Tourists walk up some rocks leading to a small waterfall

Ecology: Ecotourism in the World’s Most Enchanting Rainforests

Ecotourism is:

‘Ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that foster environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation.’

Rainforests are the natural gemstones of our planet. The tall, lush canopy dotted with vibrant butterflies and cawing birds provide an escape for city dwellers. In a pre-Covid world (and hopefully a post-Covid world), their natural beauty attracts millions of tourists every year. With many listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is now more important than ever to explore these places in a sustainable way.

Daintree Rainforest, Australia

Tropical trees sprout in the Daintree Rainforest
Image Source: Alice Blunden

The 135-million-year-old Daintree Rainforest is located in tropical North Queensland. As one of the oldest rainforests in the world, its dense greenery spans over 1,200 square kilometres. The flourishing green canopy with its silky oaks and towering kauri trees inspired the setting for the film Avatar.

The Daintree was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 alongside its neighbouring Great Barrier Reef. The rainforest is one of the most important ecosystems in the world. However, climate change and destructive human activities have cleared around half of the rainforest lowlands since its World Heritage listing. The Daintree is also home to a variety of endangered species, most notably, the iconic Cassowary bird. Cassowaries are the guardians of the rainforest. They scatter certain seeds throughout the forest, keeping over 150 types of plants and trees alive.

The Daintree Discovery Centre

Girl walking down a rainforest tree-top walk holding an audio guide to her ear
Image Source: Alice Blunden

The Daintree Discovery Centre, located in the heart of the forest, gives visitors access to the forest floor all the way up to the upper reaches of the canopy via a walkway. Lush greenery envelopes both sides of the pathway, so you truly feel wrapped in the rainforest. In addition, the discovery centre offers guided tours and educative information on small devices that you can carry on your venture. Conservationists are dedicated to preserving wildlife in these areas by providing elevated walkways so people do not trample the fragile root systems and educating visitors on the importance of protecting the natural environment. Rainforest rescue organisations use profits from the Daintree tours to contribute to land management and species protection. In this case, tourism actually helps the rainforest survive. You can experience the Daintree’s breathtaking beauty in a responsible and ecologically sustainable way.

Ecotourism at the Daintree Ecolodge

The pastel-green interior off the Daintree ecolodge with a bed and a balcony with two chairs
Image Source: Alice Blunden

If you visit the Daintree, consider staying in the Daintree Ecolodge. The wooden-style huts rise above the treetops, immersing you in the canopy’s lush greenery. With the aim of achieving a ‘better and more sustainable future for all’, the ecolodge protects the ecosystem in a number of ways:

  • All the food is locally sourced and organic waste from the kitchen is composted or fed to local livestock.
  • A biocycle wastewater treatment plan allows for the recycling of all water
  • Solar panels power the lodge, making it a carbon-neutral property
  • eWateris used as a cleaning product instead of harsh cleaning chemicals
  • The chefs cook meals using fresh produce from an on-site herb and veggie patch
A girl sips on a cup of tea while looking out a window into the Daintree rainforest
Image Source: Alice Blunden

Additionally, Daintree Ecolodge donates $50 per guest stay to the Morris Family Foundation Reef Keepers Fund, supporting projects that protect and preserve the Great Barrier Reef.

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

Misty clouds gather amongst vibrant green tree tops
Image Source: travelexcellence.com

Cloud forests, also known as water forests, are tropical, moist climates characterised by seasonal low-level cloud cover at the canopy level. National Geographic has described the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve as the ‘jewel in the crown of cloud forests.’ Currently, the rainforest attracts over 70,000 visitors a year.

Found along the Cordillera de Tilarán within the Puntarenas and Alajuela areas, the Monteverde forest is rich in biodiversity. It is home to over 2,500 plant species, 100 mammal species and thousands of insects.

You can hike through the misty rainforest amongst the cool cloud cover that drapes from the canopy. Or, if walking isn’t your style, you can glide along the treetops via a zipline.

You might agree that new places look extraordinarily different once the sun falls. At Monteverde, there are night-time tours that showcase a new perspective of the unique ecosystem. Escaping the overwhelmingly vibrant visuals of the forest, a night-time expedition allows you to experience the environment through your ears. You might even catch a rustling sound of the nocturnal Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth – one of the world’s slowest mammals.

