Seven Dilemmas of Ecotourism

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Today ecotourism is a very trendy and politically correct way to travel. There is a strong movement to put green in travel. Tourism companies are rushing to put the green label on their products — after all, it’s lucrative. Travel and tourism is the largest business sector in the world economy and is responsible for over 230 million jobs and over 10% of the worldwide GDP. According to the World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals were up 2% to 924 million in 2008 and generated about $856 billion or 30% of the world’s exports of services. Tourism is especially important to developing countries, serving as a principle “export” (foreign exchange earner) for 83% of developing countries, and the leading export for a third of the poorest countries. For the world’s 40 poorest countries, tourism is the second most important source of foreign exchange after oil according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).

Travelers’ understanding of ecotourism can vary from “roughing it in the Amazon rainforest” to keeping indigenous people, culture, and environment intact in their undeveloped existence. Equally varied is the level of travelers’ activism which can range from calling for the travel industry to strict adherence to ecotourism “code of conduct” to simply feeling comfortable that their travel is “somewhat green”.

So what is ecotourism? According to TIES, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.”

Ecotourism has inherent dilemmas that we must grapple with:

1. Does adherence to the ecotravel model mean that a destination has a maximum tourism capacity? Would travel to these places be considered ecologically unfriendly when that limit is exceeded?

2. Travelers are often eager to travel to places “that haven’t been discovered” but eventually more travelers will discover these destinations. How would one temper the travelers’ desire for discovery and encourage them to voluntarily abandon their desires to explore these destinations for the sake of perservation?

3. Would travel companies be willing to risk their bottom lines for ecotourism by sending a fixed number of visitors (essentially capping their sales growth) to an up-and-coming destination?

4. How would travel companies strike the balance of promoting a destination without over-promoting it?

5. How do you determine whether or not the well-being of the local people has improved from tourism?

6. To travel or not to travel? What are the implications on the local economies of developing countries if tourism is severely limited? Will they be deprived of economic growth? Having a taste of tourism and the money it brings, would the local people be willing to go back to life before tourism to preserve their ecology?

7. Travel is all about discovery — unearthing people, places, cultures. Is ecotourism the anti-thesis of travel?

There are probably a host of other questions with answers that may still elude us. Perhaps, the answer to ecotourism’s dilemmas is one the consumer and the tourism industry might not want to hear, but one that will help the Earth — STAY HOME, which has the least global ecological impact. But that is impractical. So like everything else, meeting in the middle may be the most promising option – to be aware and to travel responsibly. You may not satisfy the activists’ call to keep a destination completely untouched, but your travel vigilance can touch the heart of these ecotourism principles from TIES :

* Minimize impact.
* Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
* Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
* Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
* Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
* Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.

Some ecotourism experts believe there are a few key components that can make ecotourism work:

1. Sustainable development – a way of operating or managing and developing a destination in the context of tourism.

2. Certification – to ensure the claims of an ecological experience would live up to the promise of protective travel. Currently, there is no meaningful or universally accepted and accredited ratings system that would certify that an operator is conducting its business in an ecological way — not overburdening the location with tourists and taking care of the natural resources the tourists came to visit.

3. Research and Act Responsibly – tourists have to do their research and choose to act responsibly if ecotourism and sustainable development are to be achieved.

Photo: World Resources Institute

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