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Drinking rainwater from banana leaf, Nigeria. (c) I. Uwanaka/UNEP
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eco tourism > overview > ecotourism - hope and reality

Ecotourism - hope and reality

Posted: 06 Sep 2004

by Sue Wheat

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.

International tourist arrivals amounted to 694 million in 2003, 3 million down from the 697 million of 2000 (World Tourism Organization, WTO). It's been a tricky few years for the tourism industry, from the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the weakening global economy, to the outbreak of SARS and the Iraq conflict. Receipts from international travel were slightly up to 514.4 billion US$ in 2003, but it's yet to reach the boom of a few years ago. Nevertheless, the industry is now experiencing an upward trend which first began in late 2003. The relaxing of major geopolitical tensions and the recovery from SARS has caused travel confidence to improve significantly.

In 2002, the WTO noted that tourists were shifting their travel habits, choosing closer and less expensive destinations, and while long-haul travel is increasing again, short-haul and domestic travel are still performing better. The industry is expected to bounce back completely, and the WTO predicts a long-term global annual growth of over 4 per cent.
Tourists in Antarctica
Remote wilderness areas like Antarctica are no longer tourist-free
© Colin Monteath/TCS

In 1993 the WTO estimated nature tourism generated 7 per cent of all international travel expenditure. More recent research reveals this is now much higher, accounting for 20 per cent of international travel in the Asia-Pacific region and some areas, such as South Africa, experiencing a massive growth in visitors to game and nature reserves, of over 100 per cent annually.

High spenders

Research by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) reveals that ecotourists are likely to be higher spenders on their holidays than 'ordinary' mass tourists. And high-spending, nature-loving, responsible tourists are undoubtedly an attractive option for governments looking for ways of earning foreign exchange.

But critics point out, just because something is marketed as ecotourism, doesn't necessarily mean that long-term protection of the environment is automatically supported through it. Even in countries which are well-known as ecotourism destinations like Belize or Costa Rica the downsides have been obvious for several years. The fact that ecotourism businesses are often owned and controlled by outside interests, in just the same way as mass tourism, means that economic benefits often aren't used for the protection of the areas or to support the local community.

dirty beach
Litter on beach, Venezuela
© Julio Etchart/Still Pictures

Osmany Salas, executive director of the Belize Audubon Society, points out: "Tourism proceeds are not being reallocated to the management or enhancement of the natural systems or to compensate local individuals who are adversely affected by the presence of protected areas."

Land speculation

One of ecotourism's first problems is one of definition. Although TIES has a definition of "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people," there is no certification system to abide by or international monitoring body. The term can be used by anyone at anytime for anything from a small-scale locally-run rainforest lodge where the money goes to support a local community, to a large, luxury, foreign-owned resort which has little community involvement and uses masses of natural resources. Ecotourists may even visit areas of national beauty and wildlife significance without realising that local people have been evicted from the area in order for ecotourism to be developed, as has happened in East Africa, India, Southern Africa and many other destinations.

With the growth in ecotourism, there are various changes ahead, says TIES executive-director, Megan Eplar-Wood. "The original entrepreneurs will reach their market through the Internet with increasing efficiency. But the lack of discipline of government and the demand for growth will undermine efforts to create sustainable ecotourism economies that are small but beautiful. Overbuilding and land speculation will continue to destroy once tranquil zones."

Ron Mader, who runs a Latin American ecotourism website www.planeta.com feels that ecotourism should provide conservation measures, include meaningful community participation and be profitable and self-sustaining. But he notes that such criteria are difficult to measure and quantify: "Assuming you wanted to know which are the 'best ecotourism destinations' the question must follow: how is one to judge?"


Snorkeling, Port Cros National Park, France
© Michel Gunther/

The question of how we judge the 'best ecotourism destinations' has been central to the issue of certification, or kite-marking, in ecotourism. Holiday brochures certainly lack an easily-identifiable logo which tells us if local stakeholders benefit from our tourist dollars and if the environment is conserved during our visit. But that's not to say such certification schemes don't exist. In fact, the travel industry has been wrangling over the pros and cons of certification and accreditation for over a decade, although little progress has been made. Accreditation schemes remain deeply contested, and consumers remain ignorant of those that exist.

The issue of certification has been contended since the first credible accreditation scheme was started in 1985 - the Blue Flag system. Since then, travel providers, tour operator organisations and private bodies have attempted to apply similar principles to a variety of tourism products. The most famous (some would say infamous) of these was Green Globe 21, which many agree was far from successful. In some cases, certification schemes - no matter how well-intentioned - actually have a negative impact on poor people, increasing rather than reducing market barriers and marginalising small businesses.

