Saturday, July 2, 2011

Green Saint or Eco-sinner. a crical analysis of ecotourism

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There exists a global struggle. Growing numbers of citizens organisations and movements in both the South and the North are fighting against the current system of globalisation, a system which they claim serves to strengthen the power of big corporations whilst obstructing efforts to create a socially just and ecologically sustainable world. The corporate tourism industry, along with television is one of the most potent agents of this globalisation and has been labelled “one of the most powerful driving forces towards progressive liberalization of the global economy that creates far more winners than losers.” Clear evidence exists that tourism is considerably contributing to the deepening crisis of poverty and debt, environmental degradation as well as human rights abuses. However, according to its commercial practitioners, ecotourism is the antidote to the aforementioned ills that mass tourism creates. Ecotour operators work with local people to conserve fragile ecosystems, support endangered species and habitats, preserve indigenous cultures and develop sustainable local economies. It is the purpose of this study to critically analyse this ecotourism, asking questions like, for example; whether it can successfully be used as a tool for conservation and sustainable development? In addition, what are the effects on these targeted areas and moreover, whose interests does ecotourism actually serve? Is just another ‘greenwash’ by big business in an unfair international system? It is important to note that these issues are interlinked and tend to overlap.

The first point at which ecotourism can be criticised arrives when simply trying to define it. In its simplest form, ecotourism is nature travel. In its more advanced form, ecotourism encompasses all aspects of life wildlife, plants, biodiversity, sustainable economies, conservation, heritage etc… So at it’s purest, ecotourism is a kinder, more gentle form of environmentalism that recognises humans as part of the ecosystem. This is a critical difference; it affects how tour operators, conservationalists and tourists interact with the host destination and also illustrates the problem that throughout the industry there remains no agreed upon definition, nor international standards that tourists and operators must follow. This, as will be highlighted later, leaves much room for greenwash, spin and exploitation for the sake of profit. In theory, ecotourism could be defined as “an enlightening nature travel experience that contributes to conservation of the ecosystem, whilst respecting the integrity of host communities.” However, in practice, a more truthful definition could describe ecotourism as “an economic process where rare and beautiful ecosystems are marketed internationally to attract tourists.”

Fundamentally then, we can see that two views prevail. One sees that public interest in the environment can be used to market a product, whilst the other suggests that this same interest may be used to conserve the resources upon which this product is based. In order for an ecotour to be a success it needs an effective integration of both views, so that both the industry and the resource can be sustained over the long term. This is a key issue in analysing ecotourism. The question must be posed, ‘can ecotourism be successfully used as a tool for sustainable development?’

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Sustainable development according to the Brundtland commission report is “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet there own needs.” According to Pamela Wight ecotourism can be sustainable as long as it accepts some key principles

• It should not degrade the resource and should be developed in an environmentally sound manner.

• It should involve education among all parties � local communities, government, NGOs, industry and tourists (before, during and after the trip)

• It promote understanding and should involve partnerships between many players (including those stated above)

• It should provide long term benefits � to the resource, to the local community, and to the industry. (scientific, cultural, social and economic)

So, are there any examples of such criteria being met? Erlet Cater and Gwen Lowman provide instances of such success, as in Zimbabwe the Nyaminyami wildlife park generated a 450 per cent increase in revenue earned from the introduction of sustainable wildlife activities. $500 000 was distributed to local villages with nearly all funds being invested in community projects which included the provision of a reliable water supply and the establishment of grinding mills. It is true that the major role players in tourism all have a stake in sustainable tourism and that their future interests are dependent on sound environmental practice. However, the same two authors also offer the analysis that “given the multitude of interests involved, a completely sustainable outcome is more likely to remain more of an ideal than a reality.” There are hardly ever any ‘win-win’ scenarios where positive links between the environment and development equate to conservation and income growth. (See Appendix i )

Conversely, the champions of ecotourism claim such successes to be frequent. 00 was designated the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) by the UN and was aggressively marketed as a celebration of ecotourism’s role in facilitating sustainable development. Yet many critics saw this celebratory tone as inappropriate due to the growing evidence of failed projects and disturbed communities and ecosystems. Even the World Bank, which has been promoting ecotourism development for about a decade, has published studies that suggest few if any ecotourism projects have actually generated substantial income for the parks they are intended to protect, much less the people living near them. In addition, tourism marketing men claim that ecotourism leads to a greater distribution of wealth and an increase in living standards when there is local community involvement. However, Mexican economist David Barkin counters this by stating, that even when not run by outsiders, the economic benefits of ecotourism can be limited. He argues that local elites are usually in the best economic and political position to benefit by development and moreover, he suggests that these projects do not support the broader regeneration of community based economies and self sufficiency, which are key factors for local sustainability. This directly goes against the criteria offered above by Pamela Wight. Worryingly, Barkin points to the fact that if local needs are not met or continue to be defined elsewhere, ecotourism projects can undermine local economic security, social relations and ecosystems. The reality of this has become apparent, as destination communities have suffered due to the drop in bookings post September 11th.

