This story was originally published in our Mar/Apr 2023 issue. Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.
Across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, pools of azure water punch through the landscape like Swiss cheese. In many of these sinkholes, called cenotes (pronounced “seh-NOtays”), braided root systems and spiraling foliage descend multiple stories down limestone walls to soak in the oases.
Increasingly, however, the flora is sharing these cool waters with throngs of human visitors — swimming, snorkeling or snapping selfies in the otherworldly setting.
Geologically speaking, Mexico’s cenotes are entry points to the Yucatán Peninsula’s uniquely shallow and vital aquifer. They’re entry points for tourists, too, as more and more of these natural marvels are developing into eco-park attractions. And travel access across this region is projected to expand significantly as of 2024, due to an ambitious national train project. But the transportation effort, spearheaded by Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is generating waves of controversy between local communities, the president and conservationists.
These tensions raise concerns that surface anywhere tourism, development and science collide in the natural world: Humans have the capacity to love wild places to death, degrading them with excessive traffic and misuse; yet tourism also wields the potential to draw funding and support for conservation.
Environmental anthropologist Amanda Stronza has been studying the revolving door between tourism and conservation since her Ph.D. work in the late 1990s. Her career has revealed no simple or perfect template under the umbrella of ecotourism — nor a consistent definition. “Can we harness capitalist forces, and the market, for the good of conservation?” she asks. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
While the word ecotourism was coined in the early 1980s, the concept itself — supporting conservation efforts in part by leveraging nature for leisure and directing revenue back to the ecosystem — stretches back more than a century. The U.S. National Park System was an early originator, designating wild places as protected areas. People pay to visit for relaxation or inspiration, and hopefully they gain appreciation for the flora and fauna that call it home. Ideally, these experiences in turn generate interest in protecting said places, as well as contributing immediate funding to do so.
The dark side, of course, is the potential harm to what you’re trying to protect. If you’re only considering the land, animals and plants, it’s a simple answer. “The activity of tourism is more damaging than no tourism at all,” Stronza says.
Some ideological purists go so far as to argue that each human must personally avoid flying at all costs, stop consuming goods beyond their immediate community or scrutinize every print they leave on Earth. However, Stronza adds, that premise ignores a crucial element of reality. “People are part of an ecosystem. They always have been,” she says, underscoring how the anthropogenic use of nature stretches back tens of thousands of years. Today’s complex economic systems add unique, meaningful opportunities to invest in nature, which can serve humans, animals and landscapes alike. “I care so much about wildlife. But I also see clearly the deep and intimate interactions between people and wild places and wildlife,” she says.
For instance, wild places — and new experiences in them — are a well of inspiration. Spending time in nature also is directly linked to improved mental health and physical wellbeing, as well as spiritual practices and other facets of life for many cultures. And history has demonstrated that humans are less likely to invest in protecting habitats and creatures if they share no personal connection to them. One 2016 study even linked the intervention of ecotourism to specific population increases in some endangered species, including preventing the likely extinction of orangutans in Sumatra. (Though it also did find a trade-off with negative impacts to other species and habitats.)
Ecotourism, then, has emerged as a potential bridge between outdoor experiences and conservation. The challenge for travelers is that this term typically lacks consistent parameters, regulations and stipulations. Like the word natural in the grocery world, ecotourism often gets slapped on any flavor of nature-related fun and conventional tourism, according to Stronza and colleagues who published a 2019 review on the matter in Annual Review of Environment and Resources.
This conundrum demands a bit more mindfulness and research from eco-conscious travelers grappling with the ethical question: Should I stay, or should I go? But resources abound, once you know where and how to look. The following roundup of destinations and experiences offers some inspiration, lessons learned and ongoing challenges, all in mesmerizing landscapes where tourists, scientists and wild ecosystems are converging at a rapid pace.
The Great Barrier Reef
The world’s most extensive coral reef system, located in Australia, needs little introduction. But it could use a biological miracle to return to its glory days as a thriving ecosystem.
