Ecotourism


Problems at successful establishment, and is ecotourism the right choice for all tourists interested in nature?


What is Ecotourism, and how does the Swedish ecotourism society comply with the International ecotourism society's commonly used definition?

Ecotourism has no clear, world widely accepted definition, but this one by International ecotourism society is most commonly used, and also copied by the Swedish ecotourism society;
“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people" (TIES 1990).

Various ecotourism societies and tour operators, including the Swedish ecotourism society, craft their own individual principles based on the definition above, which we could say is the common ground, and therefore, it is interesting to see how the Swedish principles compare with it.
International ecotourism society has the following priciples.

Ecotourism should..

..minimize impact
..build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
..provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
..provide direct financial benefits for conservation
..provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
..raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climate

Minimize impact
This principle has to be divided into two parts; the destination area, and getting to the destination. The first part is easier to achive than the second one. The groups should be small to avoid long lasting traces in nature, camp sites for new groups should be changed every time for the same reason, everything that is carried in is also carried out, i.e. no littering. These, and other considerations can be achived with planning and information, but the transportation to and from destinations can't be made low impact as easily. If carbon dioxide emissions are considered as a negative environmental impact, then long distance and over seas travel these days can never practically qualify as low impact. Ecotourims can be locally low impact but is globally high impact.
The Swedish ecotourism society avoid the problem of carbon dioxide emissions of long distance travel by not including the potentially broader minimize impact in it's definition. Instead the definition is "Not to damage or wear out what you have travelled to experience." The society has chosen to only include the local aspect of impact.

Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
Ecotourism is very much about education combined with nature conservation. The Swedish ecotourism society's wording is "To stimulate visitors curiosity and respect for place and people visited". It expands the possibilities from only including destinations with nature, to comprise potentially anything. Of course, it is possible to argue that, also the word environment could mean a lot of things, not only wilderness, but we often understand it as having something to do with nature, a connection that the word place is lacking.


Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
The Swedish ecotourism society's principle says "To have fun on your holiday". For some reason the Swedish association has chosen not to explicitly state that also the positive experiences of the hosts are important, which I believe are important for the whole idea of ecotourism. If the local community doesn't get positive experiences of the visiting tourists, the whole concept of ecotourism fails. The Swedish ecotourism society's principle doesn't sound any different from other kinds of tourism. And it is questionable, in my opinion, if it can really count as a special principle, being nothing more than a platitude.

Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
The Swedish ecotourism society has added local culture into this principle, and changed the wording a little; "To contribute actively to nature preservation and local culture". There is no mention of financial contribution, to either culture or nature preservation. Active contribution doesn't have to involve money, so I believe this change of wording opens up more possibilities to nature conservation, compared with the International ecotourism society, that has narrowed it's possibilities of action to only include direct financial benefits. The inclusion of culture as a beneficary of active contribution, has broadened the undertakings of Swedish ecotourism providers.

Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
The Swedish ecotourism society has slightly changed the wording to; ".. help make the local economy profitable".

Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climate
The Swedish ecotourism society has completely ignored this one. Because it is a Swedish society working only in Sweden with local tour providers, there were no reason to include this in the principles (but it is seen as something positive if companies working abroad provide this information). If you want to give a visitor the whole picture of the situation surrounding environmental protection in a country, it would probably be a good thing to shed light on these aspects too, but my main disagreement against the decision is the reason it wasn't included. What could the Swedish society's reasoning be based on? a) foreign/Swedish tourists are not interested in the Swedish political, environmental, or social climate, b) there is nothing to make foreign/Swedish visitors avare of? If it's good for a Swedish tourist to learn about the local situation when travelling abroad, according to the Swedish ecotourism society, then why isn't it equally good for foreign tourists visiting Sweden? Or is it reasonable to assume that all Swedish and foreign visitors are aware of the local political, environmental and social situation? Or that they would be uninterested to learn about it? I believe that, if a person has made an informed decision when choosing an ecotourist tour operator, then he or she could very well be interested also in these aspects. To limit this kind of education to foreign destinations, from a Swedish perspective, is to assume that everyone is already familiar with the situation in Sweden, and no further information is necessary. It also implies that the situation in Sweden would somehow be better compared with destinations abroad; no environmental, political or social issues to tell about.

The list of Swedish ecotourism society's principles:

* To have fun on your holiday.
* Not to damage or wear out what you have travelled to experience.
* To contribute actively to nature preservation and local culture.
* To help make the local economy profitable.
* To stimulate visitors curiosity and respect for place and people visited.

The difference between ecotourism and other kinds of travel, like nature and adventure tourism, is that ecotourism is trying to raise interest and educate travelers about both the local nature and culture. Without a local community, there can't be ecotourism. While the main goal of many other kinds of nature based travel is the participants experiences, ecotourism's goal is direct involvement in nature conservation and benefitting the local communities.


If the ecotourism concept is 'successful'

All this looks as a great solution to environmental destruction, but what about if a destination become popular? More and more tourists pour into the area, the experience of pristine nature without humans could be spoiled, and the genuine local community turn into a money making machine with locals acting as locals. I can see at least two ways to deal with this problem. Keep the destination difficult to reach, or decide a maximum number of visitors a year and make the entrance permits expensive.

