Ecotourism represents one of the most environmentally friendly alternatives for the economic development of protected areas (Li and Han 2001). Ecotourism can benefit protected areas by providing income that can make them economically independent and justifying them from a national development perspective (Boza 2001). Ecotourism is a booming business and constitutes a potentially valuable non-extractive use of tropical forests. A major part of non-consumptive recreational activities such as hiking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, and other such pursuits occur within forests.
Ecotourism can be the largest proportion of the tourist industry in a country, as demonstrated in Costa Rica and Belize (Boza 2001). In Costa Rica, tourism is the second largest source of income for the country, bringing in about US$ 900 million a year. In Costa Rica, 1 million tourists visited the country in 2000 and more than half of them visited the forests in either public protected areas or private lands (Nasi et al. 2002). However, many different stakeholders capture the values generated and the profits often leave the country and provide little benefit to local populations. Although the percentage of total value that accrues at the local forest level through ecotourism tends to be small or non-existent, even a minor amount may constitute an important section of the national economy.
The potential of ecotourism varies widely throughout the tropics. Ecotour-ism may be more feasible in high-quality forests of a fragmented landscape where there is a developed infrastructure and easy access, rather than in large and remote frontier forests. While there is a clear upward trend in global economic revenues from tourism, international tourism is highly sensitive to security problems and political turmoil, causing large fluctuations in income generated by tourism. In addition, if management is poor ecotourism can lead to degradation of the natural resources on which it depends. Thus it is important to evaluate the carrying capacity of protected areas to ensure that they can handle levels of visitation that enable them to become economically and ecologically sustainable (Maldonado and Montagnini 2004).
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