Ecotourism is a branch of tourism which seeks to extend the concept of sustainability to the tourism industry. In recent years, concerns such as the planet’s sustainability, preservation of its natural resources, balancing human activities with Mother Nature’s needs and so on, have reached all-time highs. It is exactly concerns such as these which have led to the development and growth of ecotourism. There is no single universally accepted definition of ecotourism.
Indeed, several researchers, tourism providers, environmental agencies and local bodies have formulated different definitions, which vary slightly in their scope and breadth. However, three key elements are central to most of the definitions encountered in a review of the existing literature, namely: sustainability of the ecotourism location; creating an appreciation among ecotourists of the need to preserve the natural environment; creating respect and/or contributing to the development of the local cultures (Eastwood, 2009).
These characteristics of ecotourism quite obviously place it into sharp contrast with traditional mass tourism. Mass tourism often attracts tourists to locations that have been extensively developed in terms of infrastructure, facilities, communication networks and so on. In doing so, the natural and physical environment of such locations is dramatically altered, in ways that are irreversible. Moreover, large amounts of energy may be consumed to sustain such establishments. In contrast, ecotourism seeks maximum preservation of the natural environment of designated locations.
Indeed, the very charm for an ecotourist lies in visiting a location that still remains largely untouched by modern development. Mass tourism also makes no claims to educate tourists with regard to the environment. The main offering of mass tourism is typically entertainment and leisure. Individuals availing this form of tourism typically use their holidays to take a temporary break from their commitments, choosing to relax and unwind during the interval before returning to their routine lifestyle.
Unless the tourists specifically choose to embark on an educational journey in areas of personal interest, most journeys do not have serious objectives, and this factor is reflected in the marketing appeals used by mass tourism providers. Finally, while tourists in the realm of mass tourism are most certainly exposed to different cultures and people, this interaction is generally viewed as more of an exotic exposure rather than anything more meaningful or substantial. There is no pressing need felt by the tourists or the mass tourism providers to contribute to the different communities visited or to be concerned about their development.
On the other hand, most genuine ecotourism initiatives are geared to the development of host communities, with long term planning and financial resources being channeled towards this objective (Schellhorn, 2010). Part Two: The Ecotourist Experience The unique aspects of the ecotourist experience and its implications for host communities are explored next. Motivations are not homogenous: It would be misleading to assume that all tourists visiting ecotourism locations have the same motivations.
An analysis of tourists at Al Maha, an ecotourist resort in Dubai, revealed that the average tourist is simply motivated to come and enjoy the desert setting more than anything else. Many of the tourists are rich individuals, primarily businessmen and women, who simply desire an exotic temporary accommodation as an alternate to hotels in the city. While at the resort, such individuals do not sever ties with their corporations, or typically immerse themselves in the indigenous culture as the ideal ecotourist is expected to do.
Another segment of tourists at this resort consists of honeymooning couples looking for a romantic getaway – again, not the stereotype of the dedicated ecotourist (Ryan & Stewart, 2009). Since the motivation itself is lacking, the Al Maha ecotourist resort is hardly able to change the tourists perceptions regarding sustainability or the need to preserve and appreciate the natural environment and local cultures. Scale of development: The Al Maha resort example discussed above also raises an import concern: the scale of development within ecotourism locations.
Al Maha is extensively projected as an ecotourist destination; however, it has been extensively developed, almost resembling a luxury resort! The resort also consumes vast amounts of energy in maintaining its facilities, which runs somewhat contrary to the concept of sustainability of resources. Those in support of large scale ecotourist destinations claim that expansion of such projects is almost a prerequisite if such projects are required to have a substantial impact globally (Buckley, 2009). Tourist behavior may be counter-productive:
A study conducted at three ecotourist destinations in the Himalayas revealed that, in some instances, so called “ecotourists” were actually creating compounding problems of pollution by littering and improper disposal of non-biodegradable items. Ironically, the management of hotels was doing no better either – discharge of untreated waste water was rampant (Batta, 2006). Such behavior is in complete violation of the spirit of ecotourism. It not only spoils the experience of true ecotourists who may also be frequenting such resorts, but is also a social issue since it creates discomfort for the local residents.
New income may not be channeled in sustainable activities: Whereas income generation for the local community members at ecotourism locations is an expected and desired outcome, this new income may defeat the objectives of sustainability if it is channeled in undesired activities. For example, a case study conducted in Brazil and Peru revealed that locals used the income generated from employment at ecotourism locations to engage in needless, extravagant consumption of goods.
Moreover, earning income from this means did not deter them from engaging in activities such as hunting or unsustainable exploitation of natural resources (Stronza & Pegas, 2008). This study highlights the need to educate the local communities involved in ecotourism initiatives if the full benefits of these initiatives are to be realized. The negative impacts of overcrowding: The ecotourist’s experience is most fulfilling if the location is perceived to offer a serene, calm environment, where one can get away from hustle-and-bustle and really connect with nature.
This is precisely the reason why overcrowding can seriously deter the ecotourist’s enjoyment of his/her experience (Ormsby & Mannle, 2006). Managers of ecotourism locations are placed in a quandary, particularly if they are aiming to generate significant amount of funds from attracting tourists. On the one hand, they want their destination to become popular and attract the optimal level of tourists; on the other hand, if overcrowding occurs, then the destination loses its appeal for true ecotourists.
Ethical dilemmas: In her article entitled “Ethics and ecotourism: connections and conflicts”, Stark (2002) proposed a series of questions pertaining to ethical concerns in the realm of ecotourism. A few summarized questions, pertinent especially to those in the tourism industry who provide travel packages claiming to be ecotours, are as follows: What is the “carrying capacity” of a specific site (or in other words, how many tourists it can support), beyond which the local environment would be prone to harm?
Is ecotourism simply being projected as a fashion statement or something which is “in”? Are local cultures simply being objectified rather than truly appreciated? What are the net costs and benefits of ecotourism activities? Do local communities benefit, and are they involved at each level of implementation? Is care being taken, particularly in developing countries, that sites which have rich traditional or cultural heritage are not being exploited for commercial purposes?
These are just some of the numerous questions which come to the fore when choosing a destination for ecotourism and designing and implementing a strategy which is ethically sound. It is an accepted fact that the development of any form of tourism, even ecotourism, has long-lasting impacts on local communities. Therefore, it is vital for ecotourism development agencies to take the locals on board and determine in advance what nature and level of changes are acceptable to them (Butcher, 2006). Unsuitable nature of education provisions:
Stem et. al (2003), in an article entitled “Ecotourism and education for sustainability: a critical approach”, that most of the insights and educational experienced provided at ecotourism locations currently are not up to par and sufficient to generate a proper understanding of sustainability and environmentally friendly activities among tourists. Some tours provide theoretical data, others provide adventure and thrill, whereas still others merely encourage tourists to immerse themselves in their surroundings and appreciate natural beauty.
What is lacking is the kind of education which would motivate attitudinal and behavioral change among tourists, not only while they are on tour but something which they can appreciate, act upon and tell others about as well once the tour has ended. Longitudinal studies could be employed to find out whether ecotourists actually change and maintain their changed behavior over an extended period of time after a given trip, but such studies have largely been lacking to date (Buckley, 2009).
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