Is ecotourism a greenwash?

Whale-watching in Ecuador may be more exciting than waterskiing in Alicante; trekking in Nepal may be more spectacular than trailing…

Whale-watching in Ecuador may be more exciting than waterskiing in Alicante; trekking in Nepal may be more spectacular than trailing around New York, and seeing hill-tribe villages in Thailand may be more interesting than sunbathing in Turkey, but many of these "alternative holidays", which are advertised as "green" or "eco", may actually damage the environment, local communities and wildlife they claim to protect.

"Ecotourism is a very over-used term and often little more than a hollow marketing tool," says Lara Marsh of the UK-based campaign group, Tourism Concern, which is critical of the increasing "greenwashing" of tourism. "Just sticking 'eco' in front of the word 'holiday' is no guarantee. At best, it means not changing the towel and at worst, not even that." Eco-tourism can be worse than mainstream tourism as "ecotourism often seeks out remote and fragile destinations where the negative impact of tourism may be greater," says Mark Mann, author of The Community Tourism Guide.

Ecotourism, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), consists of "all nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas". In addition, it is "generally, but not exclusively, organised for small groups by specialised and small, locally-owned businesses (or) foreign operators"; it minimises negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environment; and it supports the protection of natural areas."

Although many holidays advertised as ecotourism fail to live up to these standards, even well-intentioned holidays and activities which fit this definition may cause long-term damage to communities and the environment. According to Survival International, the campaigning group for tribal peoples, "even small groups of people, or for that matter, the lone traveller, no matter how sensitive, may have a disruptive effect on local culture". Survival is asking tourists not to visit any of the little-contacted tribes on India's Andaman Islands - local settlers are acting as guides to the Jarawa, a tribe of between 200 and 400 hunter-gatherers - as they could pass on fatal diseases (one Jarawa woman died of measles in 1999).


From holiday brochures and postcards for developing countries, it is clear that indigenous peoples are often seen as a tourist attraction. As Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan QuichΘ Indian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, says: "What hurts Indians most is that our costumes are considered beautiful, but it's as if the person wearing it didn't exist." In the Peruvian Amazon, says Mann, communities of Yagua Indians were "coerced by tour operators to move closer to tourist lodges so tourists could photograph them more conveniently. Removed from their traditional hunting grounds, the Yagua have become dependent on tourism."

Governments of some developing countries promote eco-tourism and indigenous cultures, but seem to lack respect for tribal land rights or traditions. In Paraguay, the state tourist-board brochures promote indigenous cultures, yet racist views have been expressed by officials. One diplomat complained: "The Indians have become mercenary, changing their traditional dances for the tourists' benefit", while a former director of Paraguay's international airline commented: "The trouble with Indians is that they don't do any work, they don't produce wealth, they bring backwardness".

Biopiracy, the theft of seeds and plants with medicinal benefits and even genes of indigenous people, is on the increase - and could be linked to ecotourism. At a recent international NGO workshop in Zimbabwe, participants warned that, under the guise of ecotourism, scouts from biotech companies are using local people as "nature interpreters" in bio-diversity rich places, to discover plants with commercial value. Biopiracy has been in the news recently in India, when two "tourists" were discovered leaving the country with 1,000 rare specimens of butterfly.

Anita Pleumarom, of the Thailand-based Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team, warns: "Governments and other concerned parties should seriously ponder whether it is wise to indiscriminately promote tourism forms that facilitate the stealing and smuggling of local biological resources and traditional knowledge before mechanisms are in place to effectively combat abuses and exploitation." Not all ecotourist initiatives cause problems for local people or the environment, but the best examples are those run by communities themselves. Survival International recommends Dorobo Tours, in Tanzania, which arranges walking safaris with the Hadza hunter-gatherer people and actively works for their right to the land; and the venture at Kamistastin in Labrador, Canada, where small groups of tourists can fish, canoe and explore at camps run by and for the Innu people themselves.

Other ecotourist holidays and activities which benefit communities as well as the environment are listed in The Community Tourism Guide.

Surprisingly, even the creation of such popular eco-destinations as national parks and protected areas is destructive - when it ignores the rights and needs of tribal peoples. Many Maasai herdsmen in Kenya and Tanzania have been excluded from essential grazing lands because of the creation of national parks.

Currently, the Botswana government is attempting to remove the indigenous people who live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (covering an area larger than Switzerland) which was created in the 1960s as a safe haven for the Bushmen people and the animals on which they depend. According to Iona Watson, of Survival International, last August, wildlife department officials beat and tortured some of the 600 Bushmen who had resisted the 1997 forced evacuation of more than 1,000 of their people. "There are plans to bring tourists into the 'game reserve' and the Bushmen are an 'embarrasment' to the authorities, because of their 'archaic' way of life," says Watson. The Bushmen have lived in the Kalahari desert, and hunted sustainably, for thousands of years, but now, says Survival International they are forced to live in camps, and not allowed to hunt, although the government encourages hunting by tourists elsewhere in the country.

In some cases, indigenous peoples are asked to stay in a national park, to encourage tourism. "The people concerned are thus presented as another exotic species to be conserved, along with plants and animals, as long as they play by the rules," Survival International has commented.

Some national parks, however, do benefit the community. In Madagascar, park authorities hand 50 per cent of the entrance fees over to local communities for sustainable development projects while in Rwanda's Parc des Volcans, tourists pay $170 to spend an hour with gorillas, generating $1 million to support the management of all Rwanda's protected areas.

