A new way to meet the environment (10)
Ecotourism does not stop at amplifying the value of natural resources; it can even change the paradigm of local economic cycle.
By Yoo Young-sook
Every winter, Upo Wetland of Changnyeong County, located south east of the Republic of Korea, is crowded with special guests. They are no other than the migratory birds who have escaped the harsh cold weather of Siberia. Some of the migratory birds wintering in Upo Wetland are worldwide endangered species such as the Eurasian Spoonbill and Whooper Swan. A spectacular view of thousands of migratory birds nesting there is more than enough to attract numerous tourists every year.
Upo Wetland, also known as “a paradise of migratory birds,” is the largest undisturbed wetlands in the country. Not only the migratory birds, but also many kinds of plants, trees, insects, fish and humans inhabit this benevolent land and enjoy the gift from nature. Also called “a museum of ecosystem,” Upo Wetland was designated as a wetland with international importance in 1998 by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation of wetlands. Millions of people at home and abroad are attracted by the seasonal change of the site and visit Upo Wetland every year. The accumulated economic value generated is said to reach tens of billions of won. Thanks to endeavors of the municipal government and the local people who chose to coexist with nature over development, nature could be conserved.
This is not a story confined to Upo Wetland. Suncheon Bay, the widest reed bed in Korea and one of the world’s top-five coastal wetlands, has long been in the limelight as the most successful ecotourism attraction. About two million tourists visit Suncheon Bay and significantly contribute to the local economy annually. Such a success story was possible with continuous endeavors by the local people who made a radical decision to get rid of 300 telephone poles around Suncheon Bay, and the local farmers who gave up farming in winter. In fact, during winter, they managed to fill up the rice paddies with water for migratory birds to bathe in.
These success stories tell us that we can achieve both environmental conservation and economic development by invigorating ecotourism. Ecological travel can create a virtuous circle of environmental conservation and economic development, and it can serve as a model for low-carbon green growth. The current generation is amplifying rather than reducing the outstanding ecological and cultural value of ecotourism, so that the next generation can also enjoy what we have now. Such considerate actions make the future very hopeful.
In the 21st century, where climate change and environmental crises are threatening our existence and each one of us struggles to find a way to coexist with nature, sustainable development is an issue of keen interest. To this end, many countries across the world are opting out of conventional expansionism-centered development and are eagerly searching for ways to harmoniously live with nature and achieve sustainable development.
Tourism is no exception. The beautiful nature of Southeast Asia is famous for tourist attraction. Nevertheless, natural disasters like tsunamis caused by climate change, coastal erosion and reckless development have destroyed many invaluable assets of the region and even have damaged the habitat of indigenous people whose livelihood is heavily dependent on natural resources and tourism. The substantial threat of climate change to humans has never been greater. We even hear of gloomy forecasts that the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Sea, might be inundated completely if the sea level keeps rising at the current speed. It is no wonder that people have started to realize the ultimate way to continue the tourism industry is by conserving nature. Recently, ecotourism has gained popularity in the sense that it can be an option for sustainable tourism.
Ecotourism aims to enable travelers to experience nature and interact with it. Ecological tourism has humanistic and philosophical aspects as well, for it allows visitors a chance to reflect while marveling at the breath-taking scenery nature provides. In 1990, the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defined ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” As such, ecotourism is a win-win journey to take for both the environment and the economy.
Ecotourism has its own characteristics that distinguish it from conventional tourism. First of all, it holds plenty of stories on indigenous forests, mud flats, plants and animals. It gives great meaning to know the original stories and true nature of the area. As tourists grasp the name of various plants and flowers along the paths, their minds are enriched with stories of nature.
Another distinctive aspect of ecotourism is limiting the number of tourists. The environment is easily damaged and disrupted with concentrated numbers of tourists in one place. Ecotourism regulates the number of people that travel to a site which protects the natural resources. This ultimately allows a small group of tourists to enjoy quality time with a more pleasant and meaningful visit.
