Consumption, Equal Opportunity & Human Rights, Natural Capital & The Environment

Ecotourism: A silver bullet…or another weapon against the environment?

Bertrand Yan | Sep 01, 2023


When I visited Nepal in 2019 for a hiking adventure, the experience of trekking along dirt paths 4000m above sea level remains etched in my memory. Throughout those 10 days on the Annapurna circuit, I marvelled at the majestic snow-capped Himalayan massifs, immersing myself in the local food and culture, and staying in local accommodation found in villages scattered along the entire trail.

This experience was a quintessential form of ecotourism, which is defined as “responsible travel that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Put differently, ecotourism is a type of travel that aims to minimise the negative physical and social impacts that arise from traditional tourism. It typically contributes to conserving environmental conditions and preserving local ways of life, especially indigenous customs and relationships with the environment. At the same time, it promises to deliver financial benefits to local businesses. In the face of highly damaging tourism, ecotourism is positioned as a win-win solution to enable ethical, sustainable travel.


Adventure ecotourism, like my trek around Annapurna, is rapidly gaining in popularity


At a glance, this trip delivered all the purported social-environmental benefits that ecotourism promises. My group contributed permit fees supporting the Annapurna Conservation Area, abided by Leave No Trace principles, followed local customs (e.g. visiting a mountain-side Buddhist shrine to pay respects and receive good fortunes before passing through), all while supporting small, family-run businesses living in remote and poor regions. Sounds wonderful, right?


Except that most of the benefits may neither actually be passed on to the local community, nor to relevant environmental protection initiatives. For one, large for-profit companies may run “sustainable” experiences that generate wealth for corporations and executives located internationally, while only providing token contributions to the local economy. These points of inequality create tension, such as in one eco-lodge between private investors and the Maasai people in Kenya. Violent conflict erupted as a result of the eco-lodge’s failure to deliver promised social-economic benefits. Ecotourism can therefore lead to unequally distributed outcomes that worsens, rather than improves, inequality, all without making a particular impact on the environment.


Equally critically is how the act of displaying local culture for tourism fundamentally transforms the meaning of traditions and customs. Previously, indigenous rituals may have held important spiritual meaning or promoted social cohesion, performed on special occasions or to commemorate life and death. Today, these same rituals are performed for others, with the purpose of attracting visitors and more importantly, their money; local culture has been commodified. No doubt the dollars generated can contribute to improving quality of life, but at the cost of significant degradation to the cultural essence. In other words, instead of ecotourism legitimising and conserving local culture, it is the local culture that has been co-opted into a particular image of “sustainability”.


In fact, the over-pursuing of ecotourism initiatives can lead to greater spillover effects from increased visitorship. The market for ecotourism has grown tremendously in recent years and is forecast to grow by over 15% year on year up to 2030. With this rapid expansion, more resources have to be consumed to cater to the increasing number of visitors: food and energy transportation, land transformations for roads and accommodations, water extraction etc. This places heavy strain on local ecosystems, paving the way for long-term collapse and permanent transformations to human and non-human relationships. Along with the carbon footprint of the same visitors flying to these destinations, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine that its benefits outweigh its costs. At such a point in time, ecotourism carries the same environmental impacts of mass tourism, running completely counter to its initial objectives.


How can the negative effects of ecotourism be moderated to the point where the local economy and environment actually experience positive outcomes? On a more systemic level, the role that free-flowing capital has played in hurting smaller communities has contributed to the need for these same communities to turn to ecotourism as an alternative means of subsistence. Agricultural subsidies in the US, for instance, create anti-competitive consequences where farmers from Jamaica and other marginal nations are unable to price match. Ecotourism is therefore a band-aid fix to supporting local communities. Instead, it is more critical to find alternatives that enable local ways of life to persist. These include rethinking international policies and political economic conditions that promote greater equity, rather than inequity, across the globe.


A 2001 documentary titled Life and Debt highlighted the struggles that developing countries face in supporting local ways of life


On a policy level, strong and enforceable regulation is critical. One key strategy implemented by places with exploding tourism numbers is through visitor restrictions. In managing the increasingly popular Galapagos Islands, the Ecuadorian government has recently decided to adopt a “zero growth” approach to the islands’ tourism, helping to regulate the total volume of environmental impact. Popular hikes in the US such as the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park have also implemented lottery systems to manage visitor numbers, mitigating impact and improving safety. Other measures include policies that tackle specific issues, like fighting plastic pollution through control and prohibition over its sale. To protect against worsening inequality and environmental degradation, there can also be additional regulations against foreign businesses operating in the location, who are likely more profit-focused and less concerned with the local context.


Individuals also play a crucial role in their travel decisions. The simplest step one can take is to reduce their frequency and distance of travel. Choosing to explore regional ecotourism opportunities can support smaller communities in the same way as one halfway across the world, minus significant carbon footprint. Being aware of and moderating one’s consumption of resources (such as water and electricity) is also key, as remote destinations generally have precarious supplies of these critical resources. Additionally, avoiding profit-oriented agencies, while favouring local initiatives with proven success, is critical to becoming a more thoughtful and sustainable traveller.


In an era where consumption of travel continues to grow unsustainably, we need to rethink what it means to travel, and which parties (human or non-human) may be hurt as a result. Ecotourism has the potential to genuinely improve the health, education and welfare of large segments of the global population. Ensuring that social systems and ecosystems are not compromised will be critical in how we fight against climate change in the coming decades.


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