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Danish Farid


Hassan Karrar


6th Dec 2017

Ecotourism: Too Good to be True?

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to

it, will direct us aright.” – Henry David Thoreau

Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world, and one of the fastest growing. In

the 1950’s, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) tagged 25 million

international tourists, this number grew to 1.3 billion in 2016, nearly a sixth of the global

population and a 5200% increase in 60 years (4). During the International Conference for

Sustainable Tourism, held in 1995, tourism was referred to as a “fast track to economic nirvana”

for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) (Hampton 365-367). The numbers from the WTO

support this, with 44.5% of international tourists in 2016 visiting emerging economies. These

upcoming economies have been able to take advantage of the tourism boom, partly due to the

fact that recently, newer forms of tourism have rapidly gained popularity, these forms include

‘nature tourism’. Nature tourism is defined as visiting places for their natural attractions and

beauty, for the flora and fauna (“What is Nature Tourism”). Unchecked levels of nature tourism

however, become problematic very quickly and can cause severe damage to the environment.

(Sunlu 263-270)

Even without nature tourism, the environment has been on a detrimental trajectory for a

very long time. In 1998 CNN reported that a quarter of all disease globally was linked to poor
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environmental conditions (“Report: Deteriorating Environment…”). Fast forward 19 years, and

current CNN reports seem to indicate that the situation doesn’t fare much better, with global

warming as the critical issue resulting from an exploitative relationship between man and the

environment (Mann). It is easy to see how more traditional forms of tourism can contribute to the

world’s environmental woes, forms that manifest as sprawling beach resorts, shopping malls,

hotels etc. These constitute the typical urban tourism experience. Seeing the word ‘nature’

attached to tourism, however, can spawn the misleading idea that nature tourism is not

detrimental to the environment, whereas this is certainly not always the case. The recent increase

in the number of domestic tourists heading to Pakistan’s majestic, and mostly untouched Gilgit-

Baltistan area, causing the deposition of tons of waste material is an unfortunate example (Mir).

Circumstances such as these arise when environmental responsibilities are not given much

thought, either by the tourists or by locals in affected areas. The concept of ‘ecotourism’ attempts

to right the wrongs that can be associated with nature tourism. It is, effectively, a set of

guidelines for how to conduct nature tourism in ways that are not damaging to the environment.

It also calls for the systematic development and economic uplifting of the communities living in

surrounding areas. This form of tourism has been promoted heavily since its inception, as what

should be adopted and promoted for the preservation of natural areas. Additionally, the approach

also enables LDCs to reap the economic benefits of tourism. While ecotourism may sound like

the answer to many an environmentalists’ prayers, (Simm) it does, however, come with its own

set of caveats. The two major problems with ecotourism that hold it back from being the wonder-

solution for sustainable nature tourism it seems to be, are; its scalability, and its inability to

attract tourists based on just the merits of its own appeal. This paper seeks to stress that in its
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current form, ecotourism as an extension of nature tourism alone is not enough to take a truly

meaningful step in the direction of working towards sustainable tourism, urban or natural.

Upon observing several instances of ecotourism in action, one may see the phenomenon

seemingly working as advertised. Upon closer inspection, however, these different instances will

most likely have one thing in common, they will all not be on a very large scale. Scalability is

the first major problem when it comes to ecotourism principles, they do not seem to be designed

to scale up very well. Tourism as an industry has a 5% growth rate (UNWTO 4), meaning any

sound sustainability strategy for tourism must have room to scale. Building on this, in the town

of Phuket (southern Thailand) there are several tourism companies set up working along the lines

that ecotourism sets down. One in particular, ‘Sea Canoe’, conducts nature trips for tourists by

taking them out on kayaks to open air lagoons, navigating through underground cave passages.

