A bad package

Eco-tourism celebrates third world poverty.

Jim Butcher

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Topics Politics

2002 has been designated the International Year of Eco-tourism by the United Nations, with a host of conferences and consultation processes culminating in the World Eco-tourism Summit in Quebec in October.

But why an Eco-tourism Summit? There has never been a Package Holiday Summit or a Sun, Sea and Sand Symposium. Maybe there should be – after all, package holidays are far more widespread than the small (if growing) niche of eco-tourism.

In recent years, eco-tourism has acquired the status of being a more moral form of leisure activity – one that is deemed to be better for the planet, better for sustainable development, and better for you the tourist.

The Quebec Declaration on Eco-tourism asserts that eco-tourism ‘embrace(s) the principles of sustainable development’ and provides a ‘leadership role’ to the rest of the tourist industry (1). The declaration champions the role of eco-tourism in reinforcing environmental awareness both in the tourist-generating (developed) world and in host (usually developing) nations.

The Quebec Summit follows a decade in which eco-tourism has been promoted not only by niche-market tour operators but by many conservation-oriented non-governmental organisations and aid agencies – all of whom agree that it is a welcome and ‘sustainable’ alternative to mass tourism.

But is eco-tourism such a positive development? The UN echoes many popular myths about eco-tourism. It claims that green travelling can help to develop poverty-stricken communities, as eco-tourists will pay to experience pristine environments, generating a revenue that can create jobs in conservation, wildlife management, craft production and tourist services.

The eco-tourism-as-development arguments are a direct response to the charge that too many conservation projects put nature above people. So eco-tourism is held up as a means of creating some limited form of development on the basis of an area’s ‘natural capital’, thus bringing about a symbiotic relationship between two things that are usually considered antagonistic – conservation and development.

But these arguments indicate a very limited view of the development needs of rural societies in the developing world. In effect, small development benefits are being tagged on to Western environentalists’ conservation agenda.

Consider the non-governmental organisation Conservation International (CI), a wealthy player in international conservation, which promotes eco-tourism in 17 out of the 25 countries in which it operates. CI says of its eco-tourist projects: ‘All projects need to integrate the conservation of neighbouring ecosystems with the creation of economic opportunities for local residents…’ (2) It continues: ‘the development of an eco-tourism project depends on building a local constituency that has a vested interest in protecting their natural resources.’

This suggests that the sponsorship of eco-tourism is about environmental imperatives over development needs – and about winning the compliance of those living in the affected regions.

USAID, the aid arm of the US government, also supports projects involving eco-tourism, on the basis that they provide a ‘sustainable’ alternative to hunting, logging and farming. For USAID, eco-tourism benefits local communities, as ‘potential local resistance to setting aside forest and fishing areas for conservation can often be softened by the employment and income producing opportunities eco-tourism can generate’ (3).

Even rhetoric referring to ‘community needs’, which features strongly in the Quebec Declaration and in the policy documents of NGOs, masks the view that local communities are problems to be resolved in the broader pursuit of sustainable development.

The new trend towards community-based eco-tourism – as promoted by British-based ethical tourism campaigners Tourism Concern – explicitly ties the development opportunities for communities to their immediate natural environment. Communities will benefit, apparently, but only in ways that reinforce their traditional way of life. Thoroughgoing development is deemed damaging both to the environment and to traditional culture. Communities ‘benefit’ if they agree to become guardians of their natural world – which precludes having much more than a subsistence standard of living.

Eco-tourism reinforces and even celebrates low development horizons. It takes pre-existing relationships between communities and their natural environment as a given, ruling out any kind of transformative development. For eco-tourist promoters, development has to remain within the parameters set down by Western conservation demands.

The UN claims that Africa has a ‘comparative advantage’ in eco-tourism, arguing that ‘conservation of natural resources can become mainstream to socioeconomic development in Africa’ (4). In short, large parts of Africa can be declared conservation areas – as with Conservation International’s recent Central Ghana project – and the local communities get to work as wildlife wardens, guides and cooks for well-healed eco-tourists.

Writing in the book Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, Kirk Leech rightly describes eco-tourism as something that ‘reinforces primitivism’ (5). Indeed, the Quebec Declaration says that some of the benefits of eco-tourism could be to ‘reinforce a process of ethnic awareness’ and ‘strengthen, nurture and encourage the community’s ability to maintain and use traditional skills [such as] home-based crafts [and] traditional housing’.

This is the grand vision of the UN’s year of eco-tourism – a celebration of poverty and a denial of real, life-changing development.

Jim Butcher is a senior lecturer in tourism and leisure at Canterbury Christ Church University College. He is the author of The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand…and Saving the World?, Routledge, 2003 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and he is a contributor to Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) Quebec Declaration on Eco-tourism, UNEP / WTO, 2002

(2) Conservation International Field Reports, Eco-tourism (accessed 23/11/99)

(3) US Agency For International Development, Win-Win Approaches to Development and the Environment: Eco-tourism and Biodiversity Conservation, Centre for Development Information and Evaluation, USAID, Washington DC, July 1996

(4) World Eco-tourism Summit Final Report, World Tourism Organisation & United Nations Environment Programme, Madrid, , p.11

(5) in Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2002, ch. 4

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