Effects of Ecotourism on Forest Loss in the Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot Based on Counterfactual Analyses

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Ecotourism is developing rapidly in biodiversity hotspots worldwide, but there is limited and mixed empirical evidence that ecotourism achieves positive biodiversity outcomes. We assessed whether ecotourism influenced forest loss rates and trajectories from 2000 to 2017 in Himalayan temperate forests. We compared forest loss in 15 ecotourism hubs with nonecotourism areas in 4 Himalayan countries. We used matching statistics to control for local-level determinants of forest loss, for example, population density, market access, and topography. None of the ecotourism hubs was free of forest loss, and we found limited evidence that forest-loss trajectories in ecotourism hubs were different from those in nonecotourism areas. In Nepal and Bhutan, differences in forest loss rates between ecotourism hubs and matched nonecotourism areas did not differ significantly, and the magnitude of the estimated effect was small. In India, where overall forest loss rates were the lowest of any country in our analysis, forest loss rates were higher in ecotourism hubs than in matched nonecotourism areas. In contrast,in China, where overall forest loss rates were highest, forest loss rates were lower in ecotourism hubs than where there was no ecotourism. Our results suggest that the success of ecotourism as a forest conservation strategy, as it is currently practiced in the Himalaya, is context dependent. In a region with high deforestation pressures, ecotourism may be a relatively environmentally friendly form of economic development relative to other development strategies. However, ecotourism may stimulate forest loss in regions where deforestation rates are low.