprocal implications. Expanded horizon and increased vistas of tourism has rendered nature-based traveling as one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry. Bio-diversity hotspots are potential areas where tourism represents both opportunities for and threats to bio-diversity conservation.

International tourist travel data represent that in 1995 there were 534 million travelers which increased to 682 million in 2000, the same is projected to cross one billion in 2010. This arithmetic increase in tourist numbers in a particular area will not only exert and register major effects on conservation and sustainable use of bio-diversity but will also bring about over-consumption of limited resources in the form of potable water and land besides generation of pollution and residues.

Tourism sector has local as well as trans-boundary significance. Given high diversified environment, tourism can cause pollution. With increase in human population, advance means of communication and transportation, and technological development, many places once considered off the biotic pressure have become tourist destinations and overpopulated with visitors, accelerating the pace of social and environmental degradation.

Another point of concern is that, since tourism is mainly concentrated in the areas rich with natural resources and landscapes and specific cultural values, therefore, local people finding high prospects of grooming business and opportunities move towards those areas.

Some areas soon experience growing biotic pressure on its meager natural resources. Most often, lack of awareness and lack of proper tourist management approaches lead to degradation of the fragile ecosystem, of which most visible activity is the pollution factor that threatens local bio-diversity in the wake of unmanaged tourism.

Bio-diversity represents faunal and floral diversity in different ecosystems associated with forests, rangelands, deserts, wetlands, coral reefs, mountains, and seas, etc, in a region. Millions of tourists avail such recreational resources each year around the world.

While sustainable tourism is an ultimate option that ensures effective management and conservation of biological natural resources, at the same time it also generates income and employment opportunities for local communities' development. Given these incentives, it often proves as driving force for communities and responsible authorities to evolve strategies for conservation of bio-diversity and tourist management so that the available resources are not impaired. This approach also helps to raise awareness regarding bio-diversity issues.

In our country, since most of the remote and far-flung areas are rich in bio-diversity having natural attractions, therefore, according to an estimate, more than half of total income earned by people from the tourism sector come from backward districts. These areas include Murree, northern areas, and Ziarat.

The strategic location has made Pakistan a gateway to Central Asian States and China by road. In its elongated span of 1500 km, our country has a diversity of landscapes ranging from sea in south to the lofty snow-covered cluster of peaks in the north. For the nature lover, it offers breathtaking beauty, for the adventurers, it offers a terrain that challenges the most, for the historian, it offers sites of excavations, museums, and artifacts, and for writers there is a rich culture and literature.

In the northern region of Pakistan stand eight of the ten highest peaks in the world. The popular silk route known as the Karakoram Highway passes through the Khunjrab Pass, the home of blue sheep and snow leopard. It is an epical modern day engineering marvel winding its way up to a height of 16,000 feet above sea level and on to the People's Republic of China.

The Indus plains support important and associated floral and faunal diversity to which livelihood of million of peopled is linked. The lofty peaks of Himalayas, Karakoram and the Hindukush and the land amid the towering and mighty mountains have serene valleys and fertile lands.

Eco-tourism is one of the main categories which tourists must adopt to minimise their impact on the local environment and biological entities. Ensuring sustainable tourism simultaneously ensures economic profitability, protection of natural and cultural resources, and poverty alleviation. The tourists and business sector of tourism need to positively contribute to the conservation of sensitive ecosystems and the environment in general that directly benefit local and indigenous communities.

There is a need to develop sustainable approach to tourism based on strategies that protect and strengthen both natural and cultural diversities. In the domain of ecotourism, a holistic approach through informal education and awareness about sustainable uses of tourists' resources should be adopted. In fact, tourism and biodiversity need to be mutually supportive without any cross-cutting detrimental effects.

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