Holier-than-thou holidays

Ecotourist jaunts might make green-leaning holidaymakers feel warm and moist, but they do little to help Third World communities. In fact, ecotourism is a trap for the world’s poor.

Peter Smith

Topics Books

Once upon a time, going on vacation used to be a break from the norm of work: a chance to recharge your batteries and relax in more pleasant surroundings. Today, ethical and environmental campaigners aim to make our choice of tourist destination as fraught with ethical conundrums as various other areas of life.

Mass tourism emerged in the 1970s and 80s, and it rapidly became an area of enquiry for sociologists. They were influenced by the turn of the New Left from analysing production to a concern with consumption and the interpersonal realm. Before long, tourism became another area where our consumption patterns were imbued with wider significance.

Two influential sociological studies shaped the way tourism is discussed today. Dean MacCannell’s Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers (1992) is informed by the New Left’s despair at the failure of the idea of social change. MacCannell analyses the cultural and social encounters between tourist and host (1), arguing that these encounters can have positive outcomes for cultural understanding. That is no doubt true, but then MacCannell went further still and suggested that such encounters are potentially a force for progressive change. The declining fortunes of industrial disputes in the West in the 1980s and 90s gave purchase to this cultural turn which saw consumerism, even tourism, as a force for change.

The flipside of MacCannell’s rose-tinted approach is Jost Krippendorf’s The Holiday Makers: The Impacts of Leisure and Travel (1987), which pioneered the now more widely developed critique of mass tourism (2). Krippendorf not only criticises mass tourism; he also suggests how and what people should consume, and, by default, how they should live their lives.

These two approaches – investing tourists with the potential to change the world or charging them with ruining it – have characterised academic discussions of tourism ever since.

In many respects, Leo Hickman’s The Final Call could be said to offer a more readable account of Krippendorf’s despair with mass tourism. Hickman, an ethical lifestyle columnist, travels the world reporting on many of the blights that tourism brings, particularly in developing countries. Water shortages, poor waste disposal, poor working conditions, threats to natural parks, drunkenness, crime, sex tourism: he discusses all of these ‘impacts’ in sometimes unsavoury detail. Yet, like much of the academic work in the area of tourism, Hickman’s research is one-eyed. The methodology – locate and interrogate the victims of tourism – seems designed to uncover what the author wants to cover: that tourism can be very bad.

For every put-upon individual or community Hickman visits, an equally readable account could be given of those that have gained through tourism. Most of the things that Hickman describes as ‘negative impacts’ of tourism could be better understood as actually being a consequence of a lack of economic development. There is no automatic reason why a hotel in Cancun or Phuket should take water away from local people, any more than a hotel in London or New York takes resources away from residents in those cities. And it is not necessarily a bad thing if Third World governments decide biodiversity should take second place to human-centred economic development.

Tired of spending time in run-of-the-mill tourism destinations and attractions, Hickman goes to Costa Rica to investigate ecotourism. For Hickman, many of the wonderful claims made about ecotourism – that it protects natural diversity, that it empowers local people – are unfounded. And yet his suggestion is always that we should have more of the same, only better. He advocates deeper ecotourism. The underlying justifications for ecotourism, that it could potentially help people in the developing world and ‘protect the planet’, are taken as a given by Hickman.

Friend of the workers

A recurring theme in The Final Call is the bad pay and conditions of workers in the tourism industry. It is certainly the case that many workers in developing countries are poorly paid. That said, it is worth noting that even this miserable tourism-generated income is usually better than the alternative most of the workers face: a life of subsistence farming. Many of the interviewees tell Hickman that these are their choices. The problems of poor pay and conditions should be answered in their own terms, rather than being seen as simple consequences of tourism.

