There is too much confusion about what eco-tourism is
When I established my safari company in 1996 and wanted to promote it, I was hesitant in using the word eco-tourism. With all the impact that safaris have, it just did not feel like the right thing to do.
During the 1980’s the travel industry slowly discovered that it had to jump on the ‘green’-bandwagon in order to increase the number of tourists to far away and exotic places. European tourists were sick and tired of visiting the completely ruined coastline of Spain and our own concrete jungles and hectic lifestyles opened our eyes for a more active and green way of spending our vacations.
Tourism in Africa is for many countries the second, if not the first source of income (as it is with many more developing countries on other continents), so when a clever oak came up with the term ‘eco(logical)-tourism’ it looked like it would benefit the tour-operators in the developed world as well as the suppliers in the developing world. And it did, as can be seen from this 2005/6 report, indicating that the yearly tourism increase to developing countries is 9,5%, compared to 4,6 % worldwide.
What is eco(logical)-tourism?
Let’s have a closer look at the word ‘ecology’ and look at its meaning: “Ecology is the scientific study of the way that living organisms interact with their environment. "Ecology" comes from the Greek words oikos, meaning "house," and logos, meaning "logic" or "knowledge." The term was coined by German zoologist (scientist who studies animals) Ernst Haeckel in 1870.” (Source). There is nothing here of particular worry.
The World Tourism Organization defines tourism as people that: “ travel to and stay in places outside their usual environment for more than twenty-four (24) hours and not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes not related to the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited." (Source).
One would expect that the definition of an ‘eco-tourist’ would be a combination of the previous two definitions. Funnily enough it is not, since a lot more characteristics have been added, creating confusion and abuse. Listen to the video below and see for yourself in how many ways eco-tourism is described...
During my search to find definitions of eco-tourism, I encountered two definitions. The definition from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and of course the definition from Wikipedia. What surprised me the most is that the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) does not have one, but describes it as follows:
“While there is not a universal definition for ecotourism, its general characteristics can be summarised as follows:
1. 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
2. It contains educational and interpretation features
3. It is generally, but not exclusively organised for small groups by specialised and small, locally owned businesses. Foreign operators of varying sizes also organise, operate and/or market ecotourism tours, generally for small groups.
4. It minimises negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environment
5. It supports the protection of natural areas by
• generating economic benefits for host communities, organisations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes,
• providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities,
• increasing awareness towards the conservation of natural and cultural assets, both among locals and tourists.
Yet, I dare to say that Eco-Tourism in Africa does not exist and I would like to explain by taking a closer look at the 5 characteristics of the UNWTO.
- The UNWTO speaks about the motivation of tourists to observe traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.
Is the UNWTO referring to the Bushmen that were chased from the Kalahari desert in Botswana, the Maasai that might be ousted from the Ngorongoro area in Tanzania or the Himba people in Namibia having to move for a dam?
- I have witnessed too many education providers (safari-guides) that did not come much further than pointing out animals instead of adding the knowledge that would generate a deeper insight into nature. In many countries a strict exam is still not in place.
- What is a locally owned business? Does this mean that the business must be registered in a country and have its head-office over there? Do the owners have to be locals? Can they be residents or must they be citizens? Is it allowed to receive money in one country while the operation itself is in another?
- That tourism in itself has a negative impact on the natural and the socio-cultural environment is indicated by the word ‘minimise’. The natural environment is being damaged simply by flying to an African destination. Via de carbon-footprint calculator I calculated that a return flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi would emit 2.28 metric tons of CO2 (this is including the Radiative Forcing Factor of 1.9). I also had difficulties in finding a nice way of imagining what 1 ton of CO2 looks like, but I am happy I found an image to simplify it. Guess what, I produced 2.28 of the below squares of CO2 by the time I am back from Kenya.
- And that the natural environment hardly ever gets protected by tourism should be clear from the article about the damages to the east-African coastline.
So what should be done to make sure that we can use the word eco-tourism in a constructive way?
In my humble opinion we should first decide exactly how to define eco-tourism. Because without a proper definition it is simply too easy to use the term in the tourism industry and put the conscious traveller on the wrong foot. I opt for the following definition:
“Eco-tourism is an educational experience in the natural environment, devoid of damage, in the broadest sense, to the local community, its culture and surroundings with the aim of empowering it economically, socially and politically in a sustainable manner.”
Secondly it is important that the respective tourism boards and grading councils adopt this definition as to accurately label companies ‘eco-friendly’, prevent abuse of the word eco-tourism and inform tourists adequately.
I am interested to know if you agree with the new jacket of eco-tourism!