Global Understanding in Troubled Times: The New World of Ecotourism

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by Megan Epler Wood

In the wake of September 11 and the subsequent military action in Afghanistan, the travel industry has been directly impacted at all levels. Lay-offs by the thousand in the U.S. have been closely reported in the media, but little has been said about how the travel industry downturn is affecting developing nations.

Ecotourism is responsible travel that aims to conserve the environment and contribute to the well being of local people. Most ecotourism projects are carried out in countries that are poor and have significant cultural and environmental resources to protect. Unfortunately, many educational and conservation-based travel projects are now vulnerable, and the individual business owners who designed them are the ones who can least afford to lose their economic base.

The travel and tourism community has taken some of the biggest economic hits. It is doubtful that anyone will view air travel quite the same way for some time. Nearly all forms of travel have fallen rapidly since September 11, and hotels and airlines are experiencing historic lows in bookings and occupancy. September-November is traditionally low season for ecotourism travel, but it is a very important time for bookings.

In this time of crises, the questions come to mind, “What will be the cost of declining travel to countries around the world? How does ecotourism fit into these trends? Is the ecotravel industry a contributor to the world dialogue, when pressing issues of peace and security are of the highest importance?”

In general, travel and tourism have been the fastest growing industrial sectors in the world economy for a number of years. According to the World Tourism Organization, travel grew 7.4 percent last year. During the first eight months of 2001, travel grew 2.5 percent. Tourism was on track for a three percent increase and should continue to grow through 2001 at a rate of 1.5-2 percent. It is expected to continue growing, although at a slightly lower rate of two percent.

Travel to nature destinations has also seen extraordinary growth. Travel and tourism play an increasingly important role in developing economies around the world. In classic ecotourism countries and nature-based destinations, such as Costa Rica, Kenya, and Ecuador, tourism has become the first or second most important source of foreign exchange.

Ecotourism has offered a legitimate economic incentive for countries and regions to conserve their natural areas and biological diversity. And that is a benefit to the world.

In the past two decades Costa Rica, once dependent on banana agriculture and small-scale farming, has built a stronger economy, conserved land, and supported scientific research on rainforests through ecotourism. At the same time, the country has posted annual visitor growth rates of nine percent – well above the travel industry average. Other nature-based destinations have had similar records. In the 1990s, South Africa saw a phenomenal average annual increase of 19.3 percent, Indonesia eight percent, and Belize six percent. After such exceptional growth over the past decade, the sudden slowdown in the travel industry has deeply affected ecotourism providers.

Ecotourism especially helps developing nations by providing additional funds and jobs at the local level, where they are needed most. A 1999 study by the United Kingdom Department for International Development found that tourism is growing in all but one of the 12 countries that are home to 80 percent of the worlds poor – including Brazil, Indonesia, Nepal and Peru.

Poor countries that are geographically close to Afghanistan are affected the most by the recent crises, causing great anxiety and potential bankruptcy among small travel businesses in countries such as India and Nepal, which have little to do with the current conflict.

Though far from Afghanistan, tour operators in Kenya are also experiencing high cancellation rates. According to Anne Lower, of Eco-Resorts, an inbound tour operator in Kenya, “this affects the entire region and Kenyan people, from the farmer who supplies food to the hotels, to the mechanic who fixes the safari vehicles, to the travel agent who books the flights, to the camp staff and guides who have been laid off due to slow business. This will then affect the environment as all these struggling Kenyans must naturally revert to subsistence-level farming and poaching small game in order to survive.”

Richard Ryel, president of International Expeditions and member of the TIES’s Board of Directors sums it up best: “The local impact is huge. Who really gets hurt are those who provide the services – the lodging operator, the growers of food, the people who provide the transportation.”

Achieving more global understanding
From the Amazon to the Arctic, many communities and small businesses have made a commitment to conserve their fragile places and cultures using ecotourism. Every responsible visit helps to affirm local concern for preserving the natural environment and cultural diversity. Without that reaffirmation, it is certain that more destructive land use practices will return, until the situation passes.

In these troubled times, ecotourism can play a significant role by helping Americans to understand more fully the reality of the rest of the world. We know we will earn a good annual salary, eat abundant and healthy food from our stores, drink clean water from our taps, and enjoy some leisure time every day. The majority of the world’s population does not have these luxuries.

Responsible travel experiences allow for hosts and their guests to truly come to a better understanding of each other. Some of the most beautiful experiences in travel relate to meeting those who are different. Somehow we find a way to communicate, and the gift of genuine heart-felt exchange is often the most important benefit of travel, especially of ecotravel. If more global understanding can come of this – the world might just become a more secure place for all.

Megan Epler Wood is founder and president of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). Her new book, Ecotourism, Principles, Practices and Policies for Sustainability, published by the United Nations Environment Programme(UNEP) was released in January as part of the International Year of Ecotourism.
Contact TIES: ecomail@ecotourism.org http://www.ecotourism.org



FROM the GreenMoney Journal, December 2001/January 2002
A SustainableBusiness.com Content Partner.

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Wendy Brawer, creator of the hometown-based ecotourism Green Map System (underway in 150+ communities in 36 countries) explains anot
her side to this issue:

When I first learned that 2002 was designated as “International Year of Ecotoursim” (IYE), I thought, great! The potential benefits of ecotourism to the host community can be significant — sustainable economic development and restoration-conservation-appreciation for ecosystems and cultural traditions while simultaneously encouraging global understanding and providing powerful first-hand, life changing experiences to visitors (like my own re-direction moment in Bali in 1989).

However, the more I learned about IYE, the more chagrined I felt. The roads cutting through pristine forests for green-washed hotel development, indigenous rights pushed aside by snap-happy bio-pirates masquerading as awe-filled ecotourists, the tons of CO2 expended flying there — the momentary pleasure-seeker inadvertently obliterating the eternal. Even those who prepare carefully can leave a oversized eco-footprint behind.

The Third World Network, a major UN coalition of non-governmental organizations has called for a Year of REVIEWING Ecotourism. Tthey have lost faith in the process sculpted by UN agencies and the World Tourism Organization. They say, scrap IYE altogether. Read the UN’s response.

I’d like 2002 to be the Year of Hometown Ecotourism. Let’s experience the nature and culture that’s nearby, and get a fresh perspective on the abundant and refreshing resources in our own cities and towns, bioregions and neighborhoods. Figure out ways to weave the ecologies of home and the responsibilities of sustainable lifestyle choices into your recreation and daily habits simultaneously. Discover cultural gems, right in your own backyard. Go by bike or walk to explore the character and biodiversity of home, and get involved in assuring there’s a healthier, greener tomorrow. It’s an adventure we can’t afford not to take.

Contact Wendy: web@greenmap.org

FROM Manna, The E-Newsletter of the Alliance for Sustainability.

In March, Planeta.com is conducting its 8th online event, the Communities and Tourism Conference.
World Ecotourism Summit: Quebec, Canada, May 19-22, 2002

For information on Year of Ecotourism:
[sorry this link is no longer available]
www.world-tourism.org/sustainable/IYE-Main-Menu.htm
[sorry this link is no longer available]

Some Ecotourism websites:
www.ecotravel.com
www.manaca.com
www.planeta.com
www.responsibletravel.com
www.ecotour.com

Hope for Africa’s last mountain gorillas:
http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/14419/story.htm

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