Hickman’s vivid account of the working conditions of construction workers in Dubai and hotel cleaners in Cancun certainly made my old left-wing blood boil (3). Likewise, the story about the construction companies that recruited well-organised and militant labour from the Indian subcontinent, who promptly went on strike (and won), brought a smile to my face (4). But we should remind ourselves that you don’t have to travel the globe to find examples of poor pay and conditions in the tourism industry. And here, the radical-sounding gloss to Hickman’s study comes unstuck.

In August 2005, a seemingly minor industrial dispute at Heathrow airport’s in-flight caterer Gate Gourmet soon brought the world’s busiest international airport to a halt (5). Gate Gourmet sacked 670 low-paid, largely Asian women staff after they had staged an illegal strike in protest against the firm’s hiring of temporary seasonal workers. When British Airways baggage handlers came out in support of the Gate Gourmet strikers, the airport was brought to a standstill. There followed a short dispute, which resulted in the reinstatement of many jobs but the sacking of the union organisers: the dispute was sold out by the national union despite the workers having significant industrial muscle and admirable tenacity. And the response to this dispute from the environmental movement that apparently cares so much for poorly paid tourism workers? Utter silence.

In the current stack of environmental books on ethical consumption, from the food we eat to the supermarkets we shop at, the low-paid worker makes no more than a guest appearance (6). Old-style ecology used to be associated with those of a more conservative disposition, but the modern environmentalist is a self-styled anti-corporate radical. Many current prominent environmental activists and commentators are old enough to have been around in the 1980s, when the last gasp of organised labour fought employers and the state on picket lines across the UK – and yet, while many of us offered support to these struggles back then, the environmentalists were nowhere to be seen. Only now, after the defeat of those long-forgotten struggles, do they have the gall to claim to be on the side of the workers.

This may be a little unfair to Hickman, whose anger at the low pay of workers in Dubai and Cancun seems very genuine. But the shock of today’s ‘radicals’ at the pay and conditions of working people is naïve (at best), coming across like an adolescent cry of ‘it’s so unfair’. These look like crocodile tears. The last thing environmentalists campaign for is higher wages or jobs, as the Gate Gourmet strikers discovered by the absence of solidarity from any greens. It is perhaps not surprising that greens do not actively campaign for higher wages for Western workers, since this would lead to higher levels of consumption. That is the very opposite of what the environmentalists want, which is for people to make do with less.

Indeed, Hickman ends up endorsing the idea of restraint in order to square his criticism of tourism with his recognition of our fondness for travel. With carbon emissions being the final word in every discussion today – particularly discussions of air travel – Hickman offers his support to the proposal for rationing flights. He points to the tax exemption that airlines enjoy, and argues that it is the rich, rather than the poor, who gain most from the availability of cheap flights (see Flight Pledge: Grounded passengers and Air travel: the skies the limit, by Peter Smith).

Ultimately, this focus on carbon emissions makes it impossible to judge our reasons for flying in real human-centred terms. Instead of looking at the personal, moral and social benefits of flight, we simply judge every take-off by how much pollution it creates. Pollution from flying is certainly an issue. But a more measured approach would be to judge the worth of travel in its own terms while also thinking up new technological ways to tackle pollution, rather than saying, in authoritarian tones, that the authorities must ration our consumption and curb our greedy tourism habits.

Mobility: the greens’ real fear

While his book is ostensibly about tourism, Hickman also articulates broader fears about our increasingly mobile future. Mobility, and the social change associated with it, can often be disconcerting and it can certainly throw up challenges. Today, influential voices discuss mobility in purely fearful terms: flying is looked upon as something that causes environmental destruction or death in developing countries, or which brings waves of immigrants to our shores.

