Nature tourism is an increasing segment of the tourism industry which encompasses many activities that centre on the participants engaging with nature. This segment takes place largely in a natural setting with emphasis on understanding and conservation of the natural environment. The places associated with nature tourism has always included forests, lakes, rivers, mountains and the coast, these areas are usually protected as National Parks.
In the U.S.A in the 19th century there was the national park movement where many areas became protected as National Parks or National Monuments, this led to them being heavily visited during the 20th century. Early infrastructure was developed including car parking, trails and visitor centres, this was then adopted by other countries but with national and cultural differences. For example in Scandinavia they have “everyman’s right” which has led to more countryside being available for access whereas in the U.S.A they have strong private property rights.
Generally there is a greater awareness of the environment and its issues that include pollution, deforestation and global warming. Governments and environmental organisations are taking these issues seriously at both a national and international level. People’s interest in these issues has changed accordingly and they want to engage in nature or Ecotourism and partake in activities that have a benefit to the local environment. Due to this increased awareness it has become easier to manage these protected areas as people understand the need for this action.
This has not been the case in Virunga National Park in Congo. Park rangers are armed with guns and willing to give their lives in order to protect the natural environment and the last home of the mountain gorilla on the planet. Virunga is both a National Park and UNESCO heritage site but has been under increasing pressure since oil was found in the park. Large oil companies are able to throw money at a problem until they eventually get their way, if we are not careful we will lose a truly unique place on Earth.
In order to increase nature tourism a high quality environment is needed in order to attract visitors, this results in a reduction in negative effects on the areas and a reduced risk of conflict with local communities. With the popularity of nature tourism increasing it will actively contribute to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. But if the area is affected by lack of management or over-exploitation, like what is happening in Virunga, it will lose its attractiveness to visitors. It is important for nature tourism development to encourage community involvement to be sustainable, this can be done through local and indigenous communities being included in the planning, development and participation.
Given the increased pressures on the environment as well as the changing social, economic and demographic conditions, nature tourism is a segment that needs to be continually under review. If we as tourists are not mindful about our travel these places may not last for future generations.