Ecotourism is a Delicate Balancing Act
Ecotourism is defined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people.” This kind of tourism seems like an ideal solution to a range of issues, such as building environmental awareness and respect, providing financial benefits for conservation and local communities, and replacing other environmentally damaging industries. However, there is a difference between ecotourism that is named as such simply for financial gain, and more “sustainable” versions; yet it can be hard to determine whether an ecotourist attraction or activity is truly that.
Trying to differentiate between good and bad ecotourism programs is made more complicated by the fact that “ecotourism” is more or less an unregulated concept. According to a review of relevant literature published in Tourism Management Perspectives, the concept of ecotourism “remains poorly understood and much abused. Lack of funding, mismanagement, population and development pressures as well as poaching and bureaucratic nature of forest department have distorted the very concept.” It is, in many ways, a “buzzword,” used to entice and fascinate many customers. However, ecotourism sometimes leads to “serious policy failures,” as tremendous pressure is exerted on local communities to attract and keep up with tourist demand for particular activities. According to this literature review, the fact that most analysis of ecotourism and its impacts is qualitative, focusing on descriptive experiences rather than quantitative measurements, does not help matters.
Despite these difficulties, the authors note that ecotourism has undoubtedly “proven to be an effective environmental conservation tool in many cases.” The authors list the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Kilum-Ijim National Park in Central Africa, and Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon as places where ecotourism has been “properly organized,” allowing locals to “augment their livelihoods.” This increase in the standard of living also “fosters respect for their own culture and helps them to participate in the program leading to cultural and political empowerment respectively.” When a good interdependence between economic, socio-cultural, and environmental aspects can be created, ecotourism thrives in a positive way.
However, the authors also point out that “many ecotourism spots are now facing growing disgruntlement at the local level,” which destroys the success of these programs on the ground. The researchers cite Antarctic cruise tourism, polar bear tourism, whale watch tourism, and dolphin watch tourism, as some of the programs that “have not been successful for meeting the objective of environmental conservation for lack of proper management of protected areas and environmental consciousness among the tourists.” They also note that in areas where there are “people-policy conflicts,” such as places where policy fails to address the needs of the indigenous communities, the results are tense at best, and, at worst, disastrous.
Overall, the authors strike a careful balance and do not declare ecotourism, in and of itself, to be positive or negative, but as having an outcome dependent on how policies are implemented. Though they conclude that the majority of ecotourism programs currently in place are inadequate, based on a constellation of factors relating to revenue, income distribution, effectiveness of conservation, and so on, they also say that “there is much hope […] in spite of the various loopholes.” Two things are stressed that would help to tip the balance from predicament to panacea: better management of ecological aspects, and better monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of programs. For animal advocates, this article gives important context to the range of good and bad ecotourism programs in existence, and offers some positive suggestions for improvement. It’s important for animal advocates to fully understand ecotourism programs so that they only support those that are truly effective and good for animals.