Ecotourism Evaluations: Steps to Traveling With a Lighter Tread

A public science essay by Emma Cushing

 In the spring of 2020, I was on the cusp of a virgin voyage to Georgetown, Malaysia. With flights and hotel rooms booked and local “foodie” Instagram recommendations saved, I had but one item left on my to-do list: plan activities! I began my Google search with enthusiasm and intentionality. I would strive to find activities that upheld the principles of sustainable ecotourism I had recently learned about in one of my ecology classes. 

In recent years, a style of traveling called “ecotourism” has grown enormously in popularity. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (2015). This method of travel typically requires much less infrastructure than traditional travel, as it tends to rely on tents rather than resorts and hikes rather amusement parks. Due to this environmentally-friendly and low-cost setup, the local habitat remains preserved, and locals wishing to start a business can do so with limited funds. Although ecotourism sounds like a win-win for conscientious travelers who are passionate about seeing the world, the realities of the trend are a bit more grim.

            As I learned in class, many areas of the world are plagued by large corporations, such as resorts and tour companies, hiding behind the ecotourism brand in order to take advantage of its popularity. These businesses are often run by foreign operators who exploit local people and animals for economic gain. Even when businesses have good intentions, it can be hard to predict the detrimental effects that will befall the local community. Environmental, social, cultural, and financial impacts often harm the area tourists are aiming to preserve. When locals experience the dishonesty or harsh consequences of foreign ecotourism businesses, they lose trust and turn away from the industry as a whole. The result is a lack of cooperative efforts between native people and tourists that makes for an unpleasant living and traveling environment.

If you have ever ventured into a different community, whether that be one state over or halfway across the world, you know that entering unfamiliar territory can be intimidating and demands reverence for local ways. Likewise, if you have ever hosted visitors, you most likely expect them to show respect for your home and your family. Imagine you extend an open invitation for friends of friends to visit your hometown. These acquaintances then hire foreign guides, who have also only just arrived, for a tour of the area, even though you have lived here all your life. The tour guides are then generously paid to bring tourists to one or two of the most popular spots in town, where the tourists, who have not been educated in proper local etiquette, obliviously trample native foliage and scare endemic species with noise pollution. On top of all of this, the money these tour groups generate never enters the local economy– rather, the tour guides spend their salaries importing goods from back home and encourage tourists to spend money at foreign-owned restaurants. This scenario is unfortunately all too realistic in many parts of the world. For example, economics experts call the Cambodian tourism industry a “money-in, money-out” system. Despite the two million tourists descending upon the Angkor temples each year, a mere seven percent of tourism-generated revenue reaches the locals there, who have the lowest per capita income in the region (Becker 2017).

Not all ecotourism businesses are created alike, however. Some truly are operated by local people who reinvest profits into the local economy. They evenly distribute financial gains within the entire community, and they genuinely care for the species inhabiting the earth around them because this is, after all, their home. So how can you, as a conscientious traveller, discern between the good and the bad? Which businesses deserve your support and which should you avoid when traveling to a new destination?

            There are myriad aspects to consider when making your ultimate decision to be an ecotourist. Before traveling, delve into how the industry at the specific locale you plan to visit affects the social and cultural structure of the local people, how economic gains are distributed within the community, and how the business affects local, and especially endemic, wildlife. In addition, your own personal motive for participating in ecotourism is important to take into account.

            While it may be difficult to ascertain all of this information in every setting across the globe, even a small sense of the industry’s effects in the area you are traveling to is beneficial and can guide your gut feeling on whether or not to support tourist operations there. For example, if you were aware of the unfair financial distributions in Cambodia, you could actively seek out locally owned businesses to support during your trip. A little time spent digging can go a long way in uncovering the systematic inequalities that have become all too commonplace in the ecotourism industry.

            Before supporting a business, it is essential to first analyze its social and cultural effects on the local community. Frances Brown calls tourism a “two-way influence” in his book Tourism Reassessed: Blight or Blessing? Tourists gain knowledge of the culture they are visiting while  they inadvertently give locals a taste of their own culture (Brown 2011). The rise of globalism across the board has led to this merging of cultures, but many smaller communities resent the encroachment of foreign cultures, especially in regards to the consumerist and sometimes self-righteous attitudes of many travelers. In addition, local communities may not be equipped to handle the realities of foreign influences in much more tangible ways. For example, UCLA professor Dr. Alison Lipman performed a study in a small Bolivian municipality and observed that, as more travelers visited the town, local vendors began importing a larger quantity of plastic items to sell these travelers without any formal method for disposing of the additional trash created. This led to an increase in burning trash, which emits huge amounts of carcinogenic greenhouse gases into the environment and contributes to climate change. Alongside the introduction of plastics, Westernized attitudes and styles of dress became especially popular for the teenagers within the town, who began rebelling against their cultural norms and rejecting the traditions of their families (Lipman 2020). While individuals should have the ability to choose their own lifestyles, it is tragic to see unique cultures lose their identities in order to assimilate and cater to the cultural norms of visitors.

