Ecotourism and Ethics

By Amaro, Belisa | Earth Island Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Ecotourism and Ethics


Amaro, Belisa, Earth Island Journal


Seeking nature and unfamiliar cultures, tourists are visiting the world's most remote corners in record numbers. No other segment of the tourism trade is growing as robustly as ecotourism. According to the World Resources Institute, while tourism in general has been increasing at a rate of 4 percent a year, nature travel is growing more than 10 percent annually.

Concerns about the harm tourists can cause to host communities and the environment are well-founded. Tourists may inflate local prices, increase pollution, render employment seasonal, use scarce resources, and interfere with local cultures and values. Studies have shown, however, that, when properly planned and implemented, ecotourism can promote the conservation of natural resources, encourage sustainable development, alleviate poverty, and raise environmental awareness. So, before signing up for a particular eco-trip, it's a good idea to make sure the choice you've made is an most ecologically conscious one.

Defined by the Ecotourism Society as "responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people," ecological tourism is a term with considerable marketing power that is vulnerable to abuse. One particularly egregious example is a giant casino in Laos that bills itself as an eco-resort. Some well-intended projects have suffer from a lack of foresight and planning, exacerbating ecological and social problems.

Flying dollars

To make Americans aware of their responsibilities when searching for nature-related trips, the Ecotourism Society is launching a campaign called "Your Travel Choice Can Make a Difference." Supported by a number of environmental magazines, next year's ad campaign will alert ecotourists about ways they can help to preserve the places they plan to visit. "The main point is to make sure the money spent in your trips stays in the visited countries and towns," explains Megan Epler Wood, Ecotourism Society's executive director. "We want, for example, to encourage people to reserve locally-owned hotels instead of. big chains such as Hilton. Nowadays, with the Internet, communicating directly with local entrepreneurs to make hotel reservations on the other side of the world has become easier," emphasizes Epler Wood.

Tourist dollars often do not stay in the countries where they are spent. Foreign-owned and -staffed hotels serving imported goods characterize the tourism economy in much of the world. The World Bank estimates that less than 45 percent of the money tourists spend ever makes its way to the local economy. In some developing countries, that figure is as low as 10 percent.

To make ecotourism a sustainable activity, local hiring and buying must be encouraged. Productive partnerships must be formed between local groups and trip promoters. "Responsible nature tour operators want the community working as partners, not as employees. They don't hire every high season and fire when things slow down," says Gary Cook, director of Baikal Watch, an Earth Island Institute project promoting trips to former Soviet-bloc countries. Cook and other ecotourism advocates know that locals need to be able to maintain substantial control over tourism projects in order to preserve their culture and maximize the benefits from it.

Mount Alkhanay, a Tibetan Buddhist site on the border of Russia and Mongolia, is an example of a successful ecotourism project overseen and controlled by the community. Locals were able to use tourism to prevent the destruction of its natural resources and rich cultural heritage by the gold mining industry. With the help of international NGOs, the community started a visitor program to this religious site. As a result of this project and the funds it raised, locals were able to successfully fight their invaders; last year, miners' licenses were revoked, and the region is now in the process of being converted into a national park. …

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