I posted an entry last year about what ecotourism is, because this is not only something that I am passionate about, but it plays a major role in my PhD research, and thus I have learned a lot about it on an academic level. Since my last post on the subject, my research has progressed, I have seen a few more parts of world, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why the benefits of ecotourism have only manifested in rare occasions. Now, I want to spend some time discussing my thoughts on the matter, since I may be leaving for a field season in Haiti soon, so my other travel posts will have to wait.
Ecotourism is meant to do three main things: (1) support environmental conservation, (2) local financially support locals through employment and fair pay for their use of their resources, and (3) it should provide environmental and cultural education for travelers. In a few special cases, these things have been accomplished, much to the benefit of surrounding areas, but for the most part, according to conservation and tourism research, ecotourism has fallen short of most of these goals, most of the time. Furthermore, ecotourism, along with all forms of tourism, has the potential to exploit local people, and degrade human and natural spaces. The Caribbean, where I have focused my research, is just one area that currently exhibits many of the negative symptoms of mismanaged tourism industries. Foreign companies dominate the landscape of Caribbean tourism, between the all-inclusive resorts that have cropped up on beaches across the region and the cruises that frequent the many island nations of the area. Local resources and infrastructure is often overwhelmed by waves of tourists coming in off of cruise ships, and local people have developed some less than flattering stereotypes about visitors, which has sometimes led to antagonistic interactions with tourists. None of these are specific to ecotourism, or even common in the case of ecotourism, but they illustrate what can happen when tourism is allowed to operate in a way that does not prioritize the preservation and protection of the people and environments that that have attracted visitors from across the world.
I was tempted early on to blame these things on the companies that take advantage of the developing governments in the Caribbean, but it has become clear to me that the people providing tourism services can only cause and only fix so many problems in the tourism industry. So, what is missing in the puzzle that is so often discussed and studied by academics.
I think the answer is pretty simple, actually… what’s missing from all the discussions is the tourists. Us.
Most often, we aren’t pulling our weight when it comes to protecting the
things in the world that we love, and pay thousands to go see. We create the demand that shapes the tourism industry, we create the stereotypes that make locals antagonistic, and we sometimes sacrifice the well-being of the environments that we visit to satisfy our own needs. In some ways, this makes a lot of sense. We are on vacation, and we have paid a lot of money to see and do the things that we want in relative comfort. Even so, when I travel, I do like to think that I might be doing some good for the people in the places where I go. In the US, this is usually pretty obvious, especially in places where tourism is the bread and butter of some small, unique communities. The impact in developing countries, however, is less sure, and overall, without the help of tourists, tourism has little hope of changing for the better.
So, what does this mean for us? How can we make things better for the people and places that we love to dream about visiting, and hopefully will see in the future.
The first thing that I think we need to do, as concerned travelers, is educate ourselves about the ways that tourism can be good and bad for local communities. This will help us spot helpful and damaging practices in the places that we visit. We should also have an understanding of the ways in which we can be good or bad for different locations based on their culture, their environment, and the things that we want to see and do while we are there.
Through this understanding, we should strive to modify our expectations and behaviors while we are travelling. There are some sacrifices that we need to make in order to have less of an impact while travelling. Follow all guidelines while travelling, even down to things like park requests that you don’t take anything (including rocks) from protected areas, and listen to guides who should be there to balance your needs with those of the place you are in. In certain places, this won’t be enough as some developing countries may not have the resources to develop proper guidelines or train guides. So, keep some general rules in mind for cultural and environmental sensitivity. Also, take any chance you have to stay in environmentally friendly accommodations, and those places that are run by locals. Some regular hotels also offer you more environmentally friendly options as well- such as not getting your towels washed or your room cleaned every day. Take these opportunities to save some resources when you can.
We should also seek out and reward the businesses that care as much as we do. Help locals starting new businesses to get the word out if you enjoyed your stay. Tell others about ecotourism-based hotels or excursions that you enjoyed, and strive to let your money support those people in the tourism industry that are trying to make things better.
And be sure to let companies (hotels, tour companies, etc.) know when you catch them doing things that you know are bad for the people and/or environment of an area. For instance, after becoming familiar with whale watching guidelines, I have seen some whale watch operators approach whales too quickly or too closely, and then they pursue the whales that they have scared. All very inappropriate behavior that I feel their guests wouldn’t allow them to continue if they knew what this sort thing did to the animals that they love.
Starting to think about these things, and changing what we do while we travel (and at home), we can start to help the small businesses and local people make tourism the tool for peace, cultural exchange, and environmental protection that the dreamers behind ecotourism hoped that it one day might be.
Any thoughts on this? Let me know. I think it is something that I will continue to consider and write about in the future.