Ecotourism among other forms of sustainable tourism

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Ecotourism among other forms of sustainable tourism

Although ecotourism is a form of sustainable tourism and a niche market of nature tourism, it is important not to get confused with all these terms. Many organisations or associations give a definition of ecotourism as opposed to mass tourism or the tourism industry. Sometimes it makes slight difference between all the existing kinds of responsible tourism, and sometimes it is just an amalgam with other definitions. The problem with ecotourism is that there is no universally agreed-upon definition. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s when ecotourism really took off, everyone wanted a piece of the action and, without any regulatory control, a whole host of dodgy operators jumped on the bandwagon. At that time, anyone with a four-wheel drive taking tours in the great outdoors was using the ‘eco’ label. This is obviously the reason why the term lost a lot of its currency.
When looking for information about the subject and a possible official definition of the industry, people most of the time stick to TIES’s definition of ecotourism. But making it as simple, understandable and succinct as possible, resulted in a blurred concept. The definition from TIES is the most used but others are very popular as well.
For example, “Ecotourism Australia” is one of the b iggest associations in that field. Based in Sydney and mostly focused on Australia sites, they made up their own criteria and norms to promote their own labels regarding ECO Certification which is nowadays well reputed. The definition of ecotourism they adopted is: “ Ecotourism is ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation.” 4 In 1998, even Costas Christ himself, one of the founders of The Ecotourism Society, announced in an interview that nobody was doing what they had defined only 7 years before. He said that companies were all achieving various aspects of the definition but no-one was implementing in their practices all that ecotourism meant.
The Australian Commission on National Ecotourism Strategy explains ecotourism as a “nature-based tourism that involves education and i nterpretation of the natural environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable”.
On the Internet, the website says ecotourism is “ a travel with a purpose. When choosing destinations, accommodations, and tour operators, consider which ones work to protect the environment and benefit local cultures and communities.” It is possible to find many other definitions for the word “ecotourism” due to the numerous associations and NGO existing around the planet, each explaining with their own words. This mass of different explanations, each trying to make it as succinct as possible, makes it hard to understand and is not really easy to apply. In 1999, Martha Honey’s first book about the subject “Ecotourism and sustainable development” was published. Her definition is not a s short as the others but her detailed approach made it become one of the most used definition of ecotourism for people involved a bit deeper in the field. Most serious studies on ecotourism including several Universities program now use her 7 points definition as the working one. According to her, ecotourism should show greater ambitions than just filling a simple niche within nature travel and become a means to significantly transform the way tourism itself is carried out in order to “green” and not only “gr eenwash” the entire industry. For her,
“ ecotourism is travel to fragile, pristine and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and (usually) small scale. It helps educate the traveller; provides funds for conservation; directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and fosters respect for different cultures and for human rights.” 5 She based her definition on the definition from TIES but made it more possible to apply and specify after nearly 10 years of misuse. She describes the 7 characteristics of ecotourism later in her book:
1. Involves travel to natural destinations – Ecotourism usually involves natural and often remote areas. The destinations could be inhabited areas or not. They are most of the time under some kind of environmental protection at a national, international, communal, or private level.
2. Minimizes impact – Tourism causes damage. Ecotourism strives to min imize the negative effects of the tourism industry such as the building of hotels, trails and other infrastructures by using either recycled or plentyfully available local building materials, renewable sources of energy, recycling and safe disposal of waste and garbage, and environmentally and culturally sensitive architectural design. It also requires that the number of tourists in one group be lower than usual in order to reduce the damages the group can have on the ecosystem. Ecotourism is usually defined as a nonextractive and/or non consumptive industry, but it can include some enterprises if they are sustainable industries based on renewable resources and including a community-run management.
3. Builds environmental awareness – The difference between tourism and ecotourism is the people involved. People going on an ecotrip as well as the host community as they are supposed to run the business. Travellers should be aware of the country’s situation (politics, economics…), local people (habits, religion, customs…) and the environment they are going to visit. A tourist qhould also be taught a code of good conduct by the tour operator organizing the trip. Regarding the host population, they should be aware of the kind of tourism the country is implementing and be educated to know what is offered in order to have educated guides, who should themselves know a lot about natural and cultural history to guide the tourists deeper in the host community and not only to a place.
4. Provides direct financial benefits for conservation – Ecotourism helps raise funds for environmental protection, research, and education. This can be done through various mechanisms such as park entrance fees and many taxes as for example for the Tour Company, hotels, airlines, and airports. Voluntary contributions are a big stake of the money they can raise as well.

