updated 5/16/2007 11:49:53 AM ET 2007-05-16T15:49:53

Ecotourism may be just as environmentally damaging as traditional travel because of the greenhouse gases vacationers help create when they journey to remote, pristine areas, industry experts warned this week.

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That dilemma has been the focus of the Global Ecotourism Conference, a three-day gathering of ecotourism officials struggling to chart the future of an industry whose success threatens to become its own undoing.

“There is no other industry that has more to gain or to lose from climate change,” said Alexi Huntley, whose Costa Rica-based Nature Air calls itself the first airline with zero net carbon dioxide emissions because of investments in projects such as reforestation to help keep air clean.

Ecotourism — travel to pristine areas meant to avoid the damaging impact of traditional tourism — is increasing in popularity, according to The International Ecotourism Society, one of the conference sponsors.

But now the travel experts are concerned that the extensive travel often required to reach untouched natural wonders produces climate-destroying greenhouses gases and other environmental damage. That, in turn, could harm the lush national parks and small, exotic islands that attract the environmentally minded.

“It’s the Catch-22 of nature-based tourism,” Huntley said.

A draft statement the meeting was expected to adopt said the ecotourism industry needs to focus on sustainable tourism “that entails responsible travel to natural areas and which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.”

“Long distance travel — especially air travel — is a challenge to all of us. We know that it has serious impacts on the climate,” said Norwegian Environment Minister Helen Bjoernoey, who opened the conference on Monday.

“The tourist industry should give priority to developing ecotourism in markets closer to home and to promoting environmentally friendly forms of transport.”

Wolfgang Strasdas, a professor of ecotourism at the German University of Applied Sciences in Eberswalde, said it would be simplest to just eliminate exotic trips but that would spell disaster for poor regions and countries economically dependent on tourism.

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