Ecotourism: Scrambling for paradise

Does tourism always have to be a threat to the environment? Not anymore, claim the promoters of the globally emerging industry of ecotourism. Socially responsible and ecologically sustainable tourism, which could at the same time be profitable for the community, is possible, they argue.

Rustam Vania takes a look at the concept of 'green' travel and catches up with the rich and restless, who are willing to pay for their moment of nirvana

Published: Wednesday 31 July 2002

Ecotourism: Scrambling for paradise

-- (Credit: Photographs: Rustam Vania)Seeking nirvana
Rich, restless and willing to pay

Babu Vargese was thrown out of college because he insisted on wearing his hair long. Vargese likes to do things differently. Like running TourIndia, a Kerala based travel agency he founded 20 years ago. His keen interest in nature and people, coupled with a nose for business opportunities led him to innovate with the traditional kettuvallom boats plying in the backwaters of Kerala, converting them into houseboats made from local materials and skill. The idea was to offer tourists a non invasive and unique experience in a natural surrounding, while benefiting the local economy and reviving the age-old craft of boat building.

This was six years ago. Today, the stretch of backwaters from Quilon to Allepey is teeming with houseboats. With no proper regulations and lack of any policy vision, the houseboats are getting out of hand. The idea, with all the trappings of an ecotourism venture, threatens to destroy the very environment it survives on.

Vargese has realised the potential of ecotourism. After his houseboat success, the entrepreneur in him has gone on to team up with the Kerala forest department to create a unique tourism scheme where former animal poachers have turned into tourist guides. His latest ecotourism 'product'? Treehouses, 30 metres high in the rainforests of Wyanad.

He is not alone. Often ranked as the world's largest industry, tourism plays a major role in the economies of 125 of the 170 nations in the world. For many countries it is their biggest economic activity. Over 70 per cent of island country Maldives' foreign exchange earnings come from tourism, for instance. The World Tourism Organisation (wto) estimates that there were more than 693 million international travellers in 2001. Spending by these tourists was estimated at more than us $462 billion, which translates to a staggering us $1.3 billion a day. Tourist arrivals are predicted to grow by an average of 4.1 per cent a year over the next two decades, surpassing a total of one billion international travellers by the year 2010 and reaching 1.6 billion by the year 2020 (wto, 2000). Tourism is the world's largest employer, generating, directly and indirectly, nearly 200 million jobs or some 10 per cent of the jobs globally. In 2001 the industry has suffered because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. For the first time since 1982 (the times of the second oil crisis, martial law in Poland, the Falkland war and the conflict between Israel and Lebanon) the worldwide number of international tourist arrivals showed a slight decrease -- 0.6 per cent or 4 million down from 2000.

The fastest growing segment in tourism is nature tourism. wto estimates that nature tourism generated 7 per cent of all international travel expenditure and 20 per cent of all international travel. Today, nature tourism is the largest foreign exchange earner for South Africa, Kenya, Ecuador and Costa Rica. Moreover, while the tourism industry has an estimated annual growth rate of 4 per cent, nature travel boasts of a growth rate between 10 per cent and 30 per cent. The argument is that even a fraction of these revenues, if channelled in the right direction, can go a long way to help the local economy and ecology.

The 'eco' in ecotourism
In Latin America, anything and everything "eco" boomed after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It also reached farcical levels, as in Costa Rica with its "eco-rent-a-car". Mexico boasts of "eco-taxis" and "eco parking lots" because of a few trees planted around the perimeter.

So then what is "ecotourism"? While the details vary, most definitions of ecotourism boil down to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria:
It provides for conservation measures

It includes meaningful community participation and

It is profitable and can sustain itself

Imagine these goals as being three overlapping circles. If a project or service met all three criteria, hitting the bull's eye in effect, one would have unmistakable ecotourism. But what about projects that are just a little off the mark? Are they genuine ecotourism projects? Assuming one wants to know which are the "best ecotourism destinations", the question must follow: how is one to judge?

Mexican architect and ecotourism consultant Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, who is given the credit for introducing the term "ecotourism", defined it as "travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas".

The International Ecotourism Society (ties) includes in its definition the improvement of the environment and the well-being of local people; it considers ecotourism to be "responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people".

Broadly speaking then, ecotourism is a smaller segment of the nature tourism sector. It demands more than paying a visit to the nature reserve. It demands " responsible " travel so that the impact of the ecological footprint is minimised and the benefits of travel trade are shared, not just with tour operators, but with local communities. This is not easy. But if done, many believe it could be the answer to creating an environmentally friendly -- smokeless industry -- for the many beautiful but destitute regions of the world.

Green washing and certification
The 'eco' boom post 1992 Earth Summit made businesses 'green'. It was also the age of 'green washing' when ecological objectives were fudged for profit. Tour operators became creative and people critical of their travel offerings. How does one tell "green" rhetoric from reality? It's not easy, concludes a new report, Protecting Paradise: Certification Programs for Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism. The study, written by ecotourism experts Martha Honey and Abigail Rome, finds that with some 100-odd "green" certification and eco-labeling programmes around the world, there is overlap, lack of uniformity and consumer and industry confusion.

"Certification is a hot topic, and will get hotter during 2002," states Honey, who directs the Institute of Policy Studies (ips) Ecotourism and Sustainable Development Program. "There is now widespread recognition that certification is necessary to help the responsible traveller and hold the industry's feet to the fire."

The certification basically involves assessing a tourism business, including a lodge or a tour operator, or attraction such as beach or park, and awarding use of a logo or seal to those that meet or exceed a set of baseline standards. However, most of these 'green' certification programmes were voluntary and 'market-driven' or based on a presumed consumer demand.

Another issue of uncertainty and debate over certification has been the north-south divide. Many, particularly in the global south, fear that these programmes may be used to further enfranchise the most powerful tourism companies rather than to help level the playing field. As Megan Epler Wood, president of ties puts it, "It is difficult to imagine how an international certification programme could appropriately set standards for the ecotourism world, given the number of local concerns."

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