What does ecotourism involve when put into practice?

It is well-known that “tourism is the world’s numb er one employer, accounting for 10% of jobs globally”, and that “worldwide, tourism gen erates annual revenues of nearly 3 trillion dollars and contributes nearly 11% of the global GNP (Gross National Product), making it the world’s largest industry. Ecotourism has become the most rapidly growing and most dynamic sector of the tourism market.” 10 In 2002, H. Srinivas announced ecotourism as a whole is regarded as the fastest emergent market segment in the tourism trade, and has an annual growth rate of 5% worldwide and representing 6% of the world gross domestic product, 11.4% of all consumers spending.11 It is however important to mention that there is a lack of statistical data in sustainable ecotourism. Conclusions of case studies and research projects are the only basis in this field when analyzing the impacts of one initiative or another. And if one implemented thing has proved its efficiency in the short term, it does not mean that is still going to be the case in the long run.12
Turning the theory of ecotourism into practice is not that easy. As we have seen earlier, the ideal definition of Martha Honey is almost impossible to realize. It is only possible to get closer to an ideal project of ecotourism according to the three main criteria usually quoted in every definition. It is thus possible to improve even more the practice of ecotourism in the numerous individual projects existing around the planet. Tourism is the biggest industry in the world and nature tourism is the biggest stake of sustainable tourism nowadays. The real challenge of the ecotourism concept is to make its principles applicable to the whole nature tourism industry. To make the niche market of ecotourism gain the upper hand on the nature tourism itself would show the world politics’ willingness to have a more sustainable source for its economy. “How can the principles of ecotourism be used to re structure conventional nature tourism functions? At present, the opposite trend is dominant: the principles underlying ecotourism are being ‘greenwashed’ by superficial, feel-good rheto ric and minor cost-saving modifications that do not transform tourism into a tool that protects the environment, benefits local communities and educates the tourist.” 13 Already 10 years ago, Martha Honey advocated this point of view. But ecotourism was only beginning and she was trying to make it appear as a solution to the evolution of the tourism industry. Many detractors to the new form of tourism said it was already “dead and hopelessly diluted” because all the buzz and marketing around it. To this she replied that “amid the superficiality, hype, and marketing, [she] found some excellent examples in the field, lots of dedicated people, vibrant grass-roots movements and struggles, much creativity and experimentation, and some early models and standards. In [her] assessment, although ecotourism is indeed rare, often misdefined, and usually imperfect, it is still in its infancy, not on its deathbed. Whether ecotourism matures into adulthood in the twenty-first century, whether it gains permanence and becomes the predominant way in which we travel and interact with our physical and cultural environment depends on myriad factors. One step toward ensuring ecotourism’s survival is helping to build a more discriminating and informed travelling public. Ecotourism travellers, practitioners, professionals, educators, and proponents need to understand both how the travel industry (including ecotourism) functions and what are the major problems and challenges confronting ecotourism.”

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The “Green” concept is gaining ground in every field

Today, almost every country in the world is engaged in ecotourism or at least sustainable tourism with high environmental concerns. Often used as a tool to help developing countries to have a durable healthy economy, it is in the core of many developed countries’ strategies for nature conservation as well. In order to be effective, the green concept has to be undertaken by authorities and integrated into the country’s politics.
From a scientific point of view, it has been proved that species have to be analysed with their surrounding ecosystems instead of being studied individually in isolation. Here again, the involvement of authorities is needed to incorporate ecotourism into the country’s overall development strategy and create protected areas such as national parks for example. Nowadays, the financial crisis may change some country’s approach of tourism, ecotourism, and anything qualified as “green” in th e future, but it is possible to explain the rise of this awareness for everyone, leading to the development of companies and organisations, and further, to laws and norms to regulate the activities. As a matter of fact, little by little, the green concept has become part of individuals’ daily life as well.