A sloth holds onto a tree branch tilting its head backwards
Image Source: Wikipedia

Sadly, it is anticipated that climate change will change the nature of Monteverde’s cloud forest. Low-level cloud coverage will be reduced and temperatures will increase. As a result, a disruption in the water cycle could threaten the ecosystem. If tourists are to continue visiting the area, establishing ecotourism plans is essential.

Amazon Rainforest, South America

Birds-eye-view shot of the Amazon river with dense tree cover on either side
Image Source: BBC

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest, spanning eight South American Countries: BrazilBoliviaPeruEcuadorColombiaVenezuelaGuyana, and Suriname, as well as French Guiana. The region is home to a multitude of different ecosystems from savannah to swamp, providing homes to 30% of the world’s species.

Unfortunately, commodity production in the Amazon (from cattle beef and leather to oil and gas) significantly impacts the rainforest. Converting land for cattle grazing, for example, is the primary cause for deforestation. As a result, droughts and wildfires increase, threatening the Amazon’s rich biodiversity. Sadly, it is estimated that 100,000 species become extinct in tropical forests yearly. The loss of just one species threatens others who rely on it in the ecosystem. Between January and July 2021, deforestation in the Amazon is up 3.4% from last year.

According to WWF, responsible and sustainable tourism (ecotourism) could help the Amazon reduce deforestation and cope with climate change. From guided jungle walks to river cruises, eco-tours allow you to experience the rainforest’s magnificent beauty while gaining an education on how the Amazon impacts the rest of the world. In Ecuador, the Rio Blanco Project provides ecotourists with knowledge of indigenous life. And local guides offer tours focussing on animal-watching or plant education.

You can fall asleep to rainforest sounds in beautiful jungle lodges situated in the heart of the Amazon. While there are more luxury options available, many businesses offer eco-friendly accommodation that supports the local ecosystem. These environmentally friendly stays range in the amenities they offer. For instance, some air conditioning or hot water may be absent in some places. By staying in an eco-lodge, you can experience the Amazon in a responsible, sustainable and authentic way. Locally grown food provides visitors with a unique experience while supporting the ecosystem.

North Western Ghats, India

Grassy mounds, trees and a mountain in the distance
Image Source: Britannica

The North Western Ghats ecoregion is famous for its species richness. The mountainous area makes up 6% of the entire country and is home to over a third of India’s plants, half of the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians.

Older than the great Himalayan Mountains, the Western Ghats hold immense global importance. The soil and water of this region sustains the livelihoods of over 200 million people living in the peninsular Indian states. The myriad of ecosystems ranges from tropical wet forests to montane grasslands. Each area contains vital medicinal plants and important genetic resources from the wild relatives of grains to fruit and spices.

The Ghats were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. In total, there are 325 globally threatened species in the region. 129 are classified as vulnerable, 145 as endangered and 51 as critically endangered. WWF-India is actively involved in the conservation of the Western Gats region. Currently, their main focus aims to identity and map critical wildlife corridors, reduce human-elephant conflict, strengthen environmental management, and promote sustainable livelihoods.

Mass tourism in the North Western Ghats

The unplanned, unchecked growth of tourism practices in the Western Ghat ecosystems has led to the saturation of many destinations in the region. With the number of tourists growing each year (predominantly in the dry season), resources are unable to rise to meet the demands of the travellers.

According to Viraraghavan (2010), the economic benefits of such mass tourism are largely misleading. Most of them are day-trippers who bring their own food and do not add to the local economy in any way (except to litter garbage and their heavy footprint trail). As a result, the Ministry of Tourism has established ecotourism policies to promote ‘ecotourism’ products and destinations. The policy draws describes the key elements of ecotourism as being: natural environment as prime attraction, environment-friendly visitors; activities that do not have a serious impact on the ecosystem and positive involvement of local community in maintaining ecological balance.

Blessed with natural beauty, many destinations in the Western Ghats are perfect for wildlife tours, nature walks and ziplining above the treetops. When booking a tour, look for sustainable ecotourism tours offered by local guides.

Kinabalu National Rainforest, Malaysia

 Tree canopy in the Kinabalu Rainforest with mist and a mountain in the distance
Image Source: globeguide.co

Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Kinabalu rainforest is home to 4,500 species of flora and fauna, including 326 bird and around 100 mammal species. It stretches across 754 square kilometres surrounding Mount Kinabalu on the northern end of Borneo. With its rich biodiversity and expansive habitats the Kinabalu region has been elected as a Centre of Plant Diversity for Southeast Asia.