            In terms of my own trip, I read about the incredible intersection of cultures within Georgetown, Malaysia– centuries of colonization and immigration had left the city an eclectic mix of Muslim Malay, Indian, Chinese, and English contributions. I planned to visit a few of the temples, mosques, churches and shrines around the city and Googled the customs for entering each place of worship. I compared the local practices to various tour companies to see which were taking into account and respecting this intersection of cultures. Many of the websites offering tours of these landmarks lacked any mention of the customs I had found, but through my search I was able to find a locally-operated guide service whose first FAQ emphasized that the tour would not begin if each tourist were not dressed appropriately. Knowing this business was committed to preventing disruption of the local culture, I booked my tour.

Before setting off on your trip, reading up on local customs and practices will be beneficial to ensuring you are not disrupting the community with your visit. You can then research any businesses on the degree to which they adhere to these practices to decide whether or not you would like to support them. If the information is not listed on their website, you can even call or email the company with your questions.

            The second step of your ecotourism evaluation is one of the harder pieces of the puzzle to uncover: the distribution of wealth within the community. An ecotourism business in which all profits made off of the local community land in the laps of foreign CEOs is not sustainable. The local economy will suffer as it is drained of resources without seeing any monetary returns. One way to look into the financial details of an ecotourism business is outlined by Ogutu et. al in their 2002 analysis of ecotourism in Kenya. Ogutu used data from large ecotourism companies in the area to quantify employment rates, types of individuals employed, and human conflicts among other categories in the hopes of determining how widespread the industry’s impacts on the local community were (Ogutu 2002). The categories Ogutu outlined in his analysis serve as good benchmarks for evaluating whether or not the ecotourism business you are considering is being managed properly and is providing equal and widespread positive benefits. When inequality is present, such as in the Kenyan locality Ogutu explored, the community suffers, and tensions ignited by this inequality can lead to dangerous situations for tourists caught in the middle of the aggression.

            I went about the process of exploring this second factor in Georgetown by scrutinizing the websites of tour companies I was interested in. If the website mentioned that the tours would be led by a guide native to the city, that the company was owned by locals, or that the profits from tours were directly invested back into the local economy, I felt comfortable supporting the company. I also double-checked that the restaurant recommendations I had gathered from Instagram were locally-owned to ensure my money would go directly into the hands of people native to the area.

            While this type of economic data is not always readily available to the general public, company websites usually list at least some form of information about their employees. You can also call the company to ask what percentage of employees are locals. In addition, doing some research about the region’s per-capita income and asking for restaurant and store recommendations from people who live in the area are wonderful steps towards ensuring your money ends up in local hands. As an added bonus, you’ll most likely end up enjoying the region’s most authentic dishes and exploring beautiful areas most tourists unknowingly fail to see.

            The third and probably most apparent area to evaluate when considering supporting an ecotourism business is how that business affects the native wildlife. In theory, ecotourism is a much less harmful way to travel as it requires less infrastructure than classic tourism and therefore preserves the natural state of the ecosystem. In the most successful cases of ecotourism, species populations are actually restored and bolstered, such as in Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. At the Conservancy, profits from ecotourism have been reinvested to create a protected environment for endangered rhinos and zebras whose populations have risen 650 percent (Lewa 2017). However, the logistics of ecotourism can have a severe negative impact on the very biodiversity it attempts to preserve. For example, ecotourism along the St. Lawrence River necessitates increased nautical traffic as boat tours take tourists to observe the pods of beluga whales that call the river home. Profits from these tours are put towards conservation efforts. Upon further analysis, however, researchers Blane and Jaakson found that the ecotourism traffic led to reduced feeding grounds, lowered nursing rates, and a loss of pod integrity for the beluga whales (Blane 1994). It seems counter-intuitive to put ecotourism profits towards fixing a problem that the ecotourism created or perpetuated itself.