Despite this, promoters of the IYE such as the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) still assert that ecotourism can help eradicate poverty in the global south. However, as Anita Pleumarom of the Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team suggests, the global south provides an experimental laboratory and self-serving target of investment for the development, NGO, and corporate interests driving the aid agenda. She argues that communities are deliberately not given enough information enabling it difficult for them to make informed decisions and commitments. The IYE did promise the distribution of ‘Ecotourism Information Kits’, but as Deborah McLaren of the Rethinking Tourism Project states, such kits “promote a reductionistic approach…and they also promote the homogenisation of tourism experiences, as opposed to encouraging communities to engage actively with tourists on their own terms and in ways that bring tourists and locals to new understandings.” So again, Pamela Wight’ s check list would concur that sustainability is not being promoted, this time due to a lack of education and understanding between parties.

Amongst the negatives however, there do exist some positives. Robert G.Healy argues that through tourist merchandise, opportunities are offered to even the poorest participant in the local economy as they don’t need immense capital to produce. Furthermore, rural societies have been successfully selling traditional products, modified products and entirely new ones altogether. Through this process, local craft traditions have been revitalised and in some areas new ones have been created reinforcing local identities. Healy states that tourist merchandise “offers the possibility of using local materials sustainably and even provides a new market for the output of local agriculture and forestry enterprises, specifically targeted towards resource protection.” The potential then again exists for a ‘win-win’ scenario, but in reality other factors can complicate the situation making it a ‘lose-win’ with the environment suffering. This can happen due to a depletion of natural resources as inputs for such merchandise and furthermore, social tensions can be created when some members of the community benefit more than others from sales.(See Appendix i )

So in terms of sustainable development it is clear that there is clear potential for ecotourism to play a beneficial role, yet in the long term it seems as though all it is achieving is at a detrimental cost. The same can be said to be true for ecotourism’s role in the conservation and the protection of the areas, environments and the indigenous peoples it targets. The uneven ecotourism development which takes place can be reflected directly in ecological degradation. Take for example the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico. Here, impoverished peasants continue to violate the reserve’s ban on logging. This happens even though these peasants are aware of the importance of forest conservation. Why? It is because ecotourism development has failed to offer any meaningful economic opportunities or self sufficiency for the majority of people living there. Furthermore, when these lands are targeted for tourism, conditions can quickly undermine indigenous peoples’ land claims and control over what and who comes out of these landscapes.

It would be false to suggest that the money generated by ecotourism projects has not been welcomed by indigenous communities, but on the whole, projects have tended to backfire, causing divisions or not generating the incomes they expected. What’s more, ecotourism brings with it pressures to convert nature into exploitable resources, for example through the conversion of sacred sites into tourists attractions. This is a problem facing the Maasai in the Lolita Hills in Kenya who are being pressured to give up a sacred forest of biodiversity (Naimina-Enkiyio) in which they practice worship. In some cases, where this pressure has been combated there has been complaints of subterfuge. Commercially motivated bioprospectors have pretended to be ecotourists in order to sidestep local regulations and laws. As well as flora, wildlife is another factor that can be adversely affected by the incoming tourists. Ronda Green, an ecotour operator herself points to the obvious dangers of hand feeding and spotlighting and also suggests that through the arrival of humans, many species that we are unable to detect (such as Numbats) are forced to change their habitual regimes causing a disturbance to the ecosystem. She states, “We make promises for accreditation that we will not do activities that will unduly disturb wildlife, but these do not always translate easily into actual distances for each species, or indications that an animal is being affected.”

Perhaps most often overlooked is the inescapable fact that an Eco-tourist is no different than any other tourist in that they consume non-renewable resources to arrive at their destinations. It could even be argued they do more damage, since the areas they visit are often the most remote and pristine. However, the link between jetting across the world, the contribution of jet travel to greenhouse gas concentrations, and the ecotourist experience are rarely made. As Susan Becken reports, the Ecotourism Summit (one of the main events in the IYE) was described by the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) as a huge success, involving delegates from 1 different countries. She then argues that the energy demand of the delegates’ long distance travel to Quebec was obviously not taken into account. Therefore, this Summit was another example of good intentions resulting in negative environmental impacts. Becken remarkably highlights that the energy use of almost 0 terajoules (TJ) for air travel to the Summit could sustain 05 Nepali citizens, 4 World citizens or 0 Canadians! (See Appendix ii) Ecotourism has in fact been dubbed ‘Egotourism’ by Ian Munt, who asserts that ecotourism is as much about confirming one’s class identity, educational sophistication, disposable income and cultural capital as it is about visiting nature in far away places.

