Beware of the Humans

Back in the bad old days, the Ugly American would fly to a tropical paradise in a pollution-spewing jet and loll about a hotel whose sewage killed the coral reef at its doorstep. How '80s. In the enlightened 1990s, tourists can still do all that--but save the earth at the same time. Or so goes the theory of "ecotourism." Locally controlled and environmentally sensitive, ecotourism promised to be the greatest thing for travelers since frequent-flier miles, a way to vacation amid unspoiled beauty, to meet rare animals up close and personal, and to do it all under a green halo. But the law of unintended consequences is still on the books, and ecotourism isn't always working as planned. From whale watching off Baja California to photo safaris in Kenya's game parks, says Emily Young, professor of geography at the University of Arizona, ecotourism is "fast becoming tourism without the eco."

It was supposed to be more than a vacation with a politically correct name. Eco-tourism was based on the realization that some people (usually poor Africans, Asians and Latin Americans) live in places surrounded by precious living things that other people (well-off Americans and Europeans) want to preserve. The idea was to enable people in the developing world to earn more by preserving nature than by using it up; people would put down their machetes and harpoons and pick up laundry and trays. "It's simple," says Juan Rodriguez, 43, who captains a tourist skiff in Baja. "As long as we don't eat the whales, we eat more."

But now ecotourism is beset by eco-troubles. For example, vacationers throng Mexico's Pacific coast to watch sea turtles lay their eggs on moonlit beaches; tourism seemed the perfect way to lure locals away from poaching. But the beachfront hotels east such bright light that the turtles become disoriented as they lumber ashore, and fail to lay eggs. In the Mexican highlands, butterfly lovers flock to the pine-scented winter home of millions of orange-and-black monarchs; but the pressure to deforest a little here and a little there-for tourist facilities--keeps growing. In the Canary Islands off Spain, where tens of thousands of Europeans descend every year to ogle pilot whales, tourist boats charge their quarry as if they were in an oceanic rodeo. The frightened whales dive underwater for so long they risk suffocating (though biologists have not recorded any deaths).

Off Australia's east coast, dolphin-feeding expeditions were introduced to replace the reckless net fishing that snared dolphins. But the feeding reduces the ability of young dolphins to find their own food. And in Kenya's Masai Mara, where locals have been promised a cut of the park's revenue in exchange for turning their land into game reserves, the tourist boom is driving away human-phobic cheetahs, according to John Waithaka of the Kenya Wildlife Service. "The cheetahs left in the park have had their reproductive capability lessened," he says, due to inbreeding.

Nowhere did ecotourism seem more promising than in the whale-watching waters off Baja California and Argentina's Valdez, into whose warm lagoons hundreds of gray and southern right whales migrate every winter to breed. Before the 1980s, vast overharvesting by commercial fishermen and whale hunters was turning the waters into dead zones. So environmentalists persuaded skiff owners to roll up their nets and roll out the red carpet for Americans with Leicas and dollars. Presto: groupers, lobsters and scallops proliferated, and gray whales--which have a dolphinlike affinity for human contact-continued their comeback from extinction's edge. But there's only so much watching that whales can take. This season 20,000 tourists are expected in Baja. "Travel agents now promote whale petting," says Jose Varela of Kuyima Eco-Turismo in Baja. And in Valdez, where tourist boats have been known to separate mothers and calves, whale counts have dropped in the 1990s and scientists have launched a study to see whether birthrates have been affected.

Costa Rica embraced ecotourism early and earnestly, creating an ecotourism institute and a faculty of ceo-tourism at its Latin American University of Science and Technology. The industry brings in almost $500 million a year, second only to banana exports. But some of Costa Rica's most charismatic animals are struggling to survive this bright idea. Squirrel monkeys swing through treetops to eat, mate and otherwise survive (they are too shy and delicate to traverse the cruel earth). But so many hotels and restaurants now dot the jungle that the tiny primates have been virtually weeping in confusion as they swing from tree branch. . . to hotel roof.

And Costa Rica's manatees, sleek mammals that long ago inspired sailors to spin tales of mermaids, have the bad luck to live in the rivers and lagoons behind Tortuguero, the last nesting beach of the endangered green sea turtle. Now manatees are being mangled by the propellers of speedboats rushing tourists to Tortuguero, says Bernard Nietschmann of the University of California, Berkeley. (Tortuguero's turtles, however, are thriving now that villagers think of them not as soup ingredients but as tourist attractions.)

Ecotourism has fallen short of its economic goals, too. Locals were promised prosperity--or at least a living wage--in exchange for laying down their harpoons. But Arizona's Young and Serge Dedina find that while tourism in Baja's Magdalena Bay took in $4.7 million in 1994, only $38,000 found its way into local salaries and businesses. The rest went to tour companies, most based in California. "Ecotourism doesn't leave much for the locals except low-level jobs," says Mexican author and environmental activist Homero Aridjis. "Before ecotourism, these people were dignified loggers or fishermen. We shouldn't be turning them into busboys."

Even if whales are harassed by tourist boats and turtles can't breed in peace, the animals are now better off than when they were destined for blubber factories and jewelry shops. So instead of pronouncing ecotourism a failure, governments and guides are trying to reform it. "The best regulatory measure we can take," says consultant Erich Hoyt, "is to require that tourists be taught about the whales before they get on a boat. The key is to make them troubled by any abuses." Last month the Canary Islands decided to limit the number of whale-watching vessels that can clog the seas and require a marine naturalist on board each excursion to prevent harassment of the whales. Costa Rica is spacing hotels farther apart to minimize environmental damage and devising ways to let visitors enjoy nature without trampling it. Literally: one plan is to run cable cars over the jungle. The monkeys may not be able to hang from them, but at least the humans will be out of the way.

Ecotourism promises to save endangered birds and animals from soup and blubber factories by making them tourist attractions. Now the green halo is wearing off this idea:

Gray whales migrate to the warm lagoons off Baja California to breed. Eager tourists can get too dose, harassing the animals.

Monarch butterflies winter in forest sanctuaries that are now threatened by trampling tourists.

Sea turtles, lumbering ashore on Mexico's Pacific coast to lay eggs, by bright hotel lights.

Tropical birds in the Pantanal wetlands are disturbed by tourists who holier to get photos.

Manatees living behind turtle-nesting beaches in Costa Rica are mangled by speedboats carrying ecotourists.

Squirrel monkeys in costa Rica must swing from tree to tree to eat and mate. Now they swing from tree to hotel roof.

Right whales off Argentina's Valdes Peninsula get separated from their calves by charging tourist boats.