We've all heard the stories. Tourists who climb sacred sites to
snap the spectacular view, or demand CNN in a remote mountain
village, or shoot photos of shy locals even as they wave their hands
But what about the tourist who just wants a hot shower after a
hard day's hike? In parts of Nepal, that request could also be
thought unethical, as guesthouse proprietors there are apt to raze
local forests to heat the water.
So just how worried about ethics should a tourist be? Judging by
the growth in the "ethical tourism" trade, it appears that more
travelers today may be willing to skip the shower.
Definitions of ethical tourism, often loosely referred to as
ecotourism (which now encompasses cultural and political issues as
well as environmental), vary widely and this makes meaningful stats
hard to come by. But according to the World Tourism Organization
(WTO), ecotourism now makes up a 20 percent slice of global tourism
and is growing three times as fast as the industry as a whole.
Academics who study the industry suggest that percentage needs a
big asterisk behind it. David Weaver, professor of tourism
management at George Mason University, says it's critical to
distinguish between "hard" and "soft" ecotourism. The latter might
include a trip to a seaside resort or an air-conditioned bus ride
through a game preserve - activities he calls "ecotourism lite,"
which display an interest in the environment without the real
So how big is the hard-core ecotourism crowd, the people who stay
in ecolodges in remote areas? Maybe 1 percent, he says.
Yet despite that tiny percentage, travel companies' desire to be
perceived as eco-friendly and label tours as ecological or ethical
is spurred by a genuine groundswell of public interest in traveling
in a responsible way, says Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The
Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World."
The media have helped make global warming, pollution, rain
forests and endangered species household words and with that has
come a greater recognition of the downside of tourism and its
impact. Political instability in some popular travel spots such as
the Maldives and Burma (Myanmar) have also pushed consumers to
demand more accountability from the tour companies who bring
Over the next few years, the expected boom in travel will make
this kind of approach more critical. Tourism is the world's largest
economic sector. It plays a significant role in lifting people out
of poverty, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, and is one of
the few ways the least developed countries have managed to increase
their participation in the global economy. Last year, almost 700
million tourists made international trips. By 2010, the figure is
projected to reach 1 billion, according to the WTO.
With that flow of foreign visitors comes greater wear and tear on
fragile ecosystems and the danger of swamping the charm and
uniqueness of popular destinations.
The gap between words and deeds
Recent surveys by the International Ecotourism Society all point
to a public that says it is willing to put social responsibility
higher up its list of priorities. Thirty-eight percent of US
travelers say they would pay more to use travel companies that
strive to protect and preserve the environment; 39 percent would pay
more to use a company that "protects the historical and cultural
aspects of a destination."
Yet as heartfelt as those sentiments may be, tour operators
report anecdotally that when the chips are down people often opt for
the cheaper vacation.
"It's one of the most persistent truisms in our field," says
Weaver, "that you will always have a significant gap between the
proportion of people who claim they are willing to behave in a green
manner or an ethical manner and the proportion who actually do it
when push comes to shove. …