As a nature-based tourism location, one of the best (and most sustainable) ways to experience the rainforest is by exploring nature trails. Buried between the lavish, sweeping canopy, a beautiful botanical garden showcases Malaysia’s most exquisite flora. Although rare, visitors might catch a glimpse of the Rafflesia flower, the largest flower in the world. Despite its stunning, red coating, the Rafflesia emits a repulsive odour similar to that of a decaying corpse.

Ecotourism in the Kinabulu Rainforest

Kinabalu rainforest was first established as a national park in 1964. Its status as such allows tourism to centre around education and recreation. The park has six sub-stations and one controlling post located strategically for better management and monitoring of the environment. A study found that tourism development in the area generated a range of economic benefits for the local community in Kundasang (located at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu). The livelihood of the people in this town largely depends on tourists who come into their area. Moreover, many local residents offer accommodation services like homestays. These tend to be more environmentally friendly than larger businesses and luxury stays.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka

 Tourists walk up some rocks leading to a small waterfall
Image Source: Srilankansafari.com

Sinharaja Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot that is home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s species, many of which are now considered rare. Known for its birdlife, the rainforest is one of the few places you might catch a glimpse of Sri Lanka’s tiny hanging parrot. In addition, an abundant diversity of butterflies (from vibrant blue morphos to national birdwings) dot the humid evergreen and twirl through the tall canopy. Scientists estimate that the rainforest formed during the Jurassic era, making it around 200 million years old.

The rainforest has an interesting cultural heritage. The word ‘sinharaja’ means lion (Sinha) king (raja), perhaps alluding to popular legend that Sri Lankan Sinhala people descended from a lion king who once resided in the forest.

Sinharaja is the last undisturbed tropical evergreen forest area in Sri Lanka, and it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The only way to experience the lowland rainforest is on foot, guided by a local tour guide who will explain the importance of the area to Sri Lanka’s ecosystem. While Sinharaja is provided with high levels of legal protection under the National Heritage Wilderness Area Act, low staffing hinders the policing of environmental offences. Furthermore, a lack of funding obstructs the effective, long-term management of the area.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

A tree-top walk path lined by trees either side
Image Source: planetware.com

Situated in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, Khao Yai is Thailand’s third-largest national park. Its tropical forest ecosystems are home to the critically endangered Siamese Crocodile and the endangered Asian Elephant.

The Park is part of the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site covering five protected areas from Khao Yai to the Cambodian border. Human activities from road construction to tourism and poaching place pressure on the viability of the land.

If you visit Khao Yai, you cannot explore the longer trails without a guide. A quick Google search of ‘tourists lost in Khao Yai’ should be enough to explain why. With the Park being an extremely popular destination for flocks of tourists in summertime, the government is committed to developing sustainable practice with the tourism industry. The Thai Government helped develop The Green Leaf Foundation, an organisation that provides guidance and support for hotels to help them operate more sustainably and promote ecotourism.

Protecting Our Rainforests with Ecotourism

A local guide talks to two tourists in the rainforest
Image Source: travelexcellence.com

Rainforests are essential in keeping our world healthy. First, they absorb Co2 and emit the oxygen we depend on for survival. Second, they help to maintain the world’s water cycle. Third, they play an important role in climate regulation. Moreover, many Indigenous communities have been living in harmony with their rainforests for thousands of years. They depend on it for food, shelter and a range of herbal medicines. When oil and logging corporations obliterate large areas of the forest, they often bring diseases against which the Indigenous people have minimal resistance, threatening their survival.

Despite being located in varying parts of the world, these rainforests all share one thing in common. That is, UNESCO lists them as World Heritage sites. With human activity and climate change threatening the biodiversity of these areas, it is more important than ever to protect these ecosystems. In turn, these environments can protect us.

As tourists, we can either endanger or protect our rainforests. Ultimately, education and environmental awareness are crucial when embarking on our journeys. We need to see the forests beyond their aesthetics. That is, we need to see them as life supporters and homes. We need to understand that if we protect the rainforests, they can protect us.

Ecotourism is the foremost way that developing countries can generate revenue by preserving their rainforests. By visiting these environments as a sustainable ecotourist, you can support the country’s economy. This allows governments and organisations to develop more long-term strategies that protect their natural gems rather than destroy them through short-term exploitation.

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