Sustainable Tourism

The writer argues that eco-tourism can be just as damaging as honest hedonistic holiday-making.

By Anita Pleumarom

The trend towards eco-tourism holidays, presented as sustainable, nature-based and environmentally friendly, is now subject to considerable controversy. It is the tourism industry's fastest growing subsector, with an estimated world-wide annual growth of 10-15%. Governments as well as the tourism industry promote eco-tourism, with its claims of economic and social sensitivity. But there are well-founded concerns that it lacks adequate scientific foundations, and is not viable as a solution to the world's social and environmental problems.

Eco-tourism is an eco-facade

Many eco-tourism claims concerning its benefits are exaggerated, or owe more to labelling and marketing than genuine sustainability. Not only are such projects repeatedly planned and carried out without local consent and support, but they often threaten local cultures, economies, and natural resource bases. Critics regard eco-tourism as an `eco-facade': a tactic concealing the mainstream tourism industry's consumptive and exploitative practices by `greening' it.

Of particular concern is the side stepping of crucial questions in the promotion of eco-tourism, regarding the global economy and widening gap between North and South, particularly in Third World countries. Significant social and political issues such as the maldistribution of resources, inequalities in political representation and power, and the growth of unsustainable consumption patterns are marginalised or ignored.

Environmentally risky

Eco-tourism may sound benign, but one of its most serious impacts is the expropriation of`virgin' territories - national parks, wildlife parks and other wilderness areas - which are packaged for eco-tourists as the green option. Eco-tourism is highly consumer-centered, catering mostly to urbanised societies and the new middle-class `alternative lifestyles'. Searching for `untouched' places `off the beaten track' of mass tourism, travellers have already opened up many new destinations.

Mega-resorts, including luxury hotels, condominiums, shopping centres and golf course, are increasingly established in nature reserves in the name of eco-tourism - in many cases protested as `eco-terrorism'. Such projects build completely artificial landscapes, tending to irretrievably wipe out plant and wildlife species - even entire eco-systems.

No local benefits

Diverse local social and economic activities are replaced by an eco-tourism monoculture. Contrary to claims, local people do not necessarily benefit from eco-tourism. Tourism-related employment is greatly overrated: locals are usually left with low-paying service jobs such as tour guides, porters, and food and souvenir vendors. In addition, they are not assured of year-round employment: workers may be laid off during the off-season. Most money, as with conventional tourism, is made by foreign airlines, tourism operators, and developers who repatriate profit to their own economically more advanced countries.

Romantic devastation

Eco-tourism's claim that it preserves and enhances local cultures is highly insincere. Ethnic groups are viewed as a major asset in attracting visitors; an `exotic' backdrop to natural scenery and wildlife. The simultaneous romanticism and devastation of indigenous cultures is one of eco- tourism's ironies.

Given a lack of success stories, and sufficient evidence of serious adverse effects, the current huge investments in eco-tourism are misplaced and irresponsible. Research, education, and information for tourists is needed, and the countering of eco-tourism's demeaning of local cultures. - Third World Network Features/African Agenda

This article was excerpted from a briefing paper presented to the German Association for Political Economy, April 1995. Acknowledgements to LINK May/June 1995, and to the Environmental Justice Networker, No. 6, Winter 1995. About the writer: Anita Pleumarom is with the Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team, Thailand.
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