For context, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) encompasses an area bigger than the U.K., Switzerland and Holland combined. It’s home to some 600 known varieties of hard and soft corals and many more species of fish and marine creatures — though these figures could decline as coral colonies continue to die off.
The GBR itself has been the subject of many dire climate headlines over the past decade, particularly as the abundance of coral dropped by roughly 50 percent over just 30 years, according to a major study of the GBR published in 2020. Two back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 did exceptional damage — followed by bleaching events in 2020 and 2022. The four occurrences have been attributed to stress due to changing surface temperatures in the ocean.
One consistent challenge for this ecosystem, and all reefs globally, is that oceans absorb roughly 90 percent of the excess heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions in Earth’s atmosphere. While this
helps buffer and offset the rise of ambient air temperatures around the globe, it can deal deadly blows to reefs. And beyond bleaching events, which have been occurring more frequently, the impact of cyclones, diseases and predatory crown-of-thorns starfish routinely threaten coral. As for direct human impact (besides warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions), degraded water quality and coastal development are significant issues, along with the localized risks of trampling coral, wildlife disturbance or human pollution that can result from snorkeling and other recreation.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 2 million people visited the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park each year via tourism operations. (While the pandemic nearly slashed that count in half, recent reports show traffic steadily rebounding.) Many of these visitors participate in immersive diving, snorkeling or boating day trips to encounter the marine life and coral. While that activity can certainly increase local degradation, regulated tourism is increasingly contributing to reef conservation, according to researchers with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), a government agency handling the longest running and most comprehensive GBR-monitoring program.
“Marine scientists need all the support they can get from the public in this endeavor,” says AIMS coral biologist Cathie Page, when asked how tourists impact the reef.
Viewing Coral Reefs
For starters, most visitors to the GBR Marine Park pay upon entry an environmental management fee that supports conservation efforts. At the start of 2020, that program was annually generating over $11 million in Australian dollars (nearly $8 million in USD) of revenue, though the charge has been paused since the pandemic in 2020 to aid tourism recovery. Additionally, many partnerships have started unfolding between researchers, tourism operators and islander locals who visit the reef daily and depend on its health.
In 2020, AIMS launched Boats4Corals as a means of scaling up larval reseeding across reefs. That project, led by Mark Gibbs, teaches tourism operators, recreational boaters and Indigenous islanders how to identify and collect coral spawn, and grow baby corals in floating nurseries and settle them into their local damaged reefs. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which regulates and protects the GBR, also rolled out a Master Reef Guides program in February 2019. The effort instills high-standard tourism practices across the reef and involves a five-day intensive workshop for guides.
On a larger financial scale, the Australian government is currently making its biggest ever move to restore the GBR, through a nearly $300 million (USD) partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. This Reef Trust Partnership involves more than 300 projects over a six-year period, while incorporating many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples plus the booming tourism industry as engines of restoration and sustainability
Remarkably, despite a decade with significant coral mortality after 2016 and 2017, the GBR’s hard corals have shown signs of recovery. Overall, hard coral coverage has increased across the key northern, central and southern sections of the GBR, according to a 2021 condition report by AIMS. But the threat of bleaching events or other climate dangers always looms, while further research will continue to hone prevention and preservation strategies. “We’re only starting to scratch the surface in terms of understanding coral reefs and the impacts of human on these ecosystems,” says Page.
Before booking tours and excursions, some reef advocates recommend seeking out businesses blazoned with EarthCheck or EcoTourism Australia certifications, which identifies outfitters and accommodations that have made efforts toward sustainability. Though, Stronza warns, there are pros and cons to such programs, which often lack thorough assessment of participants and favor larger operations that can afford the fee for certification.
As an alternative, more hands-on option: Travelers can seek out citizen-science experiences that might directly support marine life or reef restoration.
Shortly before dusk, the hazy June air wafting through Great Smoky Mountains National Park runs thick with anticipation.
