Ecotourism is more profitable use of forest land than other ventures like cattle ranching, timber logging and farming, researchers have shown for the first time. The findings are likely to give local people the financial incentive to keep neighboring virgin rainforest pristine, helping to lock away carbon.

This justifies the maintenance of intact rainforest over all alternative uses,’ says co-author of the study, Chris Kirkby from the University of East Anglia, who’s now based in Peru.

The researchers also found that setting aside vast tracts of rainforest for ecotourism hugely outweighs the carbon emissions from air, boat and bus travel by ecotourists within Peru.

‘Undeveloped rainforest on land owned by lodges locks away an amount of carbon equivalent to up to 5000 years of carbon emissions from travel by tourists going to ecolodges in Peru,’ Kirkby explains.

Ever since the word ecotourism was coined in the 1980s, it’s been touted as the best way for tourists to see fragile, pristine or protected places with minimal environmental impact.

Around US$210 billion is brought into developing countries every year for ecotourism and the numbers of visitors to protected areas in developing countries is growing. There’s little doubt this money helps to promote conservation and sustainable development. But, until now, there has been almost no research into whether or not ecotourism benefits local people – especially financially.

‘The difficulty researchers have faced is getting hold of financial data from ecotourism companies,’ says Kirkby.

So Kirkby and his co-authors from UEA, China and Peru set about sourcing commercially sensitive financial data from lodge owners in the Tambopata region of Peru. They specifically wanted to know if ecotourism is the most valuable use of land compared with schemes that destroy rainforest, like logging, ranching and Brazil nut extraction.

Another concern among conservationists is a huge trans-Amazon highway which is scheduled for completion in 2011. The road will cut through a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon, making it instantly accessible and economically viable to cut down the rainforest.

Kirkby and his co-authors were keen to arm themselves with accurate information so that they would be in a position to influence Peruvian policy-makers and minimise unnecessary degradation of the Peruvian rainforest.

They calculated the 2005 profits from 12 ecotourism lodges in Tambopata and compared them with the likely profits from agriculture, cattle ranching, timber extraction, or Brazil nut harvesting. They looked at a number of possible scenarios, such as timber logging, followed by agriculture or cattle ranching, and combining ecotourism with some of these schemes.

The researchers also calculated the carbon emissions from travel within Peru and compared this with the amount of carbon being locked away by not cutting down rainforest.

‘What we found is that ecotourism holds its own compared with ranching, timber and agriculture,’ says Kirkby. ‘And a third of the revenue from lodges is spent in the local economy.’

While timber logging can make more money, it can only do so in the first five years. After that, profits drop sharply, mainly because the industry is unsustainable. In contrast, ecotourism is profitable over the long term.

‘The good news is that ecotourism lodges make money, which locals use to buy up more land to build their businesses, thereby further protecting pristine rainforest,’ says Kirkby.

Another of the paper’s co-authors, Douglas Wu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, points out, ‘This tourism is only profitable because it is high volume. Small scale community based ecotourism is not nearly as profitable and couldn’t compete.’

But the authors warn that as prices of timber, gold and agricultural products rise, the situation could change.

Although they add, ‘There are other more difficult-to-quantify reasons to protect forest, including their value as a store of carbon and biodiversity.’

The research is published in PLoS One

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