Ecotourism has lost its way, say experts

The much-hyped concept of ecotourism has lost its way, failing to deliver the promised benefits to the environment, indigenous people or tourists themselves, experts say.

So-called eco-lodges, luxury hotels nestled in rainforests and tourist encounters with nature are often merely “green-washed”—given a veneer of environmental friendliness in order to lure tourists, campaigners say.

“It has lost its definition, if there was a serious definition,” British zoologist and ecotourism consultant Bernard Harrison said. “So we need to redefine the terms to be a little bit more specific.”

“At the moment, it’s totally lost. A lot of people don’t understand what they’re talking about,” Harrison said at a recent media and environment summit in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo.

Conservationists agree the basic aim of ecotourism, a concept that emerged in the late 1980s, is to allow people to visit natural areas and local communities while affecting them as little as possible.

Tourist dollars are supposed to help local people and fund environmental protection, while visitors themselves learn more about new cultures and wildlife.

But conservationists say the word has become virtually meaningless because many tourism operators have adopted the slogan as a marketing ploy to appeal to consumers, but have failed to embrace the concept in practice.

Wild Asia, a Malaysia-based group made up of biologists and conservationists, was created five years ago to encourage “responsible tourism”—it eschews the word “ecotourism”—among tour operators and visitors to Asia.

“Ecotourism over the last 10 years ... has been interpreted in many different ways by the businesses that profess to be ecotourism operators,” said Wild Asia executive director Reza Azmi.

“Today when an operator stands and up says, I am an ecotourism operator, I think he is seen very sceptically. You don’t know exactly how his operation does benefit and is pro-conservation,” he said.

Azmi cited cautionary tales, including one ecotourism village in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state where there were accusations that sexually transmitted diseases borne by visitors have spread among indigenous women.

And diving instructors at Malaysian island resorts also report that they are unable to control divers who carelessly damage the fragile reef environments.

Reza, a biologist by training, said the concept of ecotourism is often “misapplied”, and tagged on any activity that has something to do with nature.

“It’s used inconsiderately and it’s gotten to the point where everybody thinks it means a natural destination,” he said.

While conservationists agree that genuine projects provide a much-needed source of income for environmental projects and local communities, they also worry about the effects of increasing numbers of “ecotourists”.

Harrison said the boom in the industry means that hordes of visitors could “totally degrade and smash up those very environments that they’re going to”.

Instead, he advocates keeping precious wildlife away from all but the most dedicated of adventurers, and offering managed wildlife sanctuaries as an alternative for other tourists.

Scientists point to increasing evidence that even animal watching—of whales, dolphins, polar bears, penguins or dingoes—is damaging because the animals become stressed by the presence of humans.

In Africa, money from ecotourism has proven to be crucial in preserving wildlife in countries such as Uganda, which is famed for its mountain-gorilla population in the south-west.

But ecotourism projects have also introduced human diseases such as measles, which has killed a number of gorillas in Uganda, said Chris Furley, the director of zoology and veterinary services for Singapore’s Zoological Gardens.

“It is important to take into consideration the effect that projects will have on the wildlife and the area itself and that should be one of the criteria which should be considered in the general approval or disapproval of any future project,” he told the conference.

Conservationists differ over the best way to ensure ecotourism is carried out properly.

Some argue for self-regulation and stricter controls over ecotourism programmes, while others say that creating international guidelines and standards for tour operators is the way to go.

“Even though you have the right vision, ultimately if there is no system in place, then it will fail,” said Azmi.—AFP

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