There are three ways that each of us can relate to a particular place: as a resident, as a traveler, or as a tourist. Maybe you’ve heard this before. If you haven’t, it makes sense if you think about it in these terms.
Everyone is a resident of somewhere. Maybe it’s your hometown where you grew up, or maybe it’s somewhere you moved later in your adult life, but you’ve come to know “like the back of your hand.” You’re an expert of the subway map, the shortcuts, the best restaurants, your favourite park for people watching, and so on. Ultimately, this is the place that feels like it’s inseparable from your identity, and we all have an idea of what this feels like on a deep, personal level.
We know what home feels like even better when we leave it.
Whether it’s going on vacation or travelling for work, when we exit the comfort of our main place of residence, we start to feel like an outsider, an amateur, maybe even an intruder. How detached you feel from the place you’re visiting is what separates the traveler from the tourist.
The traveler is one who goes to a new city and wants to learn about that unique culture. Perhaps they are there professionally, building relationships with local professionals in their field of work and experiencing the differences in knowledge around a shared interest. Perhaps they are on an extended gap year, purposefully staying in hostels for weeks at a time, learning the local language, and talking to strangers at local bars and parks. They won’t be an expert by the end of their stay, but they’re open to learning about the local culture from the local culture.
And then there’s the tourist. The tourist books their stay in a hotel that looks exactly like hotels in their hometown. They visit the most famous sights exclusively, not concerned about waiting in long lines just to capture a frameable souvenir. They rarely bother with learning the local language, relying on tour guides and translators to give them the rundown of the local culture, maybe even without hearing it from an actual resident. In short, by the end of the tourist’s trip, it’s hard to say they even experienced the heart and soul of their destination at all.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable while on vacation. Some sights, like the Pyramids of Giza, are world famous for good reason. They are both historically and culturally magnificent. However, in order to visit the Pyramids, one doesn’t need to know Egyptian Arabic, blend with the locals, or have any concern for the effects one’s own presence has on the residents. The reason “being a tourist” has become a somewhat derogatory phrase is because it carries with it a disregard—some might say a disrespect—for local culture. After all, visiting the Pyramids is about having reverence for the past. Meaning you don’t have to care about the present or even the future in order to be in awe of their enormity.
This somewhat negative reputation of tourism is no secret. For decades we’ve come to understand that the tourism industry, as-is, has long been known to show little regard for local residents and their environments. While some might argue that the tourism industry helps boost local economies by putting revenue into the pockets of residents, this doesn’t always seem to be the case.
For one thing, many of the benefits have a tendency to fall asymmetrically into the hands of the tourism companies who invest in desirable destinations only to hire locals for low wages, funnelling the profits back into their own economies rather than those in question. Secondly, increased tourism can cause problems for the actual residents of popular destinations in the form of increased traffic, the replacement of essential goods and services with tourism-based businesses, and the decline of cultural identity over time as it’s replaced with a more “commercialised” version of itself to match visitors’ expectations.
Finally, these consequences of tourism disproportionately affect the global south, since the majority of tourists come from countries with larger populations of middle- and upper-class citizens. Residents of the global north rarely have to worry about busloads of foreigners arriving in their neighbourhoods occupying their local spaces, using their resources, leaving their trash, and returning to their homes without ever questioning the footprint they’re leaving behind.
So, what can be done to respond to these harms perpetuated by the tourism industry? How might the industry change to a reality encouraging less tourism and more travelling? That’s where ecotourism comes in.
What Is ecotourism?
If you don’t already know, ecotourism is a kind of sustainable tourism by which international vacationers pay special attention to the wellbeing of the local land and people where they’re visiting. Simply put, it is a focused shift from the traditional notion of tourism to the more refined notion of travelling.
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), the