What’s wrong with ecotourism?

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Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

There is nothing quite like hearing the dawn silence pierced by the haunting song of the Indri Indri lemur. It was dawn in the Andaside Perinet National Park in Madagascar, and about thirty ecotourists (including me) had walked through the forest to see one of its rarest and most charismatic lemurs. We were huddled together around the base of a tree waiting to hear the Indri’s song. The sound was punctuated by the whirr and click of cameras, and by shuffling and excited whispers from the ecotourists gathered at the base of the tree. One tourist stepped back and chuckled ‘and they call this ecotourism’. He had a point.

Over the last ten years ecotourism has been promoted as the solution to the complex problems of securing economic development as well as environmental sustainability. It appears to offer a win-win scenario: wealthy tourists will pay handsomely to see wildlife half way across the world. Eco-lodges and eco tour operators have popped up all over the world, and in some places it is big business: gorilla tourism in Rwanda and Uganda are excellent examples. Promoters of ecotourism tell us that tourism brings in revenue for conservation, that it generates jobs for local people and is culturally sensitive. It seems the perfect solution. But is this really the case? The overly positive claims about the potential of ecotourism is based on a very crude link between tourism and wildlife conservation, which fails to recognise its potentially damaging impacts.

One of the first problems is of crowding around particular sites. The example of the Indri lemur in Madagascar is a scene that is repeated every day across the world. As ecotourists crowd around animals to get good photographs, animals can feel harassed and guides can feel pressured to satisfy clients’ demand to get closer and closer. Problems are also produced by everyday choices made by ecotourists. Most of us at one time or another will have picked up a pretty shell from the beach as a reminder of a day out or of a holiday. It feels as if shells are an endless renewable resource – they wash up on seashores all around the world. Shells are also made into souvenirs and jewellery for tourist consumption. But the removal of shells negatively impacts on the marine environment. In the Maldives, tourists were taking so many shells from the beach local hermit crabs started to use debris like radio dials and pen lids as homes.

But there are more insidious and invisible problems with ecotourism. The industry is implicated in redesigning the environment to suit ecotourist tastes. Ecotourists often gaze on engineered environments, not the pristine wilderness of their imaginations. Beaches are built, mangroves stripped out, waterholes drilled, people displaced and forests cleared to make way for ecotourist developments. Producing these new landscapes has clear ecological and social consequences. In order to create wilderness areas local communities have often been removed, sometimes with considerable violence: Kruger and Serengeti National Parks spring to mind.

More recently, Refugees International estimated that 2,000 families were removed from Nechisar National Park in Ethiopia when African Parks Foundation provided funding to fence the park and develop tourist facilities; in 2007 the Foundation withdrew as a result of opposition from human rights groups. But evictions are only one part of the story. Wilderness areas have been produced via complicated process of creating new rules and regulations to control what local communities can and cannot do with resources in the areas ecotourists want to visit. This includes outlawing some forms of farming and grazing as well as banning subsistence hunting and collection of fruits and timber for food and fuel.

These new rules to protect the ‘wilderness’ means local communities get progressively marginalised. Their rights to important resources are eroded in order to open up access for wealthy tourists from around the world. Ecotourism is not necessarily the answer for species conservation either. According to WWF 80 per cent of elephant range is outside national parks, they share areas with human communities and in those areas the elephants are at a low density; but international ecotourists want guaranteed sightings of great herds of elephants living in a fantasy landscape that conforms to the image of an Edenic and (crucially) people-free wilderness.

To compensate local people for loss of access, they are promised jobs in the new ecotourism enterprises, and encouraged to sell souvenirs to tourists. But the reality is that very few jobs are generated, and those that are tend to be low paid and low status. Local people are employed as waiters, guides, gardeners, cleaners and cooks, but they are rarely the owners of ecotourism enterprises, nor do they occupy key management positions. The argument is that they lack to skills or capacity for such positions, but this is a red herring. One of the main complaints of local communities is that outside tour operators do not engage with meaningful partnerships with them. The result is that they end up feeling disappointed with the promises of ecotourism. Ecotourism is not necessarily the answer, and it is definitely not the win-win solution its promoters suggest. We need to be careful not to simply believe the marketing and hype around ecotourism, and instead recognise that like all other forms of tourism it comes with its own set of problems. In short, the idea that ecotourism will produce sustainable economic development and wildlife conservation is hopelessly naïve.

Extract from “Nature Crime : How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong” (Yale University Press) by Rosaleen Duffy,

Text courtesy of the authorr

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