In an effort to boost the economy and promote a sustainable environment, countries across the globe are embracing “ecotourism.”
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines “ecotourism” as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
According to TIES, the guiding principles of ecotourism revolve around minimizing impact, while building environmental and cultural respect. Supporters of ecotourism point to its financial benefits and the sense of empowerment that community members attain.
A recent New York Times article highlighted the ecotourism efforts in Asia, and specifically looked at how Thailand’s Southern wildlands were being used to attract tourists to the region.
Michelle Higgins, a New York Times reporter, writes that recently constructed eco-lodges are offering “visitors with new bases for exploring remote regions.” For example, a new Keeree Warin Floating Aqua lodge is allows visitors to kayak on the Ratchaprapha Reservoir.
The Korea Times boasts that the wetland is the “most successful ecotourism attraction,”with about two million tourists a year. According to the March 12 article, this “success story” was made possible by local residents banning together and getting rid of 300 telephone poles around the bay, and farmers refraining from cultivating in the winter.
“It is no wonder that people have started to realize the ultimate way to continue the tourism industry is by conserving nature,” Korea Times reporter Yoo-Young Sook writes, “Recently, ecotourism has gained popularity in the sense that it can be an option for sustainable tourism.”
In the Republic of South Africa, a Financial Mail article cited data showing that “69% of tourists were drawn by South Africa’s natural attractions,” and “60% headed for game reserve.” Along with that, tourists from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and China “made up over 80% of South Africa’s non-African visitors in 2011.”
However, toward the northwest in Kenya, many experts are pointing to flaws in the ecotourism movement.
Some argue that the idea of ecotourism is not being used effectively, and is displacing people from their land. The most cited example is the Maasai tribe in Kenya.
In an interview with The Caravan, Meitamei Ole Dapash, founder of the Maasai Environmental Resource Coalition, said nearly 70 percent of Maasai communal territory has been sold or appropriated over the last few decades. Dapash blames the extensive loss of land on the increased urbanization and tourism traffic.
Conservation and sustainability are essential to ecotourism. However, in a 1999 interview, Dapash said the government was not following through with their own environmental laws.
“The reason why these environmental policies are not being enforced is because some of the people who are extremely powerful in the government control tourism in the Mara region.” Dapash told Cultural Survival magazine, “Environmental regulations are seen as an economic threat by these powerful people.”
In addition, another potential drawback to ecotourism is the carbon footprint from increased tourism. In a 2007 Associated Press (AP) Article, travel experts expressed concern that the excessive travel to these areas will produce damaging greenhouse gases.
In 2007, former Norwegian Environment Minister Helen Bjoernoey acknowledged “the serious impacts on the climate” from air travel, and told the AP the tourist industry needs to focus more on developing “markets closer to home” and “friendly forms of transport.”