Many Costa Rican biological hotspots have experienced a surge of foreign and local visitors in the last couple decades. Despite the global recessions, tourist keep coming, and we tend to see ecotourism as a form of sustainable development. However, poorly planned growth, can result in a type of development that is not sustainable.
On the bright side ecotourism can be a source of income that promotes conservation by displacing farming and other land uses. It makes sense to switch from farming cattle or planting coffee, to farming nature loving tourist willing to pay for a walk thru your farm to see quetzals and monkeys, if you can make more money from the tourist, than from the cattle. This way the average José is now preserving the existing forest, regenerating farmland and protecting biodiversity, not just the hardcore conservationists.
Tourism also gives rise to a sense of awareness for the need to protect nature. It is a monumental change in public awareness, it’s not only right thing to do: protecting wildlife is now what puts food on your table. These notions will extent beyond the key players, to the more general community, forging a public opinion, which favors conservation.
Ecotourism is therefore a feasible way to promote private conservation, but not without consequence. Very few would argue that a tourist looking to “take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints” causes less ecological damage than grazing cattle. If successful, however, a tourist industry will drive growth of infrastructure, and an increase on pollution. Cars, buildings, and trash will send those nature-loving tourist away. If the tourist leave, and the average José goes back to farming cattle, this is not sustainable development.