When tourism clouds environmental interests

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WASHINGTON -- Discussions of tourism development frequently revolve around issues like transportation infrastructure or employment.

But a report by Conservation International and the U.N. Environment Program broadens the discourse to include biodiversity.

The report, "Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism's Global Footprint," was released at a tourism conference recently in Durban, South Africa.

As described in the report, biodiversity refers to "biological products and process" that are "essential to human development." According to the report, "The relationship between tourism and biodiversity is not always positive." Biodiversity can be disrupted by such factors as uncontrolled land development, pollution and the unsustainable harvesting of natural resources -- all items sometimes associated with tourism.

The report cited the popular resort community of Cancun, Mexico, as an example of a "poorly planned, large-scale development." Before it was developed as a tourism resort in the 1970s, "only 12 families lived on the barrier island of Cancun," according to the report. Today, Cancun welcomes nearly 3 million visitors a year.

The report noted that while it can be argued in Cancun's defense that "it is better to concentrate tourism development into a relatively small area," the destination nevertheless has been "unsuccessful" at containing tourism-related sprawl and its negative side effects.

For instance, shantytowns have sprung up in Cancun because "no provisions were made to house low-income immigrants who now work and live in the area."

Cancun is one example of what the report calls biodiversity "hot spots," or "priority areas for urgent conservation action on a global scale."

Others are in Argentina, Brazil, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, India, Indonesia, Macao, Malaysia, Morocco, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam. At the same time, many people living in these hot spots earn less than one U.S. dollar a day.

The report also noted that biodiversity hot spots are not limited to developing countries, as the Mediterranean, the California coast and the Florida Keys also are all considered part of the category.

Balancing tourism and biodiversity is expected to become increasingly challenging, given the fact that tourism generates 11% of the global gross domestic product, employs 200 million people and transports some 700 million international travelers each year, the report said.

Costas Christ, senior director for ecotourism at Conservation International and one of the authors of the report, suggested one solution: "By linking tourism development with biodiversity conservation and the well-being of local communities, we can develop strategies that both conserve Earth's most endangered ecosystems and help make significant contribution to alleviating poverty."

To contact reporter Michael Milligan, send e-mail to [email protected].

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