TOURISM IS OFTEN described as the world’s largest industry and, while a small component of the overall industry, ecotourism is believed to be one of the fastest growing sub-sectors. Definitions of ecotourism are many, and have proliferated since the term was popularized in the 1980s. One consequence of multiple definitions is the associated difficulty in measuring the size of the ecotourism market; estimates range from 2 to 25 percent of all leisure travel. A second consequence is that ecotourism has been so broadly interpreted that its value as a tourism category has been questioned. Ecotourism options range from overnight stays in remote huts made of local materials and without modern amenities to luxury stays in exclusive ecospas costing thousands of dollars per night. Activities can include bus tours of natural areas, passive bird watching or whale watching on guided tours, or active trekking and bush camping, sometimes without a guide. Regardless of definition, amenities, or activities, however, the popularity of ecotourism is reflected in a variety of ways; for example, the United Nations declared 2002 the Year of Ecotourism and The New York Times tagged ecotourism as the “buzzword of the year” for 2006.
While there is no universally accepted definition of ecotourism, several key characteristics appear are evident, although with varying emphasis and importance attached to them. First, ecotourism occurs “in nature,” and tourists travel purposefully to areas where they can enjoy, see, and interact with nature. Second, ecotourism (and associated infrastructure) should be “low impact,” with minimal disturbance to the environment. This has implications for tour operator, service provider, and tourist behavior. Third, some portion of the profits generated from ecotourism should fund conservation efforts. Increasingly, a small but growing number of ecotourists directly donate their time and labor to work for conservation, an activity labeled volunteer ecotourism. Fourth, ecotourism should educate both tourists and local people about nature (and its value). Fifth, ecotourism should provide economic opportunities for local communities, with the idea that these will translate into incentives to preserve nature. Finally, ecotourism development should be undertaken with respect for local cultures, and ideally with local participation in planning and management.
Generally, over time, ecotourism definitions have been expanded from an early focus on the purpose of ecotourism (to visit nature, provide educational opportunities and fund conservation) to incorporate principles of ecotourism (responsibilities for minimizing impacts, supporting local economic development and respecting local cultures). This evolution reflects a shift from descriptive definitions of ecotourism to more normative ones, and the normative emphasis reflects ecotourism’s inclusion in the broader category of alternative tourism. Alternative tourism was popularized in the 1980s and 1990s, partly in response to the increasing evidence of the negative impacts of mass tourism on economies, cultures, and environments. Its concern is with the well being of host communities rather than that of the tourism industry. In all of these six characteristics, ecotourism is situated in contrast to traditional, mass tourism, and as such is proposed as a morally superior alternative, one that allows tourists and the tourism industry to alleviate rather than contribute to local environmental and economic problems.
Ecotourism is a popularly promoted means of reconciling wildlife conservation with economic development, particularly in developing countries. Some developing countries are renowned ecotourism hotspots and cited as ecotourism success stories. For example, both Costa Rica and Belize rely on tourism as their largest foreign exchange earner, have protected large portions of their land (and waters) in national systems of protected areas, and cater to the ecotourist niche. Wildlife conservation organizations and park protection agencies initiated much of the discussion of the ecotourism concept. The World Conservation Union, World Wide Fund for Nature, and Conservation International, for example, all promote ecotourism as one means of achieving conservation and development. Ecotourism is often paired with community-based conservation, with community members working as tourist guides and park rangers, or investing in the provision of tourist goods and services. Proponents argue that ecotourism that provides local employment and small business development creates higher economic multipliers, and that a community approach to decision making helps to ensure traditional lifestyles and community values are respected. In the most optimistic scenarios, communities are “empowered” through ecotourism, develop a sense of “pride” in their natural resources, and even experience a resurgence in cultural traditions of interest to the discerning ecotourist. Ecotourism in this vision represents the ultimate realization of mainstream sustainable development.
While ecotourism in theory aspires to meet both conservation and development goals, the ability of ecotourism in practice to deliver on these goals is increasingly questioned. There are examples of ecotourism projects that meet one or several of the criteria listed above, but overall the literature on ecotourism is dominated by impact studies of particular cases that, in general, have shown ecotourism in practice to be disappointing. Further, ecotourism often suffers the shortcomings associated with tourism in general.
First, economically, conservation revenues from ecotourism have been disappointing, with leakage (money leaving the community) remaining high in some areas, due to the presence of foreign investors, extra-local tour operators, and/or state policy that favors foreign investors. At a more theoretical level, the global push for ecotourism development reflects and reinforces an environmental-economic paradigm that commodifies nature and requires economic justification for all nature conservation.
