Ecotourism or ecocide?

Posted: 10 July 2001

Ecotourism is the fastest growing part of the world travel business, but whether it destroys more than it protects will depend upon how it is put into practice, says Erlet Cater, co-editor of Ecotourism: a Sustainable Option?

For the travel and tourism industry, ecotourism is the fastest growing 'market segment', generally equated with nature tourism. Interpreted merely as a product, however, it may be ecologically based but not ecologically sound, responsible or sustainable.

To incorporate these vital characteristics ecotourism must adhere to three essential principles:

The first is, perhaps, the most obvious. As an industry based on the beauty and diversity of nature, it is evident that it should not deplete or degrade those resources and thus prejudice its own future. Ecotourism must, therefore, be ecologically sound, requiring a two-way link between itself and environmental conservation.

To consider nature without recognising the link with people will, however, compromise sustainability. It is now widely recognised that conservation cannot be divorced from development issues. The second principle is therefore that ecotourism must be responsible, paying regard to local needs and improving local welfare.

Birdwatchers, Lake Natron in Rift Valley, Tanzania© Marc Schlossman/Panos PicturesHowever, to be truly sustainable, ecotourism needs to fulfil the ambitions and expectations of all interests. The third principle, then, is to consider not only the interests of tourism enterprises and organizations, but also visitor satisfaction, the needs of tourists.

If, ecotourism embodies these essential principles, symbiotic relationships between the varying interests should follow, with environmental protection resulting both from and in enhanced standards of living for local populations, continued profits for the tourism industry, sustained visitor attraction, and revenue for conservation.An examination of ecotourism across these dimensions, highlights not only its potential but also its problems.

Local benefits

The high ground claimed by ecotourism, in terms of its contribution to development, is that, in principle, it offers enhanced prospects for local involvement compared with conventional tourism.As well a moral obligation to incorporate the local people in projects that affect them, such incorporation has important developmental implications.

Tourism income may be captured locally through revenue sharing schemes, through entrepreneurship and labour, and through the sale of tourist merchandise. Tourism can also act as a catalyst, and even provide some of the finance, for the improvement of essential services such as clean water, sanitation, electricity supply and transport. It may also provide an incentive for improved education and skills and the potential for participation in decision making.

Local involvement also makes sense for conserving natural environments. It has been recognised that, as people realise the benefits from ecotourism, support for conservation increases. This was shown, for example, in a study for WWF in Belize by Lindberg and Enriquez. This found that the designation of Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize met with the approval of 63 per cent of nearby residents of San Pedro. Now, with 44 per cent of households receiving direct economic benefits from tourism, support is almost unanimous.

Ecotourism may also provide the incentive for the survival of a traditional culture. The cultural and the natural are often inextricably linked to form the composite attraction of a particular ecotourism destination. The terracing of the Himalayan foothills, the hot springs at Tatopani, Sikkim and the rock graves of Toraja, Sulawesi are all examples of the fusion of the natural and the cultural.

Blowpipe tuition under Yagua chief, Aceer rainforest reserve, Peru© Michael Doolittle/Still PicturesGreater local involvement makes practical sense for national and local governments, agencies and operators using local labour, expertise and knowledge. Education is a two-way process, improved understanding of local circumstances is likely to increase project efficiency. Building upon local experience and traditions provides a foundation for wise and successful development, and, simultaneously, an ecotourism asset.

Introduction to indigenous uses of natural products also broadens the base of environmental interpretation. One of Zanzibar's most popular ecotourism attractions is Mitu's Spice Tours, a village walkabout introducing tourists to the wide variety and multiple uses of exotic flora. Indigenous use of local building materials has practical implications for more appropriate forms of development, and also reduces leakages, lowers costs and enhances local multiplier effects.

Local involvement is not without its problems, however. Revenue sharing schemes may neither benefit the most needy, nor those most adversely affected. Beneficiaries may often be passive recipients, rather than active participants. The emphasis must be on participation rather than patronisation, if traditional livelihoods are removed they must be replaced with others.

Local participation, however, often consists of employment rather than entrepreneurship, where constraints of costs of entry, language, education and skills operate. Furthermore, the nature of local employment tends to be low skilled, poorly paid and often seasonal. The higher status, better paid jobs, particularly managerial positions, tend to be occupied by outsiders.

Much disappointment has been registered regarding the failure of ecotourism to enhance rural livelihoods. All community members will not benefit equally. The lodge owners in the Annapurna region of Nepal, for example, benefit most from trekking tourism. It is vital to recognise the heterogeneity of the local community.

Industry profits

The integrity of the tourism 'product' is vital to the interests of tourism entrepreneurs, and all those who are associated with them, such as tourist boards, government departments, NGOs and international aid agencies. Tourism operators benefit from public support, increased credibility and demand for associated products. Sound environmental practice often makes good business sense.

This is most evident in energy conservation. The introduction of alternative energy supplies and more fuel-efficient methods in lodges in the Annapurna Conservation Area is a case in point. Reduced pressures on deforestation are coupled with benefits of time and money for lodge operators.

There are, however, many practical and institutional obstacles to effective ecotourism management, not the least of which will be the problems of vested interests who are more concerned with short term profits than with the long term.

Pressure of numbers

Another dilemma is the sheer problem of numbers. It could be argued that, strictly defined, 100,000 visitors trekking annually in northern Thailand are not ecotourists. To confine attention, however, to the consideration of small scale, more easily managed ecotourism projects, involving small specialist groups paying high prices, is to invite ecocide at higher levels.

Rapid growth rates imply inevitable change. Psychological carrying capacity (as well as other types of carrying capacity) will probably be breached and visitor satisfaction compromised. This is especially true when visitors are concentrated in space and time. Many destinations are seasonal. Over 60 per cent of trekkers visit the Annapurna region in four winter months. At Taman Negara, Malaysia, until recent improvements in surface and air access, the park was closed from November to January when the Tembeling river was unnavigable. Concentration of ecotourists in more popular spots is also inevitable. Annual visitors to the Brazilian side of the Iguacu falls exceeds one million.

However much a principled definition of ecotourism is advocated, it must be recognised that so-called ecotourists are not an homogenous group. The spectrum of participants embraces hard-core nature tourists through to casual day visitors. Their behaviour and consequent impact will vary accordingly. It is essential, therefore, to attempt to match numbers and types of ecotourists with destination characteristics.

Paying for conservation

Willingness-to-pay surveys of ecotourists across the globe show a consistent response of $10 as a reasonable visitor's fee. Certain unique sites, or those harbouring more charismatic species, can support higher fees. The Mountain Gorilla Preserve in Rwanda charged $170, the Galapagos $80. Indeed, the pricing mechanism may be used to regulate numbers. Tourists visiting Bhutan, limited to 5000 a year, have to spend $200 a day. The potential revenue for conservation is therefore evident, but often not realised.

Where the fee falls below the amount visitors are willing to pay, the capability to contribute more fully towards conservation remains latent. The 1995 entry fee for Taman Negara was equivalent to only US35c; even the proposed tenfold increase to Malay$10 will be below the average amount visitors would be willing to pay. Local differentials must apply, however, so that locals are not excluded. Madagascar National Parks, for example, charge foreigners $11, nationals 50c.

It is also necessary to ensure that a proportion of revenues accrues locally. Percentages of revenues directed towards conservation vary between sites. Often high proportions end up in central treasuries. In Rwanda the proposed allocation of 5 per cent of tourism receipts (or approximately $40-50,000 a year) towards local communities at the Mountain Gorilla Project was never implemented. There are, however, instances where such earmarking has occurred. At the Kibale Reserve in Uganda 75 per cent of all tourism profits are directed to local communities, the remaining 25 per cent to forest department management costs.

The challenge

The major role players in ecotourism all have a stake in its sustainable development. Their present and future interests are, in many ways, tied to one another. Given the multitude, and diversity, of stakeholders a completely sustainable outcome is, however, likely to remain elusive.

The grand challenge is to reconcile sometimes complementary, but often conflicting interests. The essential dilemma is to balance demands of ever-increasing 'new-tourists' escaping from the confines and pressures of urban life, and reacting against the characteristics of mass tourism with the needs of the environment, the aspirations of tourism organizations, and, most importantly, the basic needs of the local population.

Although a win-win scenario, where all interests gain, is the ideal outcome, there will often be situations where one interest may gain at the expense of another. National Parks, for example, may bring benefits for conservation and for visitors, but the local population is likely to lose out if they are excluded from their traditional activities.

The situation is fraught with discontinuities. A win situation for one interest in a particular place at a specific point in time is likely to be a loss for another. For example, at Lao Pako ecotourism lodge in Laos, the cost of installing environmentally benign solar panels, together with imported maintenance-free heavy duty batteries, could have employed two locals for ten years to maintain a more conventional generator. The enterprise is also unlikely to break even for at least another year.

It is necessary, therefore, to recognise conflicts and identify relative costs and benefits. Arriving at the most sustainable outcome is likely to involve trade-offs. It is unlikely to be optimal either environmentally or developmentally, but, in the circumstances, it will be the most feasible and best practicable. And, hopefully, ecocide will be circumvented.

Dr Erlet Cater is a lecturer in the Geography Department, University of Reading. Ecotourism: a Sustainable Option? was co-edited by Gwen Lowman and published by RGS/John Wiley, 1994, £37.50