Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Bursting the Bubble: The Socio-Cultural Context of Ecotourism

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Bursting the Bubble: The Socio-Cultural Context of Ecotourism

Article excerpt

In the past decade or two ecotourism has become increasingly visible and significant in a number of ways. It is commonly referred to as the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry; estimates of the amount of money it generates annually range from $30 billion (Honey 1999: 9) to $1.2 trillion (Ceballos-Lascurain 1996: 46-8). Early in the 1990s, the organization that became the International Ecotourism Society, a combination of trade organization and advocacy group, was founded. That same period saw the appearance of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, and in 2002 the Journal of Ecotourism appeared. More spectacularly, the United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism.

The growth of the industry is not hard to understand, for its expressed goals and image are laudatory. Ecotourism involves travel to enjoy and engage with attractive and interesting surroundings--often identified as 'natural'--in a way that does not degrade those surroundings. It also involves travel to enjoy and engage with attractive people and their activities--often identified as 'indigenous' or 'exotic'--in a way that respects and supports them. More materially, ecotourists are seen to be more likely than regular tourists to make use of locally owned accommodation and services, and consequently to benefit the local economy. Further, they are likely to pay user fees that support parks and other conservation projects. As the executive director of the International Ecotourism Society put it, ecotourism 'should: 1) protect and benefit conservation; 2) benefit, respect, and help empower local communities; and 3) educate as well as entertain tourists' (Honey 2003).

In these descriptions of ecotourism is an implicit, and at times explicit, favourable contrast with regular tourism. For instance, the executive director of the International Ecotourism Society said that ecotourism is 'a profound, indeed revolutionary, concept, challenging the mass tourism industry and travel as we've known it' (Honey 2003). Some have expressed unease about this contrast and the laudable construction of ecotourism that it includes (e.g. Butcher 2003; Duffy 2002; Mowforth & Munt 1998; Munt 1994; Russell & Wallace 2004; Wheeller 1993). Here we focus on two aspects of that unease. One revolves around the definition of ecotourism, which is so elastic that it may be close to meaningless (see France 1997: 18-19; Honey 1999: 6-7; Weaver 1999). This elasticity is manifest in the divergent estimates of ecotourism expenditure presented above; the difference between them would seem to reflect widely divergent definitions of ecotourism (Duffy 2002: chap. 1). The other is the tendency to conceptualize ecotourists and ecotourism in what may be termed an 'ecotourist bubble'. By this we mean viewing ecotourism in a way that ignores its context.

Perhaps because of the positive and commercially valuable perception of ecotourism, more and more tourist facilities apply the label to themselves. While there are endless attempts to produce a standard definition, this means that the ecotourism industry ends up including, at one extreme, firms that cater to deep-green conservationist hikers in the Appalachians or the Pennines and, at the other extreme, package tour operators who include an optional afternoon snorkelling or even sunbathing in a park near the tourist hotel (see Mowforth & Munt 1998: chap. 7). This fluidity of definition in practice is apparent in an influential review of ecotourism by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In it, Ceballos-Lascurain (1996: 20) invokes a fairly strict definition, effectively as sustainable tourism with a low environmental impact. However, when he produces estimates of the economic value of ecotourism (1996: 46), he invokes without reservation a study that states that 40-60 per cent of all international tourists are ecotourists, which would seem to employ a much looser definition. …

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