This ties in nicely to the next way in which ecotourism can be critically analysed by asking the question ‘Whose interests does it really serve?’ There is a growing belief by critics that large nature conservation and ecotourism groups have colluded to lobby for the UN endorsement of ecotourism and now want to exploit it for self serving purposes. Benefits open to them could include; free promotion for their products and technical consulting services, or getting funding for their own projects. Anita Pleumarom again provides a useful insight when she states that for grass roots groups it is alarming that the organisations which are mandated to represent the concerns of the NGOs and Communities in the South targeted for development, such as TIES (The International Ecotourism Society), are in fact based in the North. A statement presented at the Convention of Biological Diversity in Nairobi, May 000, displays evidence of such anxiety, “large conservation and development organisations do not respect local people’s rights.. several activities undertaken by the Ecotourism society do not respect the interests of indigenous peoples…and often threaten cultural and biological diversity”

More importantly, there is the question of whether these targeted peoples can actually say no to ecotourism. Debt-ridden Southern governments face huge pressures to generate foreign exchange for debt repayment purposes. Couple this with the already mentioned fact that national elites stand to gain economically from tourism development and it is clear that these governments are not in the best position to reject such projects, despite their obvious pit-falls. The ‘option’ to choose is rare as the pattern and organisation of international tourism often results in a loss of sovereignty of these destination countries in terms of decision making. This situation is made worse by the fact that there is enthusiastic support and promotion of ecotourism by international lending agencies such as the World Bank. Moreover, despite government efforts to develop creditable policies to deal with tourism, their efforts are often undermined by external forces beyond their control. For example, a recent UNCTAD study showed that the outflow of foreign exchange generated by tourism can reach levels as high as 75 per cent.

Perhaps the best indicator to show who really stands to benefit from ecotourism promotion is probably the fact that one of the IYE’s principal organisers was in fact the WTO - the world’s major proponent of the liberalisation of tourism services. This would certainly have favoured multinational tourism corporations such as airlines and hotels with a financial stake in the reduction or elimination of trade barriers. Small scale ecotourism operators are concerned that the WTO’s free trade stance can not only undermine governments, but also small operators who are not equipped to compete against such large multinationals. Such large tour operators offer ecotourism in name only and continue to fail in the improving the sustainable economy sector. This is where the industry is particularly deceptive because “it is almost completely controlled by large foreign companies based in rich tourist-generating countries, so a large proportion of tourist dollars either never reaches the developing host economies or inevitably flows out in the form of repatriated profits or other payments.”

To conclude, Ecotourism is another ‘tragedy of the commons.’ Its good intentions are only simply achievable in theory, especially when it examining its usage as a tool for sustainable development. There do, however, remain some examples of positive impacts of ecotourism, but these are small victories in a war which is ultimately being lost. From Indigenous communities to governments and from flora to wildlife, ecotourism has created more problems than solutions and despite the attempts of grass roots organisations to achieve greater and more effective monitoring of tourist activities it is clear that there is no place for a fairer and more sustainable tourism in a world under corporate rule. It could further be argued that any viable alternatives will never be able to thrive as long as there exists a globalized economy controlled by a minority who dictates its rules to local societies. Some say the premise offered of unspoilt nature and cultures where few people have gone before is simply a calculated move to entice those with higher incomes to cleanse their souls. There are ggod reasons though, why few people have gone to these places before; they are fragile, inhospitable places that do not easily support human life. These ecosystems are being ruined by what David Nicholson-Lord calls the shock troops of Western-style capitalism, tourists, who are distributing social and psychological viruses just as effectively as earlier colonists spread Smallpox and TB. Ecotourism is indeed an eco-sinner “destroying the very world it wishes us to see…whilst desperately trying to appear ecologically responsible.”



Becken,S (00) ‘The Energy Costs of the Ecotourism Summit in Quebec’ Journal Of Sustainable Tourism Vol.10 No#5 00

Cater,E & Lowman,G (14) ‘Ecotourism � A Sustainable Option?’ Wiley

Endicott,M.L (17) ‘Towards Definition’ 1th Nov

Barkin,D (16) ‘Ecotourism A Tool for Sustainable Development’

Green,R (00) ‘The tour operator’s dilemma Keeping the customer happy while not disturbing the wildlife’

Healy,R.G (14) ‘Tourist Merchandise as a means of regenerating local benefits from Ecotourism’

Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol.1 No# 14

Kamauro,D (16) ‘Ecotourism Suicide or Development?’ Voices From Africa #6 Sustainable Development.

McLaren,D (001) Letter to Oliver Hillel,

Munt, I (14) ‘Ecotourism or Egotourism’ Race and Class Vol.6 No#1

Nichloson-Lord,D (00) ‘World The Blight Of Ecotourism’ June 1th

Pleumarom,A (001) ‘Do we need the international year of ecotourism?’,

Pleumarom,A (001) ‘ Campaign On Corporate Power in Tourism (COCPIT)’ p1

Steel,P (1) ‘The economics of eco-tourism’ In focus

Third World Network (001) ‘NGO Statement to Government Delegates at the UN’ www.twnside.orgsg/title/eco4.htm

Wickers,D (1) ‘Whither Green?’ Sunday Times, January 5th

Wight,P (1) ‘Ecotourism � Ethics or Eco-Sell?’ Journal of Travel Research, Vol No# Winter ’.


( i )

Cater,E & Lowman,G (14) ‘Ecotourism � A Sustainable Option?’ Wiley


( ii )

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