By Ranjit Barthakur
Until the 1970s, concerns about tourism’s environmental impact and the impact on local communities and their economies were rare. The industry’s focus on tourist needs, interests and desires meant there was little attempt to balance this against the concerns of those most impacted by tourism. Local communities were disrupted and citizens were rendered little more than second-class citizens in their own regions, in addition to creating profound stress on local ecologies.
Born from the recognition of this problem, ecotourism aimed to mitigate the worst of tourism’s effects on both natural ecology and local communities, while creating meaningful and individualized travel experiences that connected people with nature. Currently estimated to be one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry, ecotourism now accounts for 6% of the world’s total GDP.
However, with this boom, commentators have begun raising questions about its effectiveness – particularly in conservation and environmental preservation. Can ecotourism truly help preserve biodiversity in fragile biomes around the world by drawing tourists in? More to the point, is ecotourism what it says it is, or is it mere greenwashing – and is it time for a new green-driven tourism?
Ecotourism: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The absence of a single definition governing ecotourism has, in some places, turned it into a marketing buzzword. But at its best, ecotourism has proved to be a meaningful way of engaging public interest in conservation and in highlighting issues that need active intervention in the present. As tourists broaden the horizons of their experiences and knowledge, their growing awareness pushes them towards involvement in conservation initiatives – or else, in supporting this work on a long-term basis. Multiple studies indicate that nature-centred tourism is most impactful where conservation efforts are otherwise severely underfunded. Ecotourism currently funds conservation efforts for more than 200 species globally and 84% of all funding for national park agencies globally. In the case of species such as the Eastern Himalayas’ hoolock gibbon, growing ecotourism has led to improvement in species levels.
Many of these initiatives also provide a source of income for local communities that do not rely on ecological destruction. In countries such as Costa Rica and the Maldives, ecotourism forms an integral part of the economy, such that preservation of the local biodiversity – such as sharks in the Maldives – outweigh the economic benefits of trade that undermines this biodiversity, such as shark fishing in the Maldives.
However, in many cases ecotourism is little more than an exercise in reputational greenwashing. National parks regulate indigenous communities’ access to natural resources, while creating exceptions for rich big game hunters. In ecologically fragile biodiversity hotspots such as the Antarctic and the Galapagos Islands, tourist initiatives rebranding as ‘ecotourism’ cause damaging pressure to the ecosystems by polluting these ecosystems, distressing wildlife and disrupting ecosystems through habituation to human contact. Safaris in the African Serengeti have been found to exact a toll on the mental health of elephants, creating stressors that have led to serious behavioural changes among these creatures.
The human rights and livelihoods cost of reputational greenwashing ecotourism is no less. The history of national parks and protected areas is littered with stories of forced displacement and violence. As recently as October 2018, tens of thousands of the Maasai were displaced after their ancestral homes were burnt down by a luxury ecotourism firm and government agency working together in the name of conservation and ecotourism. Even in the absence of displacement, communities often face disenfranchisement within their traditional lands. In many cases their land ownership rights are weakened, as are their access rights to traditional modes of livelihood. Employment in these businesses frequently leads to a decline in communities’ standard of living, as well as increased dependency and decreased self-sufficiency. Many initiatives are foreign-owned, siphoning value generated out of the local economies, creating little to no benefits for the local communities.
Mindful Natural Tourism
The rich biodiversity and the cultural diversity of the Eastern Himalayas makes it a prime destination for tourists keen on off-beat experiences immersed in the natural world. Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the region and is projected to grow at 18% in the coming year. However, it is also deeply vulnerable to both economic exploitation of communities and degradation of its natural landscape, in the absence of systematic efforts and regulation to create non-disruptive ecological tourism.
Ecologically-centred tourism must have three core commitments: a commitment to sustainability and environmental protection, the inclusion and participation of local communities at a decision making level and active engagement for biodiversity and ecological education. Standardized certifications which facilitate conservation efforts and encourage sustainability will go a long way towards shaping tourism in the region. In places like the Galapagos Islands, environmental agencies such as the IGTOA have been proactive in creating certified lists of tourist operators who meet a rigorous set of standards to ensure their activities do not disrupt or strain the local habitats in any way. Bhutan carefully regulates entry into the country, through daily tariffs, travel restrictions and constraints on tour operators in the region. This has mitigated the strain on travel infrastructure, as well as negative impact on the environment by limiting the damage that can be caused by an exploding tourist population.
Proactive government intervention, as in Bhutan, can ensure tour operators are complying with a set of standards that are environmentally friendly and sustainable. Indigenous communities must be given decision making power in these initiatives where applicable, and where their land is used to create homestays or resorts, it is crucial they retain land ownership and that the economic value generated is channelled back into local economies. Perhaps most importantly of all, it is crucial for these initiatives to understand the importance of observing wildlife through non-disruptive means – whether this means regulating entries into national parks or using non-intrusive observation methods such as canoes over cruise ships.
Mindful natural tourism may not be able to save the world, but it can change minds, uplift communities and protect at-risk species – but only if we get it right.
The author is the President and Founder of the Balipara Foundation
Research support by Joanna Dawson
This feature was first published in Eclectic Northeast July 2019 issue