Can Eco-Tourism Help Underdeveloped Countries?

Josh Lew, in this piece for Forbes magazine, looks at eco-tourism in Dominica and Suriname. (Follow link below to the full article, which includes a discussion of eco-tourism in Botswana.)

Tourism might not be the ultimate answer to poverty and economic woes, but it is a major boon for places around the world that suffer from a lack of natural resources or industry. For instance, tourism is a hugely important industry in the Caribbean. Without flocks of resort-goers, nations in this part of the world would have to rely more heavily on agriculture, leaving their economies at the mercy of the fluctuating prices of commodities like coffee, sugar and bananas.

There are plenty of valid concerns about the environmental impact of hotel construction, excessive tourist traffic and cruise ships, but it isn’t fair to leave the positive economic impact out of the mass-tourism discussion. Large resorts employ hundreds of local people, and local entrepreneurs, from taxi drivers to guides to souvenir shop owners, benefit from the tourism trade.

What about eco-tourism? Is low-impact, nature-oriented travel as viable a moneymaking option as standard resort tourism?

The eco-tourism industry’s growth depends on practicality as much as it does on the will to conserve the environment. Ultimately, success will not only be measured by the acres of forest saved, but also by the amount of money earned and the number of jobs created. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) recognizes the human element in eco-tourism. It defines the oft-catch-phrased term “eco-tourism” as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

Many places that are considered eco-tourism destinations have experienced varying levels of success. Here are three destinations in various parts of the world that are in different stages of development, but are seeking to answer the same question: Can we make eco-tourism into one of the most important industries in our country?


This island nation has turned to eco-tourism because it lacks the geography that makes other Caribbean destinations so popular among tourists seeking a warm-weather vacation. The postcard-like beach scenes of Jamaica and the Bahamas are absent from Dominica. The island has a rocky coast and, though its waters are clear and ideal for diving, it has never developed a mainstream resort industry. Proclaiming itself the Nature Island, Dominica has instead advertised its natural, undeveloped beauty. Hot springs and waterfalls, dense jungles and rugged coastline draw more adventurous travelers and nature lovers rather than the suntan-and-piña-colada crowd.

However, the number of visitors to Dominica is not substantial enough to make nature tourism the backbone of the nation’s economy. The capital city of Roseau has benefited from a recently built cruise ship terminal. However, Dominica remains one of the least visited nations in the eastern Caribbean. Banana cultivation is still a major source of income for many islanders. This industry can be harmed by weather (Hurricane Dean hit the island in 2007) and frequent price fluctuations on the international commodities market.

Brand-name resorts are difficult to find on Dominica. Most of the accommodations are small-scale, locally owned venues. Some are full-fledged eco-resorts built in natural settings and offer a full menu of nature-themed activities. So, despite the overall lack of tourism infrastructure, the tourists who do come to Dominica are seeing more of their dollars go to locals rather than to multinational resort chains.

A culture of conservation has been developed in Dominica. Local guides are involved in protecting one of the more popular tourist draws: nesting sea turtles. The giant amphibians lay their eggs on the seashore, with some choosing to use the sands of the beaches of the capital city. Specially trained local guides lead limited tours to the nesting areas so as not interfere with the nesting process. This type of grassroots effort is an example of the ability to balance a successful tourism attraction with a conservation effort. This culture of conservation is one of the reasons that Dominica remains such a promising eco-tourism destination.

The next steps will be important for Dominica in terms of maintaining this balance between development and conservation. An expanded airport and a cruise ship pier were necessary infrastructure upgrades. It remains to be seen if further infrastructure projects change the current relationship that Dominica has with its environment.

. . .


This small, unique South American nation has an ethnically diverse population and sits on the northeastern part of the continent. Most of the people here live along the Caribbean coastline. The country’s undeveloped interior is ripe for logging, but the Surinamese government, along with international conservation organizations, has decided to protect a large part of the interior from exploitation. The giant Central Suriname Nature Reserve is made up of primary forest. With the help of Conservation International, the government is trying to develop this area for tourism. Lack of infrastructure has hindered development and made it expensive to visit this area, but the reserve remains protected from logging and the government seems intent on continuing to place its bets on eco-tourism. Already operational nature preserves are found along the coastline.

A majority of the visitors to Suriname come from the Netherlands. Cultural ties from the colonial era and the fact that Dutch is still widely spoken in Suriname make this a popular alternative to the Netherlands Antilles for Dutch-speaking snowbirds. Tourism numbers are not growing quickly, and lack of infrastructure remains a major hurdle for the government’s eco-tourism plans. Still, sustainable income via eco-tourism has, for the time being, trumped immediate income from the selling of logging rights. Perhaps the example of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve could help persuade other countries with natural areas to follow a similar strategy.

Eco-tourism development is a complex issue that goes well beyond catchphrases and well-meaning attempts at conservation. Without a solid, universal model for creating a balance between a successful eco-tourism industry and a successful conservation movement, countries are left to find a system that works best for themselves. The ideal results of these efforts would be a balanced industry that brings profits to the local economy while strengthening conservation efforts that will keep the natural attractions intact.

For the original report go to

3 thoughts on “Can Eco-Tourism Help Underdeveloped Countries?

  1. Ecotourism has allowed me to keep my little piece of jungle from the ejidatarios(owners of the land but cannot sell directly) that wanted to sell it, has given me enough income to protect it without having to degrade, and especially has allowed me to share what I love with people around the world.

    I am taking the liberty to advertise my website which is if anyone want to take a look of what i am talking about.

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