Tourism consumption of biodiversity: Building resort thatched huts influence tropical forests in unexpected ways

Tourism is a huge economic force that exerts major environmental impacts. Some impacts of tourism, such as habitat destruction and carbon emissions, are widely recognized. However, the role of tourism in direct consumption of biodiversity is largely ignored. In fact, tourism, ecotourism, in particular, is often portrayed as a conservation strategy that creates alternative tourism-related livelihoods for local people and reduces their dependency on biodiversity consumption for subsistence.
We use the thatched hut as an icon of the tropical sand and sun tourism to explore, using a holistic offbeat approach, the nexus between Western conceptions of paradise and the global consumption of tropical forest-based materials for construction of thatched resort architecture. Contrary to common claims, we demonstrate many ways in which tourism drives an increased consumption of biodiversity. Based both on field experience in SE Mexico and extensive literature and web searches, we document the use of 148 species in 31 countries for the construction of commercial thatched structures associated with tourism. Our analysis shows that the emergence of thatched architecture in tourist contexts represents not only a scale-up in the demand of plant-based materials, but often resulted in changes in the species utilized, how rural and urban landscapes are regulated and managed, architectural uses, and often a partial or total substitution for synthetic look-alike materials.
The use of synthetic materials may not have direct impacts on local biodiversity but clearly contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions, and rarely contribute to local economies. Conversely, the use forest-based materials often contribute to local economies and retain some connection with traditional architectures, however, ascertain their sustainability of is a more complex issue that depends on the interactions of a myriad of factors. Among these factors, species biological attributes, such as growth rates and reproduction capacity; remaining species habitat and how these habitats are managed across landscapes; what norms regulate their management and use; and of course the size and preferences of the markets, among other factors. Depending on the local context, widespread generalized ideas of paradise, that are materialized in commercial thatched architecture, can either sustain or degrade biodiversity.
José Antonio Sierra Huelsz is a Postdoctoral Research fellow /  Becario Postdoctoral in Centro de Investigación en Biodiversidad y Conservación, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, Mexico.
Illustrations: Utkarsh Pathak