Helena Jones reports on ecotourism: the popular vacation option that encourages “sustainable tourism”. But does it really help wildlife?


It’s no secret that trips to faraway places produce plenty of air miles pumping greenhouse gas emissions and pollution into once-pristine areas. Images of densely packed crowds on beaches and litter strewn on the ground often come to mind. But is there an alternative to this kind of vacation? With 2002 having been declared by the UN to be the ‘International Year of Ecotourism’, a different kind of holiday-making has since grown in popularity. But what exactly does it mean to be an ecotourist?


What is Ecotourism?

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’. This promotes the idea that tourism can be a sustainable activity, which avoids damage to the local environment whilst also benefiting local people and their economic development.


So ecotourism seems to present something of a win-win strategy, in which locals and tourist are encouraged to value and protect the environmental landscape, whilst also engaging in a prosperous economic activity. This positivity has spawned large investments from governments and businesses, and the support of international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Ecotourism Society.


But underneath this veneer of sustainable tourism, the reality is not always positive for wildlife or local communities. So we must ask, is ecotourism the great success many claim it to be or is it a mask for many inherent contradictions?


Positives for Conservation and Development


Starting with the benefits of ecotourism then, unlike many tourist activities, money earned from ecotourism flows into conservation funds. This means that people can enjoy the natural landscape whilst also funding its protection and preservation for future generations. Furthermore, as tourists are encouraged to live in a sustainable way, it educates the tourist on the importance of conserving species and limiting harmful human impacts on the landscape.


Its other great strength is that it encourages pro-poor development. This is because the involvement of local people in the tourism business and recognition of their distinct culture allows them to gain control of their development whilst also earning an income from the industry. So, rather than standing in opposition to tourist activities, local people can participate in and benefit from ecotourism.


Ecotourism facilitates job creation for local people, and this in turn is thought to make them more likely to conserve wildlife, as it becomes part of their livelihood. Furthermore, in addition to bringing in money for conservation, income from ecotourism is also used to support the local area by providing money for investment in healthcare and education.


This all sounds pretty good, so what’s the catch?



Negative Impacts on People and the Environment


Despite high-level support for ecotourism, it would be inaccurate to suggest that it never produces negative environmental impacts. Tourist expeditions in national parks can lead to significant path erosion and their air travel will still contribute to carbon emissions. Furthermore, as many ecotourism destinations involve close encounters with rare species, the presence of humans may change the behaviour of animals or tame them and, at worst, transfer human diseases to them.


In several instances, the economic benefits of ecotourism have not reached the poorest members of communities, as tourism revenue often first goes to state or conservation stakeholders, so little may end up with local people.


The idea that an income from tourism will prevent people from engaging in other activities such as poaching also comes into doubt. In some cases ecotourism only provides an additional or supplementary income for local people, so it does not prevent them from continuing to engage in illicit activities that may harm wildlife.


And finally ecotourism remains a highly expensive kind of vacation, so can the majority of people really afford to holiday this way, or is it just a practice for the elite?


Neoliberal Conservation with a Mask?

Perhaps the most significant objection to ecotourism is that it represents merely one of many attempts to commodify nature for human gain. In yet another pathway of capitalism, ecotourism can advance the economic benefit of conservation, as money can be made whilst nature is also saved. Whilst it is not necessarily a bad thing for conservation to also become an economic activity, the implication of these forms of neoliberal conservation are that wildlife may only be deemed worth saving if it has economic value, and not for any intrinsic worth.


Ecotourism destinations are often sold as remote wildernesses to the consumer, despite the negative impacts human activities can continue to have on these areas and local people. So do these inherent contradictions somewhat blight the sustainable image of ecotourism that is presented to the world?



A Sustainable Future for Ecotourism?


A close look at ecotourism unravels a web of complex interactions of people, markets and the environment that is far more nuanced than the win-win presentation of ecotourism. None of this is to say that ecotourism cannot be a sustainable practice, but rather that different places, governments and local communities will influence whether or not ecotourism is a success. Diverse objectives of moneymaking, development strategies or wildlife conservation will always create winners and losers in ecotourism destinations. So the future of ecotourism will depend on the cooperation of different stakeholders, if it is to secure the conservation of wildlife and sustainable development.


Some Popular Ecotourism Destinations:

  • Bwindi National Park, Uganda – pay $600 a day to trek to see its mountain gorillas.
  • Costa Rica – seen as the poster child of ecotourism, with a plethora of eco-lodges and national park trails across the country.
  • Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, Dubai – spend from $817 to $8, 037 a night to see highly endangered Arabian onyx.
  • Tatshenshini-Alsek River, Canada – the government rescinded a mining contract for this area, which is connected to Alaska’s glacier bay and instead created a national park. Tourists can pay $3, 350 for nine days of rafting on the river.



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