I oppose the idea of sealing of areas and taking an entrance fee. It would degrade the experience, making it feel like hiking in a zoo, specially if you were confined to marked trails and designated camping sites. It would rip you off the possibility to get a feeling of freedom, something that might have been the reason in the first place to visit the area. Visitors usually stay on the trails because of convenience, so taking away the knowledge that you could walk anywhere you liked to, if you choosed to, would lead to greater mental dissatisfaction for the visitors than any resulting benefits. And because of the same reason - freedom -, to hire a guide should be an option, not a requirement. Hiring a guide should give an enhanced experience, convenience and feeling of security, if you choose that option, but it should not be mandatory. It could easily become something that degraded the experience instead of enhancing it. It wouldn't matter if the guides were knowledgeable or cared about their guests, the visitors had to employ them nevertheless. This could result in visitors feeling being ripped off. The loss of freedom is potentially damaging for the overall experience. Nature and the local communities would benefit from this approach, at least initially, but not necessarily the tourists visiting.

To keep interesting destinations difficult to reach but free to enter, would be another way to deal with the problem. The number of visitors would be low which would be beneficial to nature; low impact. This would also give a possibility for everyone to experience these areas. Tourists that can't afford the fees of a guide have the possibility to experience the nature by themselves, while visitors who are prepared to hire a guide will get added benefits and a deeper understanding of the area, while economically supporting the local people and nature conservation. It feels more rewarding, for the tourists, to pay for something, to support the local community, if they choose to do it instead of being forced to do the same. Compare these two alternatives;
1. "I could have visited the area for free, but I choosed to economically support nature conservation and the local communities."
2. "I had to pay the locals to get into the area."

But now the problem is instead, is it possible for the local community to feel that nature conservation benefits them? Are the economic benefits rewarding enough? And if not, should the area be developed further to attract more tourists? And then, when the limit of a sustainable number of tourists has been reached, is it possible to stop further development? Is it morally acceptable to deny the local community the possibility of higher profits? One of the main purposes of ecotourism is to benefit local societies, which should mean the possibility to develope an area, to build infrastructure, restaurants, hotels and so on. All this would inevitably lead to more pollution and other negative consequenses for the environment. There is an inherent contradiction built into the ecotourist concept as defined here; the more interested people become of the local community, the more they benefit it economically, the more the community is going to change due to the interaction. This is one of the dilemmas of all tourism, but ecotourism explicitly states it as it's goal. Tourists want to experience "genuin" local communities, but the more developed and modern the local community gets, the more the "genuinity" is changing into an act with a traditional looking facade to please the tourists. Visitors paying for that kind of entertainment are looking for an imagined mental picture of the "genuin" local community and it's culture. Not the genuin culture of today. At the same time as ecotourism is raising interest and benefitting the local communities, it is also "destroying" them in the name of nature conservation. We can't of course keep local communities at a status quo, as a cultural zoo for tourists, but in the end, it could become one anyway. And if traditions are kept up only because of the economic benefits from tourists, is it still something genuin or a fake? A community can remain in it's old style of life, "traditional", "genuin", if the destination is remote and difficult to reach, or unknown or uninteresting for visitors. But when an ecotourism organization or tour operator decides to make a nature conservation effort in those areas, also the traditional lifes of the communities will change.

Is ecotourism the answer for everyone interested in nature?

Ecotourism tours operators, and destinations, are geared towards teaching, nature conservation and providing economic means for the local people. Or at least they should be if they follow the principles. Being a member of an association doesn't necessarily mean a tour operators destinations comply with the associations criteria of ecotourism anyway. Anyone can be a member of the Swedish ecotourism society as long as they pay the membership fee, but if a company would like to become a member of "Naturens Bästa", "Nature's Best", which is a part of Swedish ecotourism society, then it becomes necessary to comply to a long list of requirements.
The International ecotourism society's definition of ecotourism is missing the expectations of some tourists to experience pristine wilderness. Some private tour operators mention unaltered nature in their own principles, but according to the International, and Swedish, ecotourism societies, there are no such requirements. If a tourist is only interested in experiencing a nature area, to participate in outdoor adventures, or to be entertained by different aspects of a culture, then ecotourism is by it's own definition not the best choice.

Conclusions

Ecotourism's best function seems to be in the beginning of a nature conservation project; to give the local communities a first economic incentive not to kill endangered species, destroy nature and to support old, traditional techniques an customs. When the situation has matured and developed, the nature and culture destroying forces of modern civilization and economic realities, will get stronger. Ecotourism saves the situation for the moment, but at the same time plants the seed for future nature and culture destructions.

All tourists interested in natur one way or the other, are not necessarily best served by ecotourist tour operators. The existence of a local community, that can be learned about and benefitted, is an integral part of ecotourism, but it may not be the main reason for all tourists looking for a nature or cultural experience. To choose an ecotour should be an informed decision, where the participants are aware of the ecotourism concept. The connotation of ecotourism as something nature based or nature friendly, could be missleading if the tourists are not fully aware of the implications.


References

http://audubonmagazine.org/features0009/ethics.html (may, 2008)

http://canoesaskatchewan.rkc.ca/survival/ethics.htm (may, 2008)

http://gorp.away.com/gorp/features/misc/ecotour.htm (may 2008)

http://www.naturensbasta.se/ekoturism/ (may, 2008)

Ecotourism in Nicaragua, Impacts on the Vegetation Diversity In Natural Reserve, Datanl’ – El Diablo (Therese Fransson, Master thesis in Biology, D-level 20 p Uppsala 2007)

Rena semestern, om ekoturism i Sverige (Svenska Naturskyddsföreningen, 2004)

The nature of Nature’s Best — a study of quality certification of Swedish eco-tourism (Pia Svenson, SLU, Institutionen för ekonomi, Uppsala, 2004.)

 

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