Near Elkmont Campground, a select group of visitors ventures down a logging road into the forest as a distant river gurgles in the background. The damp soil feels spongy underfoot. Ferns merge with mountain laurel and their showy white blooms in the dim light — then it begins. One blink, spotted like the first star of the night. Then another, prompting a hushed gasp.
At first, the flickers resemble a familiar evening in many an American backyard during firefly season, roughly May through June or July. But this is not just any backyard, nor are these your average fireflies. As more and more join in, a pattern emerges. Two, then 10, and suddenly dozens of fireflies are blinking in rhythm with each other — all males, from the species Photinus carolinus. Tufts University biologist and firefly researcher Sara Lewis calls it their “silent love songs.” It’s mating season.
The synchronous P. carolinus fireflies typically emit six blinks in succession, pause for several seconds, then repeat. As night descends, hundreds of the pulsing bugs will drive through the foliage in a fluid mass. “It will pass like the wave at ballgames, just a wave of synchrony through the forest,” says Lewis, co-chair of the Firefly Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “It’s awe-inspiring.”
So inspiring, in fact, that each year approximately 30,000 people enter a lottery for about 1,800 vehicle passes to witness the two-week spectacle in the Smokies.
A Growing Niche
Estimates suggest more than 1 million people annually now travel to various hotspots for firefly watching. Interest has grown enough to warrant a comprehensive study published in Conservation Science and Practice in 2021, evaluating the risk to the insects and best practices for humans. Lewis, who helped lead that research, says the researchers were “gobsmacked” by the activity’s popularity. While firefly watching has a centuries-long history in East Asia, it’s recently grown into a global phenomenon that risks overwhelming management plans at particular locations, the researchers found. Interestingly, it also accounts for just one category within a growing niche of insect-based tourism, dubbed entomotourism.
In part, experts attribute the surge in firefly interest over the past decade to advanced camera technology (and digital editing). Better tech has allowed us to photograph these remarkable creatures at night for the first time. And, as images spread online, people want to witness the spectacle for themselves. That combines with a novelty factor, since more and more people live in urban environments that are inhospitable to the bioluminescent beetles. “Places that used to be firefly habitat are now under pavement,” Lewis says.
Out of the 2,200-plus species of fireflies — or “lightning bugs” as they’re known in parts of the U.S. — some are thriving and healthy, while others are struggling. Globally, the primary threats to firefly populations include habitat loss, light pollution and overuse of broad-spectrum insecticides. While tourism does not rank as a top killer, it can pose a significant threat to firefly populations and their habitat, particularly in high-traffic sites that lack regulation.
One major factor that the casual viewer may overlook: Fireflies spend most of their lives as eggs, larvae and pupae bound to the ground or under the soil. These juveniles inhabit wetlands, grasslands and forests, including parks, gardens and lawns in residential areas, typically feeding on snails, worms and other soft prey for several months or even years. All of that precedes a dramatic metamorphosis so they can spend just a matter of days or a few weeks as the flying, glowing adults that mate to continue the cycle, then die shortly after. Adult females also traverse the ground to lay their eggs. Human ground traffic, development and insecticides can wipe out countless fireflies before any human sees a blink.
The list of best practices at a firefly viewing site includes staying on the trail and avoiding the use of flashlights and other bright lights. Even the screen of a cellphone or a camera flash has been shown to disrupt courtship behaviors. Travelers also can consider seeking out less popular sites. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation manages a map online showing recommended firefly tourism locations. Distributing the love will allow the bugs in the high-traffic areas to recover and thrive. “It’s a big thing to have 10,000 people descend on your home in a few-week span,” Lewis says.
Cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula
For millennia, Mexico’s freshwater cenotes sustained the lives and rituals of ancient Maya civilizations long before Spanish colonization.
Today, on a larger scale, they remain a vital resource and alluring feature of the limestone block forming the Yucatán Peninsula. “Through geological time, the flow of the water has created these voids that eventually collapse to form the cenotes,” says hydrogeologist Emiliano Monroy-Ríos, who specializes in cenotes.
