The Sustainability Benefits of Zip Line Tours

Tourism has a reputation for harming local ecosystems through processes such as deforestation, construction, and pollution, often with the promise of improving struggling economies – but is this tradeoff worth it?

Choosing between the regional economy and the needs of the environment can be a tough decision for many areas, particularly in the developing world, but they may not have to choose between the two any longer. With the development of ecotourism, areas with noteworthy ecological resources like rainforests have the opportunity to protect these natural wonders while still making a profit.

Ecotourism 101

Ecotourism is a blending of two major areas: traditional tourism in which people travel to a region to participate in leisure activities and conservationism, the practice of protecting and maintaining natural resources. Whereas these two activities have historically been at odds, ecotourism turns environmental education into a commodity, creating jobs for community members while generating hybrid educational-leisure activities that visitors pay to participate in.

In addition to benefiting the local economy, ecotourism provides an incentive and funding for maintaining natural habitats such as rainforests or coral reefs. Whereas before, destructive tourism practices may have seemed like the best way to improve the area’s economic prospects, now building the economy actually is contingent on maintaining those natural resources.

It’s also worth noting that when compared with the field of voluntourism – a different type of do-gooder vacation – ecotourism puts local needs first. Voluntourism, on the other hand, often results in cultural destruction and can interfere with locally developed, sustainable solutions. Though both are sometimes billed as ethical ways to vacation, ecotourism is actually far superior.

Zip Line Tours: A Case Study

What does ecotourism look like in practice? Zip line tours offer an excellent example.

Zip line tours take place high above the ground on cables and many people are familiar with them from Boy Scout camps, movies, and as part of adventure courses. They’re also fast-moving, with the world’s fastest traveling at more than 100 mph, making zip lines popular with adventure seekers.

Zip lines are the perfect format for ecotourism in heavily forested areas, such as the rainforests of Costa Rica, because they use the natural environment as the primary infrastructure for ecotourism activities. Though there are some logistical challenges to building tour lines through the existing environment, major companies like Rainforest Adventures have been extremely successful in doing so. Their first park in Costa Rica was built without cutting down any trees, and employed locals in the process.

What makes zip line tours so popular with tourists is that they offer education on the local environment and then let travelers loose into the thick of it. About 70 percent of rainforest life is up in the tree canopy, which is precisely where zip lines run. There’s no better way to get an up-close look at the birds, reptiles, and bugs populating the region, and it can be done without disrupting their natural habitats.

As ecotourism proves its value to threatened natural environments, we’ll see it emerge in a greater variety of places, offering travelers the new experiences they crave without the damage they so often leave in their wake today. Pair these activities with locals’ insider knowledge about these ecosystems and the jobs generated by zip line tours and similar experiences, and ecotourism is a clear win-win solution for all parties involved.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.