Rating Ecotourism Attractions On Animal Welfare And Conservation
Tourism is big business: by some estimates, tourism activity accounts for 9% of global GDP, and is comprised by about 1.1 tourist visits per year around the world. Ecotourism and Wildlife Tourism Areas (WTAs) are a big portion of that; depending on the estimates, ecotourism accounts for 20-40% of tourist activity. Even if we take the most conservative side of that, 1 in 5 tourists are engaged in ecotourism activities, making it a significant contributor to the economics of tourism more broadly.
Of course, not all ecotourism is created equal. Increased exposure to people, even indirectly, can lead to animals altering their behavior (including reproductive and feeding habits), and increased human traffic in wilderness areas can compromise habitats and food sources, as well as introduce disease. In better scenarios, ecotourism attractions are run by people who have a vested economic and political in conservation, and their programs help to encourage pro-conservation attitudes in both local tourists.
In this study, researchers divide WTAs into four broad groups: wildlife watching, captivity-based, hunting, and fishing. To get a better sense of how some ecotourism activities impact animals, they evaluated 24 types of WTAs based on metrics related to conservation and animal welfare. As a general focus, the researchers concentrated on “non-comsumptive, non-zoo” WTAs, and examined “representative individual institutions” for each type. They rated each on a scale from -3 to +3 on their adherence to the Five Freedoms, and quantified tourist perceptions using online TripAdvisor reviews.
Overall, the audit looked at 406 individual WTAs that attract somewhere between 3.5 million to 6 million visitors annually. In general, they found that captive interaction WTAs were bad on both animal welfare and conservation, while sanctuaries were good on both. Street performing animals were rated as bad on both counts, while wild attractions were generally bad on welfare, and a mixed bag when it came to conservation.
Tourist dissatisfaction of attractions correlated with animal welfare, but not conservation. In a somewhat surprising statistic, the researchers found that about 80% of tourists did not express dissatisfaction at WTAs with strongly negative conservation and welfare effects. There is an implication here that tourists are at an information deficit, in that they don’t necessarily realize animals are being harmed. The flipside of that is the assumption that, if they knew, they would change their behavior.
Overall, the study shows that ecotourism is far from a panacea, and tourist feedback alone is insufficient to ensure or even identify good conservation or animal welfare effects. The study provides a wealth of data, and wild animal advocates should check out the full study at the link below to explore the results further.