A key point has been the reliability of accreditation and the association that a kitemark can provide. The principals applied to consumable products are transferred with great difficulty to the tour operator industry, and most accreditation schemes to date have focussed on accommodation. There has also been much debate on whether certification schemes should be industry-led and regulated, or whether this may exclude smaller Southern companies who cannot afford to join accreditation bodies. Furthermore, local stakeholders are, for the most part, excluded from discussions, leading to their marginalisation from the benefits of certification. The Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council has recommended the creation of regional networks to encourage dialogue between stakeholders. Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA) has developed a system for measuring and monitoring how local tourism enterprises subscribe to a list of fair trade principles. Other organisations have chosen an alternative to certification, such as the 3-star Responsible Tourism Policy developed by the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO).

The low uptake of certification schemes indicates that the industry a long way off from finding a solution. A crucial step is involving all stakeholders in the decision-making process, and a number of issues still need to be addressed before certification is accepted as useful by the industry, consumers and local communities. One thing seems certain: the day when a consumer will open a holiday brochure or arrive at a hotel and be re-assured by a familiar, trustworthy kitemark seems a long way off.

Small operators

It is clear to many that nature-based tourism is presently seen as one of the most lucrative niche markets, and that powerful transnational corporations are likely to exploit the IYE to dictate their own definitions and rules of ecotourism on society. As a result, whole people-centred initiatives may be squeezed out and marginalised.

Safari vans cluster around lionesses, Kenya::© Fred Hoogervorst/Panos Pictures
Safari vans cluster around lionesses, Kenya
© Fred Hoogervorst/Panos Pictures

Nevertheless, many smaller operators are keen to work closely with local people in order for the communities to support their business and out of an honest desire to protect environments and optimise benefits to local people. Many are working closely with community-run tourism operations, such as those listed in Tourism Concern's Good Alternative Travel Guide. This describes various small-scale ecotourism successes. However, such operations make up a small proportion of overall tourism facilities.

"The mass tourism operators have learnt the language of sustainable tourism, or whatever you want to call it," says Patricia Barnett, Director of the London-based Tourism Concern. "But little has really changed." Proof of this, she says, was seen in 2001 when the Balearic islands decided to implement an eco-tax to raise funds to correct the serious environmental damage done to the Balearics over the tourism boom of the last three decades, and to protect fragile areas that are left. The international tourism industry threw up their hands in horror and lobbied fiercely against it, saying that it would damage business. The tax, which raised £25 million for cultural projects, was scrapped, much to the dismay of environmental campaigners.

An increasing number of commentators even within the industry are admitting there is something seriously wrong with the tourism industry and with ecotourism. "People talk about ecotourism, but the fact is that the tourism industry is always looking for a quick buck," says Doug Rhodes, owner of Hotel Paradiso del Oso in Cerocahui, Chihuahua in Mexico. "Hotels throughout the Copper Canyon still lack waste treatment facilities. Some of the garbage is thrown into the canyon or disposed of near community wells." But tourists are willing to pay for such environmental guarantees he says and waste management technologies aren't prohibitively expensive. "It's just a matter of will."

But it's not all bad news. In recent years, certain sectors of the tourism industry have made some progress in addressing these issues. One notable example are the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, which recognise and encourage sustainable tourism initiatives.

Winners of recent years include Tribes, a tour operator which offers quality holidays to exotic locations run on fair trade principles. Another recent winner was the Bunaken National Marine Park, in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, where the establishment of the park put a stop to cyanide and blast fishing, and now channels 30 per cent of entrance fees to the local community. These awards have been high profile, and a great incentive to the travel industry, and hopefully will continue to encourage businesses to switch to fair trade and ecologically sound principals. As David Bellamy has said, awards like these "turn the spotlight on tourism that doesn't cost the earth" - something the industry desperately needs.

This overview is based on an article prepared by Sue Wheat, editor of Tourism Concern's quarterly magazine, In Focus. (A special edition on ecotourism is available from Tourism Concern). It has been updated by Francisca Kellett.

Related links:

Tourism Concern is a British membership organisation campaigning on ethical and fairly traded tourism. It publishes The Good Alternative Travel Guide, price £9.99. For more information, contact:

World Tourism Organization

The International Ecotourism Society

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A beautiful Barbados beach. Photo: Responsibletravel.com
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