But national parks can sometimes do more harm than good to wildlife. The habitat of pandas in the nature reserve of Wolong in south-west China is being destroyed more rapidly than in areas not protected, writes Jianguo Liu in a recent report in Scientist magazine.

Research showed that the human population of Wolong had increased by 70 per cent since the park was established but that panda numbers had dropped from 145 in 1974 to 72 in 1986.

"Tourists don't think they have an impact on panda habitation, but indirectly, each visitor has some impact. They come, they take their summer vacations there and stimulate the local economy, which in turn uses more local natural resources." Nina Rao of Equations, an Indian NGO campaigning for responsible tourism, is appalled at the behaviour of tourists in national parks. "At Periyar in Kerala, boatloads of tourists heckle the elephants and throw plastic waste into the lake and urinate into it; at Bharatpur, boats take tourists into the swamp, disturbing nesting birds." She concludes: "poor management and putting commerce before conservation is the thrust of ecotourism as it is practised at the moment".

The most damaging ecotourism initiatives are the ones which are the most successful financially, believes Pleumarom, because they lead to mainstream tourism. "In Thailand, in the beginning, eco-tourism looked fine. Local communities controlled it. But our experience is that the more successful a destination becomes, the more likely it is that developers from outside will come in and villagers are squeezed out. Environmental problems increase and the result is over-development.

"An incredible amount of money is spent to promote ecotourism. Big loans have come from the World Bank Social Investment Programme and Japanese agencies to develop national parks, in the name of ecotourism. This leads to road construction, accommodation, power stations, reservoirs - all environmentally damaging. Khao Yai National Park, for example, looks like a building site as areas are developed for campsites and buildings."

Pleumarom, who thinks the term "mass nature tourism" is more accurate than ecotourism, points to the economic problems which can occur when a village becomes dependent on ecotourism, as in much of coastal Thailand. "When the Tourist Authority of Thailand promoted community-based tourism, because it was 'in', villagers moved away from agriculture and it resulted in over-supply."Tourism is the biggest industry in the world, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and accounts for 11 per cent of global GDP, supporting one in every 12 jobs worldwide. And it is still growing - international tourist numbers (which were 617 million in 1997) will rise to 1.5 billion by 2020, and one-quarter of these holidays will be taken in the developing world, predicts the World Tourism Organisation.

However, much of the money tourists spend in developing countries (on accommodation, food, drink and travel) ends up back in Western countries. This "leakage" means that holidays, particularly "all-inclusives", in developing countries generate more money for Western companies than for the local communities. The World Bank estimates that leakage for Thailand is 60 per cent; for Kenyan beach holidays, it is 70 per cent and for the Caribbean, 80 per cent. The fastest growing section of the holiday industry seems to be ecotourism - which makes up 7 per cent of the world tourism market. According to Jonathan Nash, a policy analyst at the Population Reference Bureau, eco-tourists spend between $93 billion and $233 billion a year in developing countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, eco-tour operators report growth rates of 10 to 25 per cent a year, and, as the UN General Assembly has designated 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE), this looks set to increase.

Organised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Tourism Organisation, the main events of the IYE will be a World Ecotourism Summit in Canada next May; the publication of a guide for the sustainable development of tourism in national parks and other prime destinations for ecotourism; and the creation of a website for exchanging information on ecotourism projects.

However, a coalition of environmental, human rights and indigenous peoples groups is opposed to the IYE and to the promotion of ecotourism. "I really think this is going to be worse than the launch of package tours to the Third World," says Nina Rao, while Chee Yoke Ling, of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, says: "We are extremely concerned that this UN endorsement of ecotourism in the light of all the fundamental problems related to the industry - in many cases another greenwash - will destroy more biodiversity and harm even more local communities".

In a letter to UNEP, the coalition warns: "As nature-based tourism is presently seen as one of the most lucrative niche markets, powerful transnational corporations are likely to exploit the International Year of Ecotourism to dictate their own definitions and rules of ecotourism on society, while people-centred initiatives will be squeezed out and marginalised." The groups are concerned the IYE will encourage mainstream tourists to become ecotourists, resulting in an influx of travellers in protected, environmentally fragile areas. The debate is raging in Internet discussion groups.

Responding to the NGOs' criticisms of the IYE, Oliver Hillel, the tourism programme co-ordinator of UNEP, states that he supports a review of the definition and benefits of ecotourism, and the creation of guidelines for ecotourism, by negotiations between local communities, indigenous peoples, governments, industry players and environmental specialists.

Guidelines may not be enough, though, argues Pleumarom. To protect communities and the environment from the spread of tourism, eco or otherwise, she suggests "zoning". Areas already developed would remain holiday destinations, but zoning would mean that in areas without tourist infrastructure, and where the local people do not want tourism, restrictions would be enforced.

"Zoning is an excellent concept," says Lara Marsh of Tourism Concern. "Local people should have a central role. Where they say stop, development should stop." Instead of the greenwashed term, "ecotourism", Marsh prefers "community tourism" - defined as small, locally-based tourist initiatives which benefit communities rather than foreign multinationals. Survival International agrees: "Tourism can only be a positive force for tribal peoples if they are given control over the access and development of tourism in their communities and on their lands."

Further information: UNEP:

The Community Tourism Guide by Mark Mann (Earthscan, £9.99 in UK)

Survival International:

Third World Network:

Tourism Concern: www.tourismconcern

Join a debate on the IYE: http://groups. or