Tourism and wetland conservation: not all positive

Wetlands fulfil a variety of ecological functions in the life cycles of numerous plants and animals, usually on a local scale, but often on a regional or even global scale. For example, wetlands may function as a summer range, migration stopover, wintering area and/or breeding site for migratory waterbirds such as geese, terns and waders.

The birds’ migration routes may cover thousands of kilometres, and this emphasizes the need for the conservation and wise use of wetlands – whether protected areas or not – along the route. Their long migrations and tendency to concentrate in large numbers in certain wetlands make waterbirds both visible and attractive. They are important indicators of the ecological condition and productivity of wetland ecosystems, and their presence is widely valued by numerous stakeholders, including local people, tourists and associated enterprises.

Waterbirds and other wetland species offer many opportunities for the sustainable use of wetlands, particularly through nature-based tourism. Unfortunately, all too often the principles of wise use of wetlands have not been well implemented.

Tourism can also seriously impact the very resource it depends on. In terms of biodiversity these impacts can affect the ecological balance of ecosystems and consequently their species diversity. The impacts of tourism on the ecological values of wetlands derive from tourism-related transport and infrastructure; the construction, maintenance and use of tourist accommodation and facilities; and the presence and activities of tourists in wetland areas.  These impacts may be both direct and indirect; may vary from global warming and climate change to local effects such as trampling or pollution of ground water; and may be short-term or long lasting.

Some of the major environmental risks related to tourism are:

  • The construction of tourism facilities, such as hotels, lodges, restaurants, visitor centres or campsites and related infrastructure, as well as the associated problems of water and soil pollution, can seriously impact biodiversity in wetland areas. Concentrated use of areas around facilities may have a negative effect on both vegetation and fauna. Tourism facilities and their use require resources for tourists, such as food and water, and raw materials for building tourism infrastructure, which may be extracted from wetlands.
  • Transportation by plane, ship or car causes pollution from carbon emissions, thus contributing to global climate change, which may severely impact biodiversity, for example, by bleaching coral reefs.  Climate change is also a threat to many of the poor, whose land use and water resources may be jeopardised by increasing droughts or floods. Transportation may also have direct negative effects on the environment (e.g. removal of vegetation, disturbance to animals, release of oil and fuel from boats and other craft). Marine mammals may be injured or killed by impacts with boats.
  • Visitors may disturb wildlife, including species that are not attractive to visitors, by making noise or harassing animals. And the impact may last beyond the initial contact period. Hunters or fishers may change population dynamics or may demand the introduction of foreign species and increased populations of target animals. The sale of souvenirs made from endangered species is also destroying the beautiful natural environment that the tourists come to enjoy.

However, tourism may not only impact the ecological resource base on which it depends. The introduction of tourism could generate both socio-economic and cultural transformations. In short: on the one hand tourism has the potential to contribute to regional socio-economic development. Policy makers have frequently shown great optimism about the favourable impacts of tourism on the balance of payments, employment and income, as well as on entrepreneurial activities. However, these economic benefits are often accompanied by a variety of costs, including high inflation and land speculation in tourist destinations, low returns on investment because of seasonal fluctuations in demand, and overdependence on tourism.  Tourism does not always bring socio-cultural benefits to host areas. It may equally well lead to the exacerbation of existing problems and the creation of new ones, often related to inequalities in access to resources, uneven distribution of benefits and the perception of loss of control and ownership over developments.

In order to address these drawbacks and ensure the wise and sustainable use of wetlands, careful planning and management are required that take into consideration not only environmental impacts but also the related economic and social consequences of tourism development in wetlands. For example, environmental impacts can also induce additional financial and economic costs related to prevention, protection and habitat restoration. In addition, there may be significant conflicts related to inequitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of wetlands by tourism.

Similarly, tourism in wetland areas can have social costs, for example, decreased quality of life or disturbance to daily community activities.

Obviously, decision making at the local level on developing tourism in wetland areas is part of a much larger and more complex process in which stakeholders with often-competing interests need to work together to find common solutions and bridge their differences.

This is the first in a series of posts that will discuss the complex relations between wetlands, poverty reduction and sustainable tourism development.

Contact Lorton Consulting about your specific tourism planning, environmental and community involvement needs — together with our specialist associates we would welcome the opportunity to advise you and work with you to achieve sustainable outcomes.

With acknowledgement to Wetlands International, RAMSAR and IUCN

Wetlands International’s mission is “to sustain and restore wetlands, their resources and biodiversity”. Visit the Wetlands International website www.wetlands.org


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