Ecological Disturbance and Nature Tourism

By Savage, Melissa | The Geographical Review, July 1993 | Go to article overview

Ecological Disturbance and Nature Tourism


Savage, Melissa, The Geographical Review


THE purpose of this article is to consider the role of disturbance as a crucial ecological consideration in landuse planning for nature tourism. Incorporation of ecological insights into the environmental-planning process offers hope for rational and sustainable development. Nature tourism has been proposed in recent years as a solution to the dilemma that developing countries face in conserving their biological heritage and concurrently improving the economies of local human settlements.

In Mexico, nature tourism has become a favored mechanism for development, especially on the Yucatan peninsula. Recognizing the immense value of its coastal natural communities, Mexico has recently established several large biosphere reserves to preserve natural resources and to accommodate and support human settlements. The experience of sprawling, high-impact Cancun, with more than one million visitors annually, has encouraged the government to reassess its development goals. One example of Mexican openness to sustainable conservation-development projects is the innovative, cooperative effort of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to establish Ruta Maya, a low-impact design to promote tourism based on natural and archaeological treasures (Garrett 1989).

In the Yucatan, two long, relatively pristine barrier peninsulas, Rio Lagartos and Celestun, are being identified as opportune sites for nature tourism. Both have high conservation value and were designated special biosphere reserves by the government in 1979 because of their floral and faunal diversity. Both have small human settlements based on fishing and salt extraction. The protection concept known as the Mexican modality, in which local villages can coexist with both conservation and tourism, is an ambitious development plan. Through trial and error, it is becoming clear that development must be guided by ecological understanding if degradation of natural systems is to be avoided. Sites worth visiting are often those that cannot endure heavy human use, and if irreversible environmental degradation results from nature tourism, both conservation of biological diversity and sustainable tourism will fail. Although political and economic considerations usually far overshadow ecological concerns, conservation of natural resources will not succeed if ecological insights are ignored in planning for nature tourism. To retain the integrity of ecosystems, ecologists must convey the most useful information about the dynamic physical and biological contexts of natural communities, including information about the effects of human change on natural disturbance regimes.

Important shifts in ecological theory in the past several decades could change perspectives on planning decisions. Fundamental models of community organization throughout the history of ecological thought were rooted in the idea of equilibrium, and most principles applied to managing natural areas have been based on the notion of stability. Many recent empirical studies offer evidence that the natural world is not static, that natural disturbances are common to many environments, and that most landscapes are not in equilibrium, at least for the short term. Planners and developers of tourist facilities, along coastlines, for example, have mistakenly assumed that the physical context for hotels and roads was a stable place.

RECENT ECOLOGICAL THOUGHT

From its beginnings, ecology has been the study of nature as a stable, orderly system. Natural communities that were undisturbed by people were generally thought of as pristine and immutable, composed of interdependent and harmoniously arranged species assemblages (Botkin 1990). This idea was based on a long tradition in Western culture that envisioned nature as orderly and was embodied in the phrase "balance of nature" (Glacken 1967).

Largely through the writings of Frederick E. Clements (1916) early in the twentieth century, the notion of natural communities as naturally occurring assemblages of species in harmony with local climatic regimes became ecological dogma. …

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