The company was set up in 1989 and actively supports the local community by hiring locally,

paying well and educating their staff constantly. In addition, Sea Canoe limits the number of

tourists it takes and spreads its trips out to varied hours in the day to reduce the pressure on the

area, at any given point in time. Due to the increase in the number of tourists to the region,

imitators have sprung up. These new companies also hold day trips to open air lagoons, but they

all do not uphold the same sustainability principles and concern for nature. The number of these

imitator companies has gone up from 3 in 1992 to 20 now (Kontogeorgopoulos 4). These 20

serve more tourists coming into the region, and this number will only continue to grow as it has

in previous years. Here, a paradox seems to emerge. While ecotourism’s goal to provide growth

and economic support for the local community seems to have been met, given that the

community now sports over 20 companies like Sea Canoe all conducting similar forms of nature

tours, it comes at a cost. The additional strain placed on the natural setting, makes it difficult to
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comfortably remain within the ecological capacities of the region. Additionally, one ecologically

friendly company operating responsibly does not mean all others will follow suit.

At this point, if drastic action were to be taken to limit the number of tourists to the

region at any given point in time, it would place a cap on how much business the local

companies could do. At some point, the growing local communities’ needs would outgrow what

the capped businesses could generate. It would also not be fair to privately owned enterprises to

take away or to cap their source of livelihood. All in all, the lack of formal enforced regulations

hurts how much of an impact a few ecotourism minded companies can have by themselves,

beyond just in Phuket. This phenomenon is further evidenced by a study conducted in four

regions of Costa Rica, to gauge the effectiveness of ecotourism activities. One of the conclusions

of the study was, “as soon as the scale of tourism begins to grow, the number of drawbacks on

the environmental, economic or social dimensions seem to rise” (Koens 1232). Moreover, only

one of the four regions under study was identified as successfully conducting sustainable tourist

activities. The problem remains, ecotourism simply does not scale very well, when all principles

are considered.

The second major problem that ecotourism is sometimes weighed down by, is the

inability natural destinations have, to attract tourists purely by themselves. What is observed in

many ecotourism studies such as the one conducted in the Caribbean Islands, and the ones

regarding Costa Rice and Phuket, is that most tourists studied in the three regions simply aren’t

there with the sole and pure purpose of only experiencing nature. The motivations pulling them

towards these different regions is usually the product of some wider form of Conventional Mass

Tourism (CMT); that is, specialized forms and locations for tourism designed to deal with mass

influx of tourists (“Difference Between Mass Tourism and Alternative Tourism”). In Costa
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Rica’s Manuel Antonio region during 2004, the percentage of tourists that arrived solely to

experience nature was only 17%. A more encouraging statistic, however, was that 61% of people

asked about their motivation to travel, responded by saying that they came for beach

resorts/facilities, as well as nature (Koens 1228). This overlap existed since both facilities were

nearby and the same trip could allow for both. Within the study of the Caribbean Islands, any

form of CMT was identified as undesirable or inappropriate when considering deliberate

ecotourism for the small regions. And yet still, the most prevalent motivation for tourists on the

Islands is a CMT product. Namely, this is the 3S’ or the ‘sand, sea and sun’ tourism product,

named after conventional forms of tourism centered around beaches, resorts, and establishments

present there. Since the Islands are close to the North American market and have a steady supply

of tourists, they have been come to be identified now as 3S’ tourist destinations. No matter how

inappropriate or unsuitable the CMT product may be for the region, it is likely to remain the

economic lifeblood. Ecotourism on these islands takes a secondary role; even in a region full of

natural sites to visit and explore, these protected regions effectively boil down to a few national

parks where nature tourism has been accommodated as a complementary activity. The pull to the

region is because of the 3S’ product, which then feeds a smaller portion of the tourists to the

ecotourism friendly initiatives. (Weaver 459) A similar story exists in Phuket, where thriving

ecotourism companies are often only able to maintain business due to their proximity to CMT

sites. Being nearby means they allow tourists to, often via day trips, add the element of nature

tourism for a day or so to their full holiday itineraries (Kontogeorgopoulos 4). It is clear,

however, that without the mass tourism destinations nearby, the ecotourism companies would

probably not be able to survive financially This then sums up the problem, to allow local tourism

companies to survive and thrive, they will often need to be close to a mass tourist destination to
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attract their audience. Whatever bit of the environment is protected with the environmentally

responsible ecotourism, is once again at risk thanks to the CMT infrastructure nearby. But, if

these CMT establishments shuttered down, the tourist intake into these areas would suffer a

massive drop, only the small percentages of people previously mentioned would still travel to

experience nature and nature alone. This would mean that local communities could certainly not

be supported. It must therefore be accepted that most tourists travelling globally are not doing as

pure nature tourists, and they will likely only indulge or invest in ecotourism initiatives if they

are convenient to reach from their primary destinations. The positive note to come away with

here, is that a good many mass tourists do indulge in nature tourism activities, especially if they,

“do not necessitate long, uncomfortable or inconvenient journeys” as was the case in Phuket

where Sea Canoe trips were a mere 22 miles away from the CMT areas (Kontogeorgopoulos 5).