Ecotourism does not stop at amplifying the value of natural resources; it can even change the paradigm of local economic cycle. Conventional tourism was often driven by conglomerates who constructed hotels and other infrastructure, and only the investors with money benefited from the development of the area. On the contrary, ecotourism encourages the indigenous people to participate in the programs and share the benefits with the local communities. The Ministry of Environment is taking the lead, and all governmental organizations have made many efforts in vitalizing ecotourism and boosting it.
Moreover, it can be said that ecotourism has significantly changed the public perspective on the protection of nature. The Korea National Park Service surveyed ecological tour participants in 2010. According to the survey, 98 percent of the respondents said that they were satisfied with the ecological tour they participated in, and 97 percent responded that they grew more interested in the protection of nature after the tour. World Research also conducted a survey of the general public in Korea with a similar theme. Approximately 67 percent of the respondents said that they believed ecotourism could develop local communities and boost the economic value of natural resources.
It is remarkable that more local communities demand the designation as an environmental conservation area. The Ministry of Environment has designated six spots as environmental conservation areas since 2010, and all six of the local communities voluntarily requested to be designated as areas for environmental conservation. For instance, the owner and local residents of wetlands in Gonggeumji, Sangju, eagerly wanted their wetlands to be designated as an environmental conservation area in order to draw more eco-tourists to their community. This clearly shows that the public now has a different perspective toward the designation of environmental conservation areas. The public used to think that the designation of environmental conservation areas affected their community negatively but now an increasing number of people believe that a well-protected ecosystem can contribute to the local economy. It is no exaggeration to say that ecotourism is a frontrunner of sustainable development.
This year the Ministry of Environment and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) cohost the “UNEP Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism Symposium and the Second Annual Conference” in Seoul. It is a remarkable event where one can observe global trends and learn about other countries’ experiences in sustainable tourism, which conserves the environment and revitalizes local economies by creating green jobs.
One aspect of the “UNEP Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism Symposium and the Second Annual Conference” worth noting is that the attendees will take an ecology field trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula. It has served as a buffer zone between South and North Korea ever since the ceasefire agreement for the Korean War. The DMZ has not been developed because of the landmines in the area. Recognizing the ecological value of the DMZ, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to designate it as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in July this year. The designation of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve will turn the tragic history into something meaningful.
Visiting the DMZ will be a rare chance to gain a glimpse of sustainable ecotourism in Korea in the future. It is hoped that the DMZ will turn into a tourist hotspot, even more popular than Upo Wetland and Suncheon Bay, symbolizing peace and ecology when the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation is completed in July. Hosting the “UNEP Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism Symposium and the Second Annual Conference” will bring Korea one step closer toward realizing sustainable ecotourism, which is comprised of an ideal triangle: environmental conservation, efficient utilization of nature and economic value generation. It is hoped that this event will serve as a stepping stone for Korea in creating, yet again, a powerful driving force of green growth.
Yoo Young-sook, who spent most of her career in scientific research at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), was appointed as Environment Minister in May last year. In between her work at KIST, she also undertook research at the Korean Chemical Society and served as director at the Korean Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Yoo did her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Ewha Womans University before her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Oregon State University. She also did post-doctoral studies at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
For her work in chemical research, Yoo was presented with the 3rd Amore Pacific Award for outstanding women in the sciences in 2008.
Water is essential
A considerable amount of water supplied to our households ends up being wasted.
We often inadvertently let water run while brushing our teeth. Even small leaks can waste a large volume of water. We thoughtlessly throw away any unused water when we get a drink of water. Small changes in our lives can save and conserve significant volume of water.
If a person saves a cup of water, just a cup of water is conserved, but if 100 persons conserve a cup of water each, then 100 cups of water can be conserved. Given that, each individual’s contribution to water conservation may be minuscule, but the cumulative effect of all individuals’ saving water could be dramatic.