Second, politically, local support for conservation activities through ecotourism can be lacking in spite of monetary gains, particularly if local people are treated as passive recipients of such gains rather than actively involved in ecotourism planning and management.
Third, socially and culturally, ecotourism has experienced many of the problems associated with traditional tourism, e.g., increased incidents of crime and drug use, commodification of cultural practices for tourist consumption, and erosion of local social and cultural norms. Ecotoursim has the additional impact of imposing Western visions of nature on local environments and people. These visions often focus on aesthetic nature and demand an “Edenic” experience for ecotourists. Local people associated with such nature are also required to meet tourist expectations of exotic and/or simple and, as a result, their own development aspirations can be curtailed rather than advanced by ecotourism. As a result, ecotourism has been labeled green imperialism, a new way for the developed north to dictate how resources are used in the south. Fourth, the aspirations of ecotourists as “alternative consumers” are often questionable, with ecotourists characterized as self-indulgent consumers of people and places, attempting to build their cultural capital. In this way, ecotourism has been called green greed and ecotourists ego-tourists.
Fifth, the popularity of ecotourism has been associated with green-washing, or the repackaging of traditional holidays as ecotours with minimal changes to actual activities. With ecotourism and ecotourist labels applied broadly (and some would argue indiscriminately), it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish either from traditional tourism and tourists. Finally, the sheer popularity of ecotourism and the high tourist numbers at particular sites, what some have labeled mass ecotourism, belies its ability to be low impact or alternative. These shortcomings can combine to translate into a failure to protect natural environments, or worse to directly damage those environments ecotourism seeks to protect.
As awareness of the shortcomings of ecotourism in practice has grown, academics and practitioners have adopted several responses. The first response focuses on “getting ecotourism right.” In this view, the original theory of ecotourism holds true and the challenge is to improve the practice. “Best practice” frameworks against which ecotourism projects can be assessed have emerged. Conservation organizations have produced ecotourist codes of conducts or developed eco-labeling schemes to distinguish ecotourism operators from the green-wash. The second response involves distinguishing between different forms of ecotourism.
For example, ecotourism (and ecotourists) can be situated on a spectrum from “hard” to “soft,” with activities at the hard end representing the ideal ecotourism described in the literature and those at the soft end resembling mass tourism. Some authors have argued that soft ecotourism, where tourists become temporary ecotourists for short periods of time as part of traditional holidays (e.g., by taking a day trip to a national park), might in fact be environmentally preferable to hard ecotourism. While the potentially high number of soft ecotourists might seem antithetical to the ecotourism concept, their impacts can be concentrated at a few well-serviced sites rather than dispersed in fragile ecosystems. Additionally, mass tourism providers may be better situated to implement sustainability overall (e.g., by investing in energy saving technologies or recycling), due to economies of scale. A second attempt to distinguish between forms of ecotourism is to place them on a spectrum of commodification, with least commodified forms being most desirable and closer to the ecotourism ideal; volunteer ecotourism may be one example of decommodified ecotourism. The types of distinctions made between hard and soft ecotourism, or least commodified and most commodified, allow for a more accurate assessment of the actual size of the ecotourism industry, and movement away from an overly broad label that covers too much to be meaningful while retaining a focus on the desired characteristics of ecotourism. The third response has been to more critically assess the ecotourism concept from a variety of theoretical perspectives. Advocates of this response argue that without a more sophisticated theoretical understanding of ecotourism, case study research will keep rediscovering the disappointments of ecotourism in practice. For example, understanding the political economy of ecotourism can help explain why local people receive few ecotourism benefits, and this understanding can be used to strategize ways to overcome this reality and capitalize on ecotourism opportunities. Political ecology can assist in positioning ecotourism as a phenomenon both reflecting and reinforcing human–environment relations, and can help explain why ecotourism remains so popularly promoted in spite of the disappointments of ecotourism in practice.
The final response that stands in contrast to all of the others is to abandon the term ecotourism altogether. In this view, ecotourism has become too ambiguous to be meaningful, and yet the label carries unchallenged assumptions that can lull tourists into a false sense of complacency. Instead of assessing the extent to which various examples of tourism meet the criteria of ecotourism, the aim should be to make all tourism (more) environmentally, economically, socially, and culturally sustainable. While there is appeal in this approach, the contemporary popularity of ecotourism suggests that both tourists and the tourism industry are invested in this market niche and that the ecotourism label is a powerful and desirable one. It is more likely that a combination of the first three approaches will continue to be pursued. Whether or not this will result in improved performance of ecotourism in practice, and more examples of ecotourism success stories, remains to be seen.
Convservation; Safaris; Tourism.
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