Ecotourism: niche or the future of the industry?
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To say ecotourism is nothing more than a niche project with little applicability to the wider tourism industry is to fail to consider the complexity of the problem: tourism is an expanding industry, and without a plan to create sustainable development, the carrying capacity will be exceeded (Simon, Narangajavana and Marques, 2004). According to Wall and Mathieson, once this happens, the overload of tourists has the potential to destroy the very resources that attracted them (2006). In turn, this will limit and possibly even slow down the industry considerably.
In order to argue how the principles guiding the business of ecotourism can be transformed into principles for sustainable development of the wider tourism industry, especially mass tourism, these guiding ideas must first be understood. For the purpose of this discussion Wearing and Neil’s (2009) perimeters for defining ecotourism and its principles will be used along with the principles of ‘Low Impact Tourism’ (LIT). These can briefly be explained as follows:
Not “mainstream”: It is a form of alternative tourism that is not in opposition to but rather separate to mass tourism. Ecotourism does not actively go against the principles of mass tourism, but, being dependent on a set of value laden judgements, rather provides a seemingly polar alternative.
Nature-focussed: It has a particular philosophical orientation towards nature.
Motivation-driven clients: Tourists are characterised by particular motivations – in the case of ecotourism an urge to be a ‘do-gooder’ and contribute to efforts in conservation and development.
Emphasis on experience: The service provider adheres to touristic practices and provides a quality tourism experience.
Politically involved: The projects constitute an approach to local, regional, national, and international politics.
Culture-focus: There is active valuation of culture and a dependency on natural and cultural resources.
Sustainability: The projects tourists participate in must be part of a strategy for sustainable development and integrate conservation efforts. (Weaver and Neil, 2009)
Ecotourism ‘is a form of tourism that fosters learning experiences and appreciation of the natural environment’ (Weaver, 2001, p. 15) and ‘conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people’ (The International Ecotourism Society, 1990). In this sense, the concept is extremely limited and non-transferable: it is a form of educational tourism that caters to a very specific set of ideas, mainly that the holiday or travel undertaken will contribute to the improvement of the environment or the minimisation of the impact of humans thereon at the very least. The broader principled as set out above, however, are highly adaptable and transferable to the wider tourism industry and could help to develop a more sustainable market.
Ecotourism is undoubtedly a niche, but it is an exclusive one. The fact that the amount of people who can participate at any time must be limited so as not to impact the environment – especially in conservation efforts – mean that participation itself becomes an exclusive commodity. It has the potential to be the natural equivalent of the Berkin bag – knowingly regulated in production so there is a constant waiting list creating an air of exclusivity. In this way, ecotourism effectively commodifies nature (Castree, 2003 and Demeritt, 2000)
Furthermore, the importance of striking the correct balance between allowing tourists access and preserving the environment makes it more bearable for customers to be waitlisted: to insist on an increase in group size is to directly go against the ideals that are the foundation of eco-tourists. In other words, the ideology creates the exclusivity, which, in turn, increases the commodity’s value.
It is not easy to apply this logic to mass tourism as there are few instances of this that is currently dependent on ideology, but the model can be incorporated into other niche markets. The thrill-seeker on an adventure trip will hunt for experiences few others of his ilk have had.
The niche market can increase value by limiting access thus increasing revenue generated per person, decreasing impact on the environment due to less over-crowding and make the experience more enjoyable for the tourist. In order to do this, the experience must be something worth waiting for – a problem addressed through the development of the experience in relation to a set of values.
Exclusivity and a covetable product can also contribute to creating a better experience for the tourist, especially in relation to mass tourism problems like over-crowded beaches or giant resorts giving little or no interaction with the local environment.
Imagine for example, instead an offer that would combine 3S tourism with ecotourism and contribute to alleviate the pressure of overcrowding on popular beaches. There are plenty of beaches around the world that require work adjacent to them in the form or wildlife, marine or nature conservation. If trips to some of these could be offered at an affordable price in exchange for some volunteer time from tourists who would not otherwise go on ecotourism holidays it could solve several problems: it could solve some issues of over-crowding in popular tourist spots nearby; it could help conservation efforts worldwide; given some time it could provide sustainable development of work and living space in less conventional places helping to address problems of over-populated areas through tourism.
It is crucial to all tour providers that their experience is enjoyable to the client (Fennel and Smale, 1992), and thus this principle should not only apply to ecotourism, but to all tourism. The experience of ecotourism crucially lies in the motivation and to transfer this into mass tourism could have interesting and fruitful results.