Thousands of these sinkholes remain barely touched, with new ones appearing and existing ones expanding regularly. Many of these cenotes are part of the world’s largest underwater cave system, Sac Actun, often referred to as an underground river and archaeological frontier. As recently as 2015, a previously unknown cenote was discovered underneath the famous Maya temple pyramid at Chichén Itzá. Then there are the day resort or nature park attractions, such as Gran Cenote, or Cenote X’Canche adjacent to the Ek Balam Archaeological Site. These massive cenotes might feature diving platforms, rope swings, and guided tours or floating trips to draw wide-eyed adventurers.
In Monroy-Ríos’ view, sharing a limited number of these destinations with tourists poses relatively minor risk to the aquifer ecosystems — though he prefers sites that minimize modification to the natural features, as well as tour groups that limit capacity and educate visitors about the importance of the waterway.
Much bigger questions remain unanswered about the impact of adding a nearly-1,000-mile railway that would send both passenger and cargo trains across the fragile topography. Such is the scale of Tren Maya, which President López Obrador began rolling out in 2020, with a promised completion date of 2024.
Monroy-Ríos describes Tren Maya as “a monster project” that has been rushed and poses significant risks to the environment. The government plan, with costs ballooning to over $20 billion as of late 2022, has evolved from a campaign promise to actual construction in fragmented phases, without the completion of various impact assessments and environmental reviews. In 2022, more than 300 researchers and academics signed a public letter asking López Obrador to cancel the project, which has barreled ahead despite public outcry and legal challenges. “Collapses happen all the time,” Monroy-Ríos says of the porous limestone across the region. “A big project like this can induce some of these collapses.”
Beyond engineering, safety and environmental concerns, archaeologists are raising flags. That’s because, remarkably, many of the region’s cave systems were dry and accessible to humans and animals roughly 10,000 years ago, when the water table was much lower. Over the past few decades, cave-diving specialists have begun exploring the system, with an eye toward archaeological artifacts, as well as the geology and hydrology. In 2014, researchers confirmed that a human skeleton found in a cenote in 2007 is likely more than 12,000 years old, revising history books on the timetables of human migration to the region. Other discoveries have included the bones of prehistoric giant sloths that likely spent time in the caves — perhaps alongside humans — around the last Ice Age.
Support and Protections
In part, archaeologists worry the train’s path could disturb hundreds of historical sites and compromise important dive zones, leaving countless artifacts lost to science.
Beyond that, Monroy-Ríos notes that overdevelopment of the area already puts a burden on the aquifer supplying clean water. He fears that any contamination of the waterway below the surface would be nearly impossible to contain: “[An] accident could be irreversible for the groundwater in general and the ecosystems that live down there.”
Monroy-Ríos adds that he is not opposed to a train in any shape or form. Rather, he believes the project requires more rigorous engineering assessments. Some judges have agreed, creating legal blocks to López Obrador’s incremental work.
As to the tourism at current cenote destinations, Monroy-Ríos says it poses some opportunity for support and protections. “The more exposure and the more information we have, it’s just a better way to conservation in general,” he says. And yet, more tourism inevitably means more development, which he acknowledges is a double-edged sword for the region’s future.
Evidence across decades has documented the shrinking of famous glaciers in our warming climate. This reality makes glaciers a prime candidate for “last chance tourism,” where the pending disappearance of a structure or species drives intrigue and traffiic. The irony, of course, is that traveling to such novelties often generates greenhouse gases or inflicts direct harms that accelerate their disappearance. One potential benefit to glaciers: You can admire them from a distance, at least for now, without any direct contact.
Stronza recommends two destinations in South America as exemplary versions of sustainable, beneficial ecotourism: The Kapawi Ecolodge Project in Ecuador and Posada Amazonas in Peru. Kapawi, which is fully owned by the Achuar Indigenous Nation, offers multiday rainforest hikes, family-style meals and tea ceremonies, plus lodging in traditional Achuar bungalows. In southeast Peru, Posada Amazonas immerses travelers in the Indigenous culture and natural wonders of the Tambopata jungle, with 75 percent of profits going to the Ese Eja Native