Eco tourism is defined as tourism that sends people to relatively untouched parts of the world and that is sensitive to the impact to nature caused by humans. Eco tourism is an attempt to allow tourism that does not damage nature or traditional culture. It is an idea that has massive appeal as those with money can now visit places in good conscience. They can see wonderful things and feel at the same time that their money is helping the local environment and indigenous people.
Since the 1980s the eco tourism sector has grown and grown. It is the fastest growing sector in tourism – growing at an annual rate of between 10% – 15%. Tourism is one of the few sectors of the world economy that continues to grow despite the ups and downs in the world economy. It has become so important that the IMF now includes stipulations about tourism as part of its preconditions for lending money to developing countries.
The Pros of Eco-tourism
If done rightly eco tourism has several advantages. It is more concerned with the environment and does encourage developers to build with more consideration for the natural environment. This means that more natural habitat is preserved and that the resources for building come from sustainable sources. This is the theory anyway.
Another advantage is that eco tourism provides an income for local inhabitants in an area. The argument is that if the local people can generate revenue from showing tourists around a jungle, lake, savannah etc. then it is much better than killing elephants for their ivory or capturing gorillas to sell on the black market. Moreover, showing people a rainforest rather than logging the forest is a good compromise if the forest is preserved.
People in the developed world through eco tourism get to experience places of great natural significance as well as interact with local and indigenous people. It is hoped that this contact will benefit both parties, fostering better understanding of the issues on the ground, and overcoming prejudice.
The Cons of Eco-tourism
It is felt by some environmentalists that there should be some parts of the world that are ‘off bounds’ for any tourists as any human activity will damage the eco system and disrupt the routine of the animals.
Although scuba divers try to be careful, any tourist scuba business is going to have a negative impact on fragile coral marine environments. Although, people walking carefully through the forest might not do much harm, building their eco lodges does.
A good example of this is the safari business in Africa. Tour jeeps going across the savannah scare off the animals that the lions rely on catching. The result is that lions can no longer hunt in parts of Kenya and Tanzania during the morning when the tour jeeps are out. They have to wait until the hottest part of the day to hunt. This is draining for them and affecting lion numbers.
The Masai people in Kenya have been moved out of their traditional lands because of the demarcation of National Parks for eco tourism. They are settled on land next to the reserves. Much of the best land next to the reserves has gone to non-local people and eco tourist operators. When animals come on to this communal land any damage caused by the animals is not compensated by the government. The result is that the Masai who once co-existed with the animals of the savannah now come to regard them as pests.
Another issue for the Masai and other indigenous people is that they have become ‘tourist attractions’ that are expected to pose for the cameras and perform dances etc. for money. Not only is this extremely patronizing, but it is discouraging the Masai and other indigenous people from pursuing their traditional life styles. Unwittingly the tourists are destroying the culture that they are paying to preserve.
Eco-tourism seeks to go to the remotest places. These places are often not well policed. There is nothing stopping people taking money from tourists as well as pursuing environmentally unfriendly activities. In the case of Brazil, illegal logging will not stop because of eco-tourism because the logging companies make too much money.
It seems that the cons often outweigh the pros of eco tourism. It might be better to take pictures of animals rather than shoot animals, but given the choice the animals would sooner not have people around. Policing of eco tourism is another matter. Do eco tourist outfits deliver what they promise? It seems whether eco tourism should be allowed should be judged case-by-case, and that the consultation must include the local people, and not the IMF.