Ecotourism as an Ecosystem Service

A good friend of mine has been working on developing a curriculum for sustainability lessons in Utica, and she asked me just a couple days ago for some help with the topic of ecosystem services. I thought it strange that she came to me (a hotelie, no less) for help on such a scientific topic, and I had to admit to her that my knowledge of the topic was shallow. Nonetheless, I pointed her to the UN’s 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), the four-year study that is considered by the environmentalist community as the go-to resource on ecosystem services. I had skimmed the hefty 155-page synthesis report a few months earlier—I’d only initially did it because Eric Ricaurte, my research adviser, had recommended it to me—and I didn’t remember much from it. So after recommending the MA, I decided to read through some sections of it again.

Mangroves are a recognized source of ecosystem services. They buffer against storms, prevent erosion, and filter out toxins.

By way of background, ecosystem services are resources and processes that the natural environment provides for us. For example, trees provide oxygen for us to breathe, fish in the ocean serve as food, and earthworms help decompose our waste. But what caught my eye immediately from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was how it recognized ecotourism and recreation as important ecosystem services for humans. I couldn’t help but smile: while attempting to preserve their surrounding environments, eco-resorts around the world are also drawing upon this valuable ecosystem service by deriving revenue from it.

Ecotourism as an ecosystem service is a topic on which virtually no research exists. Economists have conducted research and performed valuations on the more typical ecosystem services—for example, food, water, energy, decomposition, filtration, pollination, and climate regulation. And I can’t help but think that these studies are performed for somewhat perverse purposes: to discover the dollar value of a certain ecosystem and decide whether it can be destroyed for other human uses. Monetary amounts have been assigned to many ecosystem services. But I’ve never before heard of anyone who has accurately quantified the worth of the ecotourism, recreation, cultural/spiritual value, and aesthetic value from nature (all of which are recognized by the MA as ecosystem services).

Should we quantify the value of ecotourism? First, I think it would be nearly impossible to do so. Evaluators would need to look at every single ecotourist destination individually. They would then need to figure out how much each visitor is willing and able to pay to visit and see that area. Eco-resorts would then be obligated to set their rates accordingly, and they would be motivated to shut out (or in better words, privatize) the property’s natural beauty to other parties who do not pay the set “entrance fee.” Second, I believe that the results of such a valuation study would be too variable. Every person places a different value on nature: there are tree-hugging nature enthusiasts who love seeing beautiful views, and there are city-dwellers who could care less about national parks. Each individual is willing and able to pay a different amount.

Lastly, I think that the value of seeing and enjoying nature is beyond a simple price tag. It’s probably practical to quantify the economic impact of earth’s water purification services and other similar services. That’s because some alternatives exist, and humans can, to some extent, replicate those basic services through existing technology. But humans cannot replicate natural beauty once it’s been destroyed. There is something demeaning about ascribing a dollar amount to the beauty of nature. I argue that nature’s aesthetics hold immense intrinsic value that cannot be measured. As the Millennium Assessment says, this particular ecosystem service is “sacred.”

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