That ecotourism will supplant other forms of tourism such as 3S or adventure tourism is not very likely. There is still a vast group of tourists who enjoy their comforts and have little interest in the great outdoors. However, what ecotourism does have is a value-based development of their product (Zografos, and Allcroft, 2007). Operators sell the concept that to be an ecological traveller is to be a champion of nature – especially in the case of packages involving conservation. Due to the popularity of ecotourism, this is not always the case as fragile ecosystems with much less carrying capacity than more traditional tourism venues will be oversubscribed and the conservation effort can damage the system beyond repair.
Weaver, crucially writes that ‘[ecotourism] has the appearance […] of being environmentally and socio-culturally sustainable’ (2001, p.15). He does not claim that it actually is, only that it appears to be better than mass tourism from a sustainability perspective. The dissonance between ideal and actuality is of little consequence; ultimately ecotourism feeds the individual’s ego (Wheeller, 1993). The travellers can believe they are helping to save the world, one tree or community at the time, but still not know the full extent of the help or harm of their visit. What they are participating in can be as much an idea as it is a reality.
In the same way as a luxurious honeymoon, ecotourism is also partly about feeding a fantasy: it is perhaps a more idealistic and philosophical fantasy, but it is a fantasy nonetheless. Ecotourism is ultimately about taking a journey to what or who you want to be. It is a different kind of escapism – one that means running to something rather than from it, but is still about doing something out of the ordinary.
To use people’s ideology and create an appropriate tourism option to satisfy this could greatly benefit the wider tourism industry (Blamey, 2001). To travel is appealing in itself, be it domestic or international travel, but the emotional gratification of contributing to a charitable cause makes things like Spartan accommodation and hard work seem more appealing. If ‘you derive personal pleasure and joy from helping others’ and thus ‘your charity is selfish because you want to feel good’ (Keng, 2012) the motivations driving ecotourism need not be so limiting as they first appear – in fact, the rest of the principles can be used to achieve this.
‘The original emphasis of ecotourism was on low key, unobtrusive tourism which has minimal impacts on natural ecosystems’ writes Wearing and Neil (2009, p.1) and this idea of unobtrusive tourism can be extended to include intrusion into other areas than nature.
The limitation of such intrusions can be advertised as part of the appeal of the tourist experience in the same way corporations and other service providers often sell their products based on ideas such as ‘responsibly sourced’ ‘locally grown’ or ‘we don’t use child labour’. The customer buys the organisation’s merchandise rather than their competitors’ because they perceive the product to be morally better. A good example of this is the Fairtrade movement.
According to Tao and Wall, ‘it is useful to explore how tourism is and might be incorporated into the existing mix of livelihood strategies so that it enriches rather than replaces the means by which people may be sustained’ (2009, p.91). Thus, tourism can help to develop sustainable strategies for work generation and cultural preservation in tourist destinations. Tour operators can, for example, only employ locals and use this as a corporate responsibility selling point that can generate more business from the semi-conscientious traveller. Weaver argues that there has been a paradigm shift in the way we think about our consumption of both goods and services in a more ethical perspective that accounts for much of the motivation behind ecotourism (2001). This should also inform the wider tourist industry in their approach to creating an appealing experience.
Some problems in other tourism could also be solved by the inclusion of principles from ecotourism, especially in the sectors of nature and adventure tourism. An example of such issues can be found in Hwange National Park: Zimbabwe’s most visited, most accessible and most densely game-stocked national park (Potts, Goodwin and Walpole, 2002). A major issue for the park is underfunding from the Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management and as an indirect result, ‘the development of [Hwange National Park] for photographic tourism has led to severe problems for park management, not least visitor overcrowding and environmental degradation’ (Potts, Goodwin and Walpole, 2002, p.200).
The degradation of such a major attraction could be detrimental to Zimbabwe’s national tourist industry. Introducing ecotourism helps to develop sustainable strategies (Lane, 1994). The national park wants to keep costs for tourists down, but they could charge their current nominal fee but also stipulate some volunteer effort as payment for access to the park over extended time. In this way, some needed work could go ahead without the need for extensive additional funding and the increased conservation effort would generate more nature tourism as the degradation stagnates which in turn could fund more conservation work.
According to Wall and Mathieson, ‘sustainable development requires a long-term perspective that works towards equity between people, and between people and other inhabitants of the planet’ (2006, 15). This means that everyone, tourists and locals alike, need to develop a strategy to preserve the environments they live in so that the human impact thereupon is minimised and the places that are amazing to see today will still be amazing for generations to come.
Page and Dowling argue that sustainable development is crucial to the survival and viability of the tourism industry (2002). If there is to be any special places left worth paying money to see the industry must develop in a sustainable way that will not subsume the local culture and environment into large resorts or streets of tourist junk shops. In developing local environments, ecotourism could serve as a model to develop sustainable tourism in places that are inaccessible to mass tourism at the moment which will open the world to more destinations and preserve the ones we have.
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