Ecotourism, therefore, is a mixed bag. To its credit it has spurred the debate on

sustainable tourism and gotten people talking about the problems that traditional unchecked

forms of tourism can demonstrate, a first step. It also sets up a workable framework, a check list

for what needs doing. Even if some of the items on the list can end up in conflict, in practice.

Effective maintenance of sustainable forms of tourism can be achieved better by taking all forms

of tourism under the umbrella together, to work on and develop. When the bulk of tourist activity

globally is not really linked to nature tourism at all (UNWTO), ecotourism can only do so much.

It should ideally, strive for and promote making all forms of tourism sustainable. Effort

continues globally to reduce the carbon footprint of urban sprawls and improve their friendliness

to the environment (). This effort should spill over and allow CMT establishments in cities and

urban locales to reduce their impact on environmental degradation as well. It is an effort that can

be spurred on further if ecotourism were to expand its definition to urban forms of tourism as
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well. However, the issue of overcrowding smaller tourist destinations with numbers they simply

cannot support, whether it be in an urban setting, a natural setting as was the case with the town

of Phuket, or involve urban style establishments encroaching onto nature much like in the

Caribbean Islands. This is a trend that must stop, and ecotourism should detail and call for an

improvement in this area, a challenging task. One course of action is of course to limit tourists to

certain regions as was discussed and a recent decision for Dubrovnik (Croatia), as an effort to

limit the tourist influx (Morris), attempts to do just that. But again, this is a method that may

have an impact on businesses with a stake in tourism activities in the region. Another method to

try and organically control and streamline tourist numbers is to make tourist destinations

globally, more visible, more vibrant and easier to get to, especially for the more remote and

desolate locations. This can potentially spread the load around more evenly rather than channel

enormous numbers into just a few locations globally. However, it is eventually, addressed, this is

another conversation that ecotourism needs to be promoting.

To conclude, the promise of ecotourism will be very difficult to realize if it only exists in

small regions falling under the flag of nature tourism, as it does currently. To instigate more

change towards truly making tourism, as a whole, sustainable, ecotourism needs to take on more

conventional forms of tourism and spark debate for how to make them more environmentally

friendly as well. Even in its current form, some of ecotourism’s principles can often end up in

conflict with one another. It is a bold and noble idea but one that must expand and push harder

for change, as a concept for environmentalists to rally around and hopefully soon for the

common man to rally around as well. Because if what Thoreau says is true, it would serve

humanity well to properly protect the environment. To make sure that in our underlying desire to

visit and appreciate nature, we do not leave it in a state unappreciable by anyone.

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Works Cited

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2016, www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-mass-tourism-and-vs-alternative-


Hampton, Mark. “The World Conference on Sustainable Tourism.” Development in Practice,

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Koens, Jacobus Franciscus, et al. “Ecotourism as a Development Strategy: Experiences from

Costa Rica.” Environment, Development and Sustainability, vol. 11, no. 6, Aug. 2009, pp.

1225–1237., doi:10.1007/s10668-009-9214-3.

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Interdependence, Structural Connections, and Staged Authenticity.” GeoJournal, vol. 61,

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Mann, Michael. “Let's Stop Debating Climate Change and Start Combating It.” CNN, Cable

News Network, 8 Nov. 2017, edition.cnn.com/2017/11/07/opinions/climate-report-


Mir, Shabbir. “Tourists Spew Tonnes of Waste All over G-B.” The Express Tribune, 2 Aug.

2016, tribune.com.pk/story/1153805/litterbugs-tourists-spew-tonnes-waste-g-b/.

Morris, Hugh. “Dubrovnik Plans Drastic Tourist Limits, and Curbs on Cruise Ships, to Save

World Heritage Status.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 11 Aug. 2017,
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“What Is Nature Tourism?” TPWD: What Is Nature Tourism?,