            In planning my trip, I was most excited about the opportunity to interact with elephants, my favorite animal. I wanted to ensure that any company I paid to help me achieve this dream was completely ethical and in no way harmed the environment or the animals themselves. I found many instances of elephant interaction that basically functioned as zoos: elephants were subjected to thousands of visitors a day and kept in enclosures on the ground they used to walk freely. After a long online search, I finally discovered an elephant rehabilitation facility that allowed tourists to serve as volunteers for the day. I could pay to help wash and feed the elephants, who had been taken into the facility because of injuries or other inabilities to function in the wild. My money would go towards maintenance of the facility and ongoing conservation efforts for the elephants. This was the ideal scenario for me.

            In planning your own trip, you may not be able to find such a benevolent organization. That is okay– there are plenty of other factors you can look into to ensure your activities won’t harm native species. Research the natural ways of life for the flora and fauna in the area, and try to minimize any disruptions to their everyday existence. One of the best ways to do this is to choose activities centered around passive observation of the plants and animals surrounding you. Another way is to support companies that hire locals and focus their efforts on conservation rather than zoos or safaris that carve asphalt roads into the habitats these animals need to survive. You can typically find information about where profits go on the “About Us” page of most company’s websites. If companies are truly aimed towards conservation, they will most likely offer data and statistics as proof of the positive impacts they have made on their community. If this information is not available, it is likely a red flag that the organization is not truly accomplishing what they may claim to be.

            The final, and most often overlooked, aspect to consider before embarking on a journey is what you personally hope to gain from your trip. If you are open to gaining knowledge and widening your perspective, ecotourism can be a wonderful opportunity to do just that. In a recent study by Lee and Moscardo, researchers measured the awareness, involvement and enthusiasm for conservation practices of tourists before and after participating in the activities at an Australian ecotourism center. They reported a positive impact on visitors, finding that most people felt more knowledgeable and passionate about becoming involved with conservation efforts after their visits (Lee 2005). Whether visitors were inspired to visit more native gardens or donate to preservation initiatives, the positive effects of their experience helped further the important goal of maintaining the beauty and biodiversity of our planet for generations to come. If an ecotourism business is truly operating in accordance with the sustainable values outlined in the ecotourism definition, it will expand your worldview and provide you with invaluable knowledge about the local community of people and animals. This insight is a gift that appeals to many travellers and will hopefully motivate you to search for businesses that are truly on the right operational track.

            Ecotourism as a concept is an incredibly beneficial way to travel in terms of encouraging an awareness of and a passion for conservation efforts, supporting biodiversity preservation, and increasing cash flow into communities that are often disadvantaged. In practice, however, many ecotourism companies miss the mark, whether accidentally causing more harm than good or purposefully focusing on profits rather than benefits for the local community. It can be hard to detect the differences between businesses that benefit their local communities and those with detrimental effects, especially because these effects often lie on a spectrum. However, as you jet off to your next exotic vacation or even road-trip to a forest mere hours away, consider the effects of your actions on the plants, animals, and human beings you encounter. Do a little research into where your finances are going. Knowing your money is doing more good than harm and that local people are benefiting from your trip just as much as you are will allow you to enjoy fun tourist activities while simultaneously feeling altruistic about your impact.

Works Cited

Becker, Elizabeth. 2017. “The Big Idea: How Tourism Can Destroy The Places We Love.” The Daily Beast, July 11, 2017.

Blane, Jean M., and Reiner Jaakson. “The Impact of Ecotourism Boats on the St Lawrence Beluga Whales.” Environmental Conservation, no. 3 (1994): 267-69. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1017/S0376892900033282.

Brown, Frances. Tourism Reassessed: Blight or Blessing?. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2011. International Ecotourism Society. 2015. “What is Ecotourism?” Accessed May 23, 2020.

Lee, Won H., and Gianna Moscardo. “Understanding the Impact of Ecotourism Resort Experiences on Tourists’ Environmental Attitudes and Behavioural Intentions.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism, no. 13 (2005): 546-565. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1080/09669580508668581.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. 2017. “Lewa Wildlife Conservancy 2017 Impact Report.” Accessed May 23, 2020.

Lipman, Alison. “Sustainability & Ecotourism” Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 116: Conservation Biology. Class lecture at University of California, Los Angeles, January 16, 2020.

Ogutu, Z.A. “The impact of ecotourism on livelihood and natural resource management in Eselenkei, Amboseli Ecosystem, Kenya.” Land Degradation & Development, no. 13 (2002): 251-256. Accessed May 23, 2020. doi:10.1002/ldr.502

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