Ecotourism: evolution of a new concept

In the 1960s, the world witnessed the beginning of a huge rise of travelling and tourism thanks to the change of social patterns as increased leisure time and means of transportation improvements. Both for convenience and economy matters, mass tourism became the norm. This “3S tourism” (Sun, Sea, and Sand) was pushed to its extreme and companies flourished, even on fragile areas endangering their viability because nature-based tourism rapidly turned to be the most demanded form of tourism.
At first, it was seen as a non-polluting industry helping to develop countries and open up regions to travellers. The problem arose shortly after, when host countries as well as tourists started to get disappointed with mass tourism. Governments implementing tourism as a leading sector to gain economic profit realized that these benefits were marginal compared to its high social and environmental costs due to human activities linked to industrialization. Indeed, a huge part of the benefits did not stay in the host country, and local communities mostly benefited only from low-paying jobs for services as maids, waiters, and drivers. Moreover, mass tourism usually brought overdevelopment and uneven development in the country, together with environmental pollution, and invasion by culturally insensitive and economically disruptive foreigners. As a result of overcrowding fragile places not prepared to such a rapid industrialization, for example, tourists saw beaches being closed in New Jersey because of hospital waste, and in Haiti because of sewage.
This section is about the evolution of the environmental concern in politics at international, European and national level, and the rise of competent organizations.

international level

Travellers soon became keen on nature-based tourism and in an attempt to protect the environment, in almost every country, governments, conservation, and scientific organizations created national parks. They were modelled on the U.S. National Park System because it is the oldest, largest and best-maintained park system in the world, and it knew an increase by 20% of the number of annual visitors in the decade 1980-1990. “By 1989, about 4,500 sites, totalling about 4.79 million square kilometres, or 1.85 million square miles – 3.2% of the earth’s surface – had been placed under some type of protection.” 23 Later, scientists, conservationists, park officials, and environmental organizations felt concerned about the fact that local people were totally excluded from parks and tourism, which was of no benefit to them or the country. Authorities started to rethink the protectionist philosophy guiding park management and need to work with both local populations and parks at the same time. In 1980, as it was the point of view of many organizations, the IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, now known as the World Conservation Union) issued the “World Conservation Strategy” about this new management ne ed.
In 1992, during the World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas in Caracas, Venezuela, the IUCN asserted the idea and launched a small Ecotourism Consultancy Program to give advice, access to information to IUCN members in order to help in the planning of ecotourism developments. They were also allowed to develop case studies and tourism management guidelines for protected areas. At the same time, in the late 1970s, due to the growth of the environmental movement and Third World debt, many international aids and lending multilateral institutions started to think tourism as a new tool for development and conservation strategies. In this context, the World Bank began to finance a lot of tourism-related projects, and became the major creditor in the industry. The World Bank’s Tourism Projects Department encouraged a lot of countries to invest in conventional tourism as an economic development strategy. Failed tourism projects and scandals about unsustainable tourism projects arose and the Department had to close down in 1977, leaving the World Bank working alone and on fewer and smaller projects than before. This failure at least enabled to spread the ideas of sustainable development and environmental protection.
In 1990, the World Bank, in conjunction with United Nations agencies (United Nations Envionment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP)) set up the Global Environment Facility (GEF) which became a permanent mechanism in 1994. Its aims are to help the integration of environmental concerns into development projects and the implementation of the Global Environmental Conventions signed during the Earth Summit of Rio in 1992.

Table of contents :

I. Environment and tourism
A – Definitions
1. A growing new trend
2. Ecotourism among other forms of sustainable tourism
3. What does ecotourism involve when put into practice?
B – Practice of ecotourism and “Greenwashing”
1. Ecotourism versus tourism
2. “Greenwashing”
II. The “Green” concept is gaining ground in every field
A – Ecotourism: evolution of a new concept
1. International level
2. Important dates and papers
3. Local implementation of the Agenda
B – Accreditations and regulations
1. A global eco-label?
2. The example of the ‘ECO Certification Program’
3. Think global, act local
C – Everyday life is turning into “green”
1. Why is “green” appealing?
2. “Green” becomes the norm
III. Controversy about green marketing and ecotourism
A – “Green” marketing and its impact
1. Green marketing principles
2. Impact of green marketing on the consumer
B – Why is ecotourism still marginal?
1. Ecotourism myths to shatter
2. The flight paradox
3. Future of ecotourism
4. Recommendations


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