Ecotourism - hope and reality

Posted: January 2008

Author: Junie Wadhawan

For those of us who are lucky enough to afford them, holidays are one of the most important things in our lives. And as the choice of travel increases people are increasingly looking beyond the traditional sun, sea and sand for other experiences. Ecotourism - tourism that takes you to fragile and beautiful areas - is one of the tourism industry's fastest growing sectors.

But how can tourism benefit local people rather than exploit them and their environments? This concern motivated those behind the development of ecotourism, who hoped that they had the answers. But has ecotourism really made tourism more sustainable? There are no definitive answers and there is still much to be explored.

Earthwatch volunteers help Dr Frank Paladino to scanendangered leatherback sea turtles for eggs© Peter Tyson/Earthwatch
 
Earthwatch volunteers help Dr Frank Paladino to scan endangered leatherback sea turtles for eggs© Peter Tyson/Earthwatch

 Despite the panic caused by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and later bombings in London and elsewhere, the number of international tourist arrivals grew to an all time high of 900 million in 2007, from 800 million in 2005. The 2007 figures are impressive considering the many negative factors influencing the demand such as exchange rate fluctuations with the US dollar weakening, credit crunches, rising fuel prices, health scares and with continuous political upheavals in countries around the world.

Despite this, tourism has been buoyed by the strong world economy. The Middle East leads the regional growth ranking with Asia and the Pacific in second place, followed by Africa. The number of people traveling abroad continues to grow every year with a total earnings from tourism a remarkable $733 billion. (UN World Tourism Organisation) www.worldtourism.org.

 

Tourists meet elephants alongthe Zambezi River© Victoria Falls River Safaris
 
Tourists meet elephants along the Zambezi River© Victoria Falls River Safaris

However, though tourism has created enormous opportunities economically, with growing investment prospects, it has also propelled the South towards increasing dependency and debt. Despite the booming facts and figures and glossy advertising, there is a downside. Studies show that most of the income from tourism goes back to the richer countries rather than remaining in the host countries.

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development www.unctadxi.org leakages or repatriation of profits in tourism total up to 85 per cent in some African countries, more than 80 per cent in the Caribbean, 70 per cent in Thailand and 40 per cent in India.

Tourism can also have a negative effect on local communities that are heavily dependent on limited natural resources. Drinking water may be siphoned off for use in tourist resorts leaving the local population in distress and coastal ecosystems may be built over by by tourist complexes, which endanger unique plant and marine life. Islands such as the Bahamas, Zanzibar, Galapagos, and Mallorca have proved particularly vulnerable.

Nature tourism

Faced with such problems, there has been something of a swing away from mass tourism, towards ecotourism. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) www.ecotourism.org, this type of holiday is defined as : 'Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.'

Birdwatchers, Lake Natron in Rift Valley, Tanzania© Marc Schlossman/Panos Pictures
 
Birdwatchers, Lake Natron in Rift Valley, Tanzania© Marc Schlossman/Panos Pictures

 As the Ethical Travel Guide published by Tourism Concern says, 'Ecotourism, which utilizes the hinterlands as well as the beaches, also became an attractive possibility for countries that had never thought they had anything to offer the tourist. Cloud forests and boiling lakes, sizzling deserts and empty tundra regions began to be opened up to tourism. Ecotourism, it was claimed, satisfied the desires of the growing numbers of 'discerning' tourists who wanted to get-away-from-the-hordes.'

Responsible holidays that attempt to protect local cultures, communities, landscapes and environments, engaging and benefiting indigenous people are now much in demand. Many tour operators offer such holidays, stretching from safaris in Africa to exploring the spectacular landscapes and monasteries of Tibet and Bhutan, or the rainforests of South America.

Students collecting garbage on a beach at Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Sian Kaan Conservation Foundation/Steve Hage
 
Students collecting garbage on a beach at Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Sian Kaan Conservation Foundation/Steve Hage

 According to TIES, Nature Tourism is growing at 10-12 per cent a year in the international market and 'experiential tourism' - which encompasses ecotourism, nature, heritage, cultural and soft adventure tourism as well as sub-sectors such as rural and community tourism - is among the sectors expected to grow more quickly over the next two decades. With awareness of ethical and responsible travel increasing, a survey of US, British and Austrian travellers revealed that 70 per cent would pay upto $150 more for a two-week stay in a hotel with a responsible attitude to the environment..

