The Ecotourist’s Three Conundrums

BY Y.E. LIM
Jun 02, 2011

As ecotourism in Asia comes under growing scrutiny, the ecotourist faces difficult questions on his role in protecting the environment.

891 Well-intentioned tourists to China's Huangshan has changed the behaviour of the area's local wildlife for the worse.

Three or four times a day at Huangshan Monkey Valley, China, resident Tibetan macaques go about their business in full view of curious visitors. They frolic, groom each other, and feed on corn. There are few overt problems with macaque aggression towards people. For the thousands of tourists a year that visit the valley, this is a pretty picture of primate everydayness.

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The average ecotourist is, by and large, a creature of good intentions. He (and she) finds the time to explore, experience and better understand the natural world. His dollars often serve to protect this world for future generations. He has become a cornerstone of the UN General Assembly’s strategy for economic development, poverty eradication and environmental protection.

Why, then, is there today a growing ambivalence about ecotourism?

One quick, simple answer is that little of what is touted as ecotourism genuinely fits the bill. A consensus definition of ecotourism remains elusive – which itself contributes to abuse of the term – but a popular one, by The International Ecotourism Society, requires ecotourism to be “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. A few well-managed programmes, like the Periyar Tiger Trail in Kerala, India, do in fact emphasise both conservation and local communities. For every legitimate ecotour operator, however, many others try to cash in with a combination of clever promotion and marketing legerdemain.

In this regard, the green travel marketplace resembles a typical supermarket. “Eco-friendly” and “biodegradable” blare at customers with abandon from product labels; on this evidence, large corporates can often appear to be the environment’s best friends. Confronted with such heart-stirring stuff from previously irresponsible businesses, eco-marketing company TerraChoice looked a little more closelyat 5,000 different products found in supermarkets. Ninety-five percent of products, they found, included an environmental claim that was either misleading or entirely false. Environmentalists call this greenwashing.

The tourism industry was quick to pick up on the best greenwashing practices of its consumer goods cousins. British Airways launched, in 2005, a carbon offset programme to much fanfare. While it achieved its publicity goals at the time, the scheme ended up offsetting less than 0.01% of its emissions. Many Asian governments began to promote “sustainable tourism” projects with questionable management practices, including a controversial night safari in northern Thailand.

In this loosely regulated, caveat emptor world of ecotourism, only serious, well-read ecotourists end up experiencing the real thing. For the others, crafty merchants wait, always around the next corner, to peddle easy eco jaunts. The well-intentioned ecotourist is thus often forced into a conundrum: spend extra time and effort to research ecotourism destinations, or take it easy (as you should on a holiday) and potentially support deceptive practices? That travellers must even confront this conundrum underscores the problems with free-for-all ecotourism today.

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Many Asian governments began to promote “sustainable tourism” projects with questionable management practices.