First developed as a small-scale alternative to the mainstream commercial travel industry, the appeal of eco-tourism to travellers, governments and investors is now growing rapidly.
Over the past two decades, providing environmentally sensitive holidays has evolved from a cottage industry into a global business sector that spans continents. As more travellers from developed countries opt for "green" holidays, eco-tourism is becoming an increasingly effective way of funding the conservation of natural resources.
Although some ecological purists argue that the carbon footprint of any holiday involving long-haul air travel is too large, eco-tourism can bring huge benefits to local communities. The long-term sustainability of a country's natural resources is also something governments increasingly ignore at their peril. Traditional industries such as mining are seen as increasingly unsustainable because they drain the earth of natural non-renewable resources.
In Canada, the government of Quebec has unveiled plans to use eco-tourism as a way of safeguarding half the province's northern territory, a region roughly the same size as France. Jean Charest, the premier of Quebec, announced that 20 per cent of the region would be declared protected areas by 2020. This is about double the territory originally earmarked for conservation. A further 30 per cent of the land will be closed to mining and hydroelectric projects.
In Ontario, the government has already earmarked US$100 million (Dh367.3m) over five years for environmental planning for its northern territory, which is three times smaller than Quebec's.
Mr Charest described the vast conservation area his government has earmarked for conservation as "one of the last virgin territories on the planet". It includes places of immense natural interest, including the Nastapoka River, home to the world's only freshwater harbour seals, and sections of forest promising living space for the country's threatened caribou species.
However, Greenpeace, the environmental protection group, has expressed concern over Quebec's conservation track record. At the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Mr Charest promised to conserve 12 per cent of Quebec's boreal forests. However, 20 years after the Rio summit, only 6 per cent has been conserved.
Although the exact nature of the Quebec government's eco-tourism initiatives has yet to be finalised, members of the three Aboriginal communities and one Inuit community that constitute the area's main inhabitants are to be included in the planning process. Eco-tourism can help support indigenous people without aggressively disrupting their traditional lifestyle, which is another reason why it has a huge appeal for governments sensitive to the needs of the original inhabitants of the world's exotic conservation areas.
Developing countries, in particular, increasingly see eco-tourism as a way of protecting their unique environments while raising cash for their struggling economies. The Caribbean Tourism Organisation's 13th annual Sustainable Investment Conference, for example, is scheduled to host its first Green Investment Power Forum when it meets in early April in Guyana. The investment forum will be attended by bodies such as the Climate Change team at the Multilateral Investment Fund, government ministers, tourism officials, entrepreneurs and other delegates.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, environmental lobbyists are pitching investment in eco-tourism as an alternative to funding further mining operations, quoting data from the country's Mines and Geosciences Bureau, which comes under the umbrella of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. According to the department, mining employs only 0.36 per cent of Filipinos, or roughly 199,000 people. This is compared with the agriculture sector, which provides jobs to 14 per cent of the population, or 12 million people.
Eco-tourism is also being seen as a way to counter the ravages of traditional tourism, which has already begun to blight areas such as Machu Picchu in Brazil, one of Latin America's most important architectural and cultural sites.
Often, an increase in interest from the world's tourists in areas of natural beauty can directly threaten their environmental sustainability. The Belize Barrier Reef, which extends to almost 300 kilometres and is the second largest in the world, now attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year. The resulting development of hotels and other recreational facilities is already putting pressure on the long-term future of the reef's plant and marine life, which includes threatened species of marine turtle, manatee and the American crocodile.
One of the chief problems facing green investors when looking at the eco-tourism industry is how to distinguish between purely commercial ventures involving massive construction work dressed up as eco-friendly holidays and genuine eco-tourism ventures aimed at sustaining local environments and cultures.
The investment waters are further muddied by the fact that most genuine eco-tourism companies are still small scale, almost family run operations. Although this offers individual investors the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a growing operation, it also carries all the risks and uncertainties associated with any start-up funding.
But it now looks as if 2012 will be the year in which a combination of government sustainability initiatives, a growing global consumer interest in eco-holidays and increasing institutional and state investment will combine to create some new and interesting opportunities for green investors.