In the real world, mobility continues apace – and Hickman’s chapter on the growth of tourism from (and within) China points towards exciting changes in the near future (7). The real problem today is the authorities’ lack of confidence in developing mobility further. Instead they tend to capitulate to a vocal and active minority, such as those who set up camp at Heathrow last week. This minority adamantly demands that mobility must be made more difficult for the average working man and woman: it must be made more expensive, more guilt-ridden, and so on. Despite environmentalist claims to the contrary, there is no ambitious government plan to expand airports (a couple of long overdue runways are not a forward-looking programme of mobility development) and road- and rail-building is a rarity today. Instead, existing infrastructure will simply become more and more overcrowded, and various measures will be introduced to moderate our usage of it, including higher taxes and road tolls. Environmentalist concern with mobility doesn’t begin and end with flying: for example, leading environmentalist group Friends of the Earth is opposed to the Channel Tunnel (8).

Just as mobility, rather than tourism, is the real concern of The Final Call, so development rather than tourism is the central focus of Jim Butcher’s new book Ecotourism, NGOs and Development. For Hickman, the problem with ecotourism is that it is not green enough; for Butcher, ecotourism itself, and the assumptions that underpin it, is the real problem.

Ecotourism and development

As Hickman reminds us, in recent years, ecotourism has become the largest growth area in global tourism. What is often considered a niche product covered by broadsheet travel supplements, specialist academic publications or advocated by ethical lifestyle journalists also receives widespread championing from businesses, NGOs and establishment organisations. In case there is any doubt that ecotourism is now mainstream, 2002 was declared the International Year of Ecotourism by the United Nations (9).

For its advocates, ecotourism constitutes ‘exemplary’ sustainable development in the rural developing world and has the potential to act as a model for development outside the tourism sector (10).

Debates about ecotourism are generally limited to what kind of practices can be regarded as sustainable and appropriate. These discussions take the principles of sustainability as given, and lack any theoretical critical edge. Butcher, by contrast, places ecotourism advocacy literature within the wider discussion of sustainable development, which is concerned with linking economic development and conservation. It would be more accurate, therefore, to understand Ecotourism, NGOs and Development as advancing a wider critique of contemporary approaches to development through the example of ecotourism, rather than being a study of ecotourism alone.

Butcher provides a critical examination of the assumptions underpinning the advocacy of ecotourism, integrated conservation and development projects in the rural developing world. His research basis is a series of case studies that critically engages with the claims of a number of ecotourism-advocating NGOs: the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, SNV (a Dutch-based independent development agency) and Tourism Concern (the UK-based community tourism campaigning organisation), as well as the United Nations’ International Year of Ecotourism.

In the eyes of these organisations (among many others), ecotourism offers a means of bringing revenue to the poor in the developing world, while at the same time protecting biodiversity and the cultural traditions of local communities. For its advocates, ecotourism represents a ‘win-win’ scenario and thus it is widely championed today (11).

Ecotourism incorporates key elements of ‘neo-populist’ approaches to development that have risen to prominence since the 1970s. These approaches have blossomed since the demise of Cold War-inspired popular movements in the developing world, and the failure of the international market to provide growth in certain regions, notably Africa. Neo-populism emphasises the involvement of the ‘local community’ and their ‘participation’ in decisions and control over development. Ecotourism, which neatly links conservation and local community involvement, thus becomes the ‘exemplar’ of the sustainable neo-populist approach.

Alongside a rejection of market-led or state-centred development, neo-populist approaches have often conflicted with conservation-orientated projects. Conservation projects are criticised for deprioritising local communities in favour of protecting natural diversity. In an attempt to overcome this criticism, focusing on ‘community participation’ has become the norm for many conservation projects.

Through analysing the NGO case studies, Butcher establishes that organisations with apparently different objectives (prioritising conservation ‘first’ or community involvement ‘first’) share a common outlook: that there is a symbiotic relationship between the poor in rural developing countries and the natural diversity they inhabit. For example, Conservation International says in its mission statement that its central aim is ‘to conserve the Earth’s living natural heritage, our global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature’ (12).

