The niche area of ecotourism has been growing three times faster than regular tourism. Sustainable development efforts have often focused on the tourism sector as an alternative to ecologically destructive livelihoods such as mining and logging. From Amazon Basin tours to eco-lodge treks in Machu Pichu…the options are diverse…but how socially responsible and environmentally friendly are these trips?

The Eco-Tourism and Sustainable Development Conference was held in Canada this week. The conference was aimed at defining exactly what ecotourism, sustainable tourism, nature tourism and similar terms mean, and developing formal guidelines to implement them. Many travel companies have jumped on the eco band wagon and market themselves as green. The truth is often very different.

There is a wide-ranging discourse focusing upon ecotourism and how to make it sustainable. The so-called benefits of eco-tourism are often publicised but this must be weighed against the problems. It is now worth looking briefly at the two schools of thought towards eco-tourism and examples of tour companies offering the green experience….

PROS

Sustainable tourism is an excellent example of participatory development as tour communities are beginning to realise the important role they have in not only protecting their own environment.

This article focuses on the Galapagos islands and shows that a delicate balance between tourism and environmental protection is possible with careful management. Whereas this initiative in Panama seeks to combine education and protection of natural habitats to change how people think in that area.

There is also a monetary value in maintaining these traditional ways of life.

CONS

These niche destinations force the question: when will the organic growth of island eco-tourism reach its carrying capacity? When they are destroyed?

An article in the guardian recently recommended visiting Ecuador if you wanted to experience a trully ‘sustainable’ form of tourism. See here for an example of responsible tourism.

However, I feel that the way these ‘traditional’ communities are represented portrays them as primitive and backward. Travel literature reinforces out-dated stereo-types namely that developing countries and its people are a ‘primitive other’ that need modernising. This rationalizes and perpetuates modernist ways of looking at the developed world and clings onto outdated theories that developing countries need transfer of technology and knowledge. Although, project like this seek to celebrate traditional ways of life they also help to stigmatise these people which in the long term is contradictory to their development needs.

Rather predictably the main factor underlying this image is that it makes money and thus is encouraged. This legitimizes and rationalizes imperialist attitudes. This can be seen as an example of western style conservation ethics that once again look after first world interests at the expense of those in the developed world. The needs of the local community are ignored by external, profit-making predators? The natural system has monetary value and economic needs drive tourism not environmental ones.

These so called green travel companies exploit local people and use them as a marketing or media tool. The emphasis of trips is very rarely placed upon the environment or local communities. It takes only a few minutes of perusing this kind of eco-tourism propaganda for this to become apparent. It is these kinds of trips which influence the way that western media represent these communities – it a very narrow, one dimensional way.

Eco-tourism is  inherrent with contradictions. These well meaning travellers with environmentally conscience attitudes are often the agents of damage and suffer from an evolving guilty conscience about their air miles – carbonised footprints? Is the best form of protection not visiting these places at all? Doubtful. Atleast these visits raise awareness of the issues and attempt to put the environment on the political agenda.

Eco-tourism – another casualty of the recession?

As with many things at the moment we have to put this issue in the context of the current world recession.  It is niche markets that demand a higher price tag which will be most effected as people reign in their spending and choose less exotic destinations. Emphasis on the environment is increasingly likely to be biased in these difficult financial times where the short term goals of making money dominate the tourism agenda.

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