04 Oct Challenges of Eco-Tourism: Protecting Delicate Aquatic Eco-systems

The preservation of oceans, beaches, coastal regions, inland freshwater lakes and rivers is an important concern that is relevant to many industries, including energy, agriculture, manufacturing as well as the tourism industry. Conservation and preservation is a delicate balance in tourism, with many sectors struggling to reduce their environmental impact while maintaining a high level of service; nowhere is this more apparent than in industry sectors that access oceans and inland waterways.

The cruise industry has long been of concern due to the sheer amount of energy consumed, and waste generated, by cruise ships. In response, the industry is steadily working towards improving the situation in a variety of ways: reducing waste dumping, on-board solar energy generation to reduce fuel requirements, water recycling to reduce freshwater usage, and treatment of waste water into a clean product that is safe to release into the ocean. These and other measures serve to reduce the carbon footprint of the cruise industry, and also help to protect the waters within which ocean liners travel.

In response to the damage that can occur as a direct result of water-based tourism, and large ships in particular, some countries now restrict the passage of ships in certain locations. For example, ships that wish to cruise coastal Alaska must comply with regulations that limit waste dumping and carbon emissions; in Italy, there are plans to limit the size of ships that can enter the Venice lagoon, due to concerns that very large cruise ships are a threat to the stability of the lagoon and the city’s foundation.

Inland freshwater lakes and rivers are vastly more vulnerable to damage than oceans and seas simply by virtue of their smaller size; small aquatic eco-systems are incredibly fragile, and even a small change in activity can upset the balance to a considerable extent. One particularly relevant example of this is Inle Lake in Myanmar, where the newly burgeoning tourism industry is already having a significant impact.

Myanmar’s tourism industry has flourished in recent years following a number of political and economic reforms that have made it a highly desirable and popular tourist destination, and the expansion of many major and regional airlines to include more frequent flights in and out of the country. Fewer than 300,000 tourists visited in the country in 2010, but in 2013, this figure had increased to more than two million. Myanmar’s tourism industry is struggling to keep pace with this massive growth, in particular with the enormous increase in demand for accommodation. According to environmental groups, however, the more pressing problem is that the rapidly growing tourism industry, and in particularly the interest in eco-tourism, may cause irreparable damage to fragile aquatic eco-systems. Just as the accommodation sector is struggling to keep up with demand, so too is the government struggling to enact effective protections for the country’s most delicate eco-systems.

Inle Lake, located on Myanmar’s Shan Plateau, is a highland freshwater lake, the shores of which are inhabited by people of several ethnicities. The people who live here fish the lake and grow crops nearby, but Inle Lake is an increasingly popular eco-tourism destination, and the tourism industry may have already contributed to irreversible changes in the aquatic environment. For example, a species of fish that was once a common catch in Inle Lake, the Inle Herring Barbell, is now such a rare sight that it may have disappeared entirely. Introduced fish species are contributing to the disappearance of multiple native species, a problem that has been noted by both villagers and environmental researchers. To further add to the problem, the demand for accommodation has led to the planned development of dozens of new hotels near the shores of the lake, in what was once a small farming town, and has now changed into something else entirely.

There’s no question that Myanmar stands to benefit considerably from the rapid growth of its tourism industry; what’s at stake is the country’s unique eco-systems, and the question of whether or not effective protections can be put in place in time to prevent further damage.

By Susie Laing