Butcher traces how advocating ecotourism has emerged as central to both conservation and development outlooks. It is through ecotourism that this symbiosis between conservation and development has now become the normative approach in NGO-sponsored development in the rural developing world. He further considers the concept of ‘community participation’ as advocated within the discourse of ecotourism, and demonstrates that the concept of ‘community’ is based on an extremely localised interpretation. This localised focus ties communities to their surrounding biodiversity, yet rejects any wider consideration of communities linked at regional or national levels.

The narrowing of discussions of development and democracy to a localised basis has profound implications for developing countries. The lack of a national or regional focus, let alone a challenge to developing countries’ marginal position in international trade, is wholly at odds with the idea of truly liberating poor communities from their localised poverty.

Rural communities in developing countries are thus tied to aid and assistance based on a set of predetermined criteria developed in the West. They may have no choice but to accept the terms of an NGO-led project; the alternative is often no aid or assistance at all.

A further element of the neo-populist outlook is a rejection of ‘unilinear development’, or development along a Western model. This leads to a focus on local knowledge and the role of tradition, particularly relating to environmental management. For Butcher, while local knowledge can play its part within local communities, limiting development to the local in this way rules out development on any scale that might radically transform the position of societies in the developing world. Indeed, past national liberation movements in the developing world were defined by their rejection of the idea that what was appropriate for the West – wealth, democracy, choice – should be denied to those in the Third World. Butcher argues that the turn to emphasising local or traditional knowledge represents the undermining of the aspiration for global equality.

Natural capital and development

The chapter on ‘Natural capital in the advocacy of ecotourism’ is a particularly strong contribution. It explains the development of the idea of natural capital within environmental economics and its centrality to ecotourism (13). Development, as advocated through the ecotourism model, takes as its starting point the non-consumption of natural capital and the assumption of environmental fragility.

Through ecotourism projects, natural capital (or biodiversity) in the developing world is ring-fenced, with NGOs advising local communities that they can generate income by conserving biodiversity for fee-paying tourists. As Hickman’s chapter on Costa Rica demonstrates, it is certainly true that at the margins this has brought limited revenue to some local communities. Yet the ecotourism model rules out discussion of other approaches to development that may go beyond meeting these basic needs. This limited concept of development codified in the ecotourism model is in marked contrast to the historical emergence of wealthy and prosperous countries in the West.

Butcher’s concluding recommendation is that conservation and development in developing countries should be seen as separate concerns, rather than being inextricably linked. By linking development with conservation, human needs and the protection of biodiversity are put on an equal footing: a scandalous state of affairs. Butcher argues that, instead, conservation and development should be considered as distinct and often conflicting phenomena, and he calls for a greater prioritisation of development. His is a timely restatement of how human societies have historically developed. However, the rarity of arguments like Butcher’s today also illustrates how far-reaching is the contemporary loss of faith in economic development.

Breaking with the orthodoxy of sustainability

In breaking with the orthodoxy of sustainable development, Butcher is likely to be criticised by ecotourism advocates for ‘accepting the status quo’ and, by default, defending the market and big business. Where today’s ethical advocates claim anti-corporate credentials, those who do not accept the sustainable orthodoxy are charged with being big business apologists.

This seemingly radical charge, that questioning sustainability acts as an apology for the market, fails to acknowledge that the ecotourism model leaves the poor in the rural developing world to the vagaries of small-scale market-based solutions. Any traveller to developing countries will witness budding local entrepreneurs operating small-scale ecotourism businesses along the lines of Rosa Vasquez, whom Hickman meets in Costa Rica (14). We may wish them good luck, but the fact remains that small businesses bring minimal benefit to local communities and fail to transform the economies or infrastructure of developing countries in any meaningful way. This is tinkering at the margins, at best.