Displaced people

So-called ecotours, eco-resorts and eco-lodges have sprung up in various parts of the world, but not all adhere to the ethics and ideals of ecotourism. It is not unusual for indigenous communities to be displaced from their land by eco developments.

In the name of conservation, for example, the Maasai and their cattle were expelled from some of their long inhabited lands in the Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya where safari operators do not wish the wildlife to be disturbed by the tribes and their cattle. The situation took a turn for the worse during the drought in 2007 when the local tribes faced life-threatening conflicts. They were not allowed anywhere near the Reserve, where there was still pasture, for fear of upsetting tourists. But without understanding that the land actually belongs to the Maasai and that the equilibrium between the wildlife, environment and the cows has to be maintained for the wildlife to survive, the community remains endangered. The statistics clearly show that poverty has increased over the years in Kenya and that the incidence of poverty in Kenya is comparatively greater around conservation areas where tourist activity is highest.

Success stories

But along with the bad news, there is much that is good. The tourism literature is full of community-based initiatives, many of whihc ae genuine sucess stories.

In Equador, the Santa Lucia Lodge, a runner up for 2005 WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and the 2004 Responsible Tourism Awards, strives to conserve and protect their forest and provide sustainable sources of income to the local people. Ecotourism schemes there include training for local guides, courses in cooking and in administration. The Lodge also holds classes in the local elementary school on tree planting and separating and recycling waste (www.santaluciaecuador.com).

In Thailand, an NGO, CBT-I (previously known as REST) has assisted over 20 communities to develop appropriate training programmes to improve or preserve their way of life, based on the principles of healthy environments, societies, cultures and economies. Guests get an opportunity to stay with Thai communities, cooking and eating local food, trying their hand at fishing, farming and even arts and crafts like dying fabrics and weaving.

Fair trade

With a plethora of cheap flights, distances seem shorter, and the temptation to explore off the beaten track is ever greater. But in this age of global warming is it wrong to burn up the air miles, even to the best ecotourist destinations? it is certainly important to bear in mind the negatives of flying. But a sudden stop to stop flying would destroy the livelihoods of many people who depend on tourism for a living.

After the Bali bombings there was a big drop in tourist arrivals, and in the earnings for the local people. Kenya and Sri Lanka have also suffered from the result of internal unrest. However, there is plenty of evidence that if air travel continues to grow at anything like the present rate, it will become a major contributor to global warming by 2030.

Visitors on the Giant panda's tracks in Wanglang Nature Reserve, China. © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther
 
Visitors on the Giant panda's tracks in the mountains of the Wanglang Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China © WWF-Canon / Michel Gunther

 

Fair Trade in Tourism, as with in other consumer products, could be one solution to the injustice embedded in much of today's tourism. Such fair trade is about 'ensuring that the people, whose land, natural resources, labour, knowledge and culture are used for tourism activities, actually benefit from tourism', says the local organization Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (www.fairtourismsa.org.za). It encourages and publicises fair and responsible business practice by South African tourism companies through the FTTSA Trademark, an independent symbol of fairness in the tourism industry which was officially launched in South Africa in June 2002.

Tour operators, suppliers and other tourism organisations with little understanding of its founding principles, are increasingly using the term 'fair trade'. There is currently no internationally accepted label for fair trade tourism, nor are there any internationally recognized standards on any form of sustainable tourism. With no clear business advantage to being certified there has been no incentive for tourism service providers to go through the costly process of certification until now. With the dramatic growth in the fair trade markets, recognition of the fair trade brand and general awareness of trade justice issues among consumers, the situation is changing and there is international interest in developing fair trade tourism. (www.tourismconcern.org.uk)

There are ways and means to make tourism more positive for people in local communities and help preserve their culture and environment. But it will require serious thinking and strong commitment.

Related links:

Tourism Concern www.tourismconcern.org.uk is a British membership organisation campaigning on ethical and fairly traded tourism. It publishes the Ethical Travel Guide, a useful guide to responsible global travel, £12.99.

New Internationalist www.newint.org

Sustaining Tourism www.sustainabletourism.net

Junie Wadhawan is a writer with Tourism Concern..