Shark diving, whale watching, safari tours, mountain gorilla expeditions - all fall under a single heading: Ecotourism. It's a complex activity that brings together conservation, education, and economic development - all for good or for evil depending on the motivations of the operators.
Many conservation organizations or NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) are turning to ecotourism as a new strategic direction. In many parts of the world, conservation legislation and regulations which have been put in place - but unsupported logistically or economically - have proven less than effective. Ecotourism has the potential for both enlightening the public and providing economic incentive to governments or local economies. But it must be structured in a way that insures safety to the animals, safety for the participants, and minimizes it's ecological footprint while at the same time remaining economically viable.
There will always be an element of adventure associated with ecotourism - the thrill of seeing an elusive, endangered, or even potentially dangerous animal in the wild, and that will remain a major component as to its allure. See this online video promo I produced on shark diving for SharkDiver.com, emphasizing the mystique of these incredible animals (as opposed to promoting some macho, life-threatening experience).
Once participants are attracted to this unique opportunity, then it is imperative that the operators stress the concepts of education, conservation and protection. If not, then they are just profiteering and that greed can lead to lax policies that endanger people and animals. Shark Divers.com, for which I am an on-call consultant, provides professional services to help advance the future of responsible shark eco-tourism by assessing potential sites and recommending detailed safety and environmental procedures that require strict compliance on the part of the operators.
Ecotourism is no "silver bullet" solution or panacea. It can be abused by unscrupulous operators just like any other commercial venture. But many in the conservation and ecology movement are finding that a greater level of awareness - a more personal connection - is in order and ecotourism may be one way to help reach that goal.