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How does tourism affect cave ecosystems?

During history, humans have used caves for a variety of reasons – as shelters, ritual places, for food storage, and, more recently, as touristic attractions. In such so-called “show caves,” visitors can experience the natural beauty of caves, usually by following a guide on constructed, artificially-lit trails. However, caves are also highly diverse but fragile ecosystems, sheltering a wide variety of bat species and invertebrates, including some that are currently endangered. The human disturbances caused by changes in the infrastructure of the show caves, together with the influx of tourists, frequently affect these ecosystems.

In a new review study of the impact of tourism on cave ecosystems, a team of researchers from the University of Turin in Italy examined over 1,000 scientific papers to construct a literature-based dataset relative to the knowledge of the ecological status of 265 show caves in 39 countries across the globe. 

Their investigation revealed that there are many ways in which tourism can disrupt cave ecosystems. For instance, the presence of visitors often increases cave temperatures, which, combined with the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations caused by tourists’ breaths, may enhance carbonate dissolution and thus damage geological formations. 

In addition, tourists can carry pollutants and various microorganisms into the caves through their clothes and hands, which then spread around and can affect native organisms. Finally, besides affecting subterranean invertebrates, the artificial lighting and noise related to tourism may also have a significant impact on the life of bats, making it harder for them to reproduce or overwinter in caves.

Further research is needed on the impact of tourism on show caves outside Europe and how tourism affects subterranean fauna in the context of climate change. However, the data the scientists have already gathered could help managing authorities design guidelines that will allow a sustainable touristic development of show caves, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from a social and economic point of view.

“Overall, this data paper could fill the lack of awareness towards the fragility of the natural heritage of show caves to favor a sustainable touristic use that would guarantee their preservation for future generations as well as the economic development of local communities,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Conservation.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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