More common is the poor rural community reliant on NGO-funded ecotourism projects. From the reams of case studies examined in tourism books, academic journals or NGO aid assessment reports, it is near impossible to find an example of such a project breaking free from aid funding and becoming free-standing, operating under the control of the local community and generating an independent income. In short, many ecotourism projects rely on revenue from NGOs directly. This is worse than a developing country being reliant on aid from, say, the G8, World Bank or International Monetary Fund. Why? Well, at least when aid is passed from an international institution through the government of a Third World nation state, there is a semblance of democracy to the proceedings. Through the practice of ecotourism, areas of the rural developing world are essentially ceded to un-elected Western NGOs, who decide how things should be organised there. Earth first, development second (if at all).

Butcher’s Ecotourism, NGOs and Development presents a detailed and original critique of the key assumptions that underpin the advocacy of ecotourism. Through his discussion of ecotourism, Butcher develops a critique of the wider neo-populist themes associated with sustainable development and asks us to return to the aspiration for greater material equality on a global level. His study is critical in a real sense, contributing to, but also going beyond academic discourse: Butcher demonstrates that the sustainable approach to development and tourism has very real negative consequences for the poor in the developing world.

Tourism certainly isn’t the ‘final call’ for the Earth or human society, despite the numerous studies that report the negative impacts of tourism on host communities. Most negative impacts relate to the developing world. These can be solved through transformative economic development rather than through the limited focus on fulfilling basic needs. Nor is tourism the answer to the world’s problems, as is often claimed by over-eager industry insiders or sociologists seeking a new subject for social change.

Sure, it brings income and jobs to destinations and the social and cultural exchanges it fosters should be celebrated loudly. But the world’s major problems are political, not natural – and it is time we reanimated a visionary human-centred politics that elevates people over nature, and political solutions over Western ecotourists’ paternalistic patronage of poor communities.

Peter Smith is a lecturer in Tourism at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London.

The Final Call: In Search of the Real Cost of Our Holidays, by Leo Hickman is published by Eden Project Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Ecotourism, NGOs and Development, by Jim Butcher is published by Routledge (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers, Dean MacCannell (1992), Routledge

(2) The Holiday Makers: Understanding the Impacts of Leisure and Travel, Jost Krippendorf (1987), Butterworth-Heinemann

(3) The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays, Leo Hickman, (2007), Eden Project Books, chapter 2

(4) Hickman, ibid, p.45

(5) See What’s behind the rise of Tescophobia?, by Neil Davenport

(6) See Rumblings at Heathrow, by Rob Lyons

(7) Hickman, ibid, chapter 7

(8) See The wrong sort of investment, Friends of the Earth:
‘The Government plans to spend £60billion on Britain’s railways over the next 10 years. But much of this will be spent on mega-scale projects – such as the East and West Coast Main Lines and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link – rather than on commuter journeys where it would have the biggest impact on car traffic.’
(9) The Quebec City Declaration of Ecotourism, United Nations Environment Programme and World Tourism Organisation, UNEP and WTO, 2002.

(10) For ecotourism as ‘exemplar’ of sustainable development see The Quebec City Declaration of Ecotourism, United Nations Environment Programme and World Tourism Organisation, UNEP and WTO, 2002. (p.73); for ecotourism as a model for development see Ecotourism: an Introduction, Fennell, D (1999), Routledge, London (p. 200).

(11) This assessment is widely held. Among others see: Fennell, D (1999) Ecotourism: an Introduction, Routledge, London; Fennell, D and Weaver, D, (2005), ‘The Ecotourium Concept and Tourism-Conservation Symbiosis’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism 13 -4- pp. 373-389; Honey, M (1999) Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? Polity, London; Scheyvens, R (2002), Tourism for Development: Empowering Communities, Prentice Hall, Harlow; Wearing, S, McDonald, M and Ponting, J (2005), ‘Building a Decommodified Research Paradigm in Tourism: The Contribution of NGOs’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism 13-5-, pp. 424-439.

(12) See Conservation International, Mission Statement

(13) Ecotourism, NGOs and Development, Jim Butcher (2007), Routledge, chapter 6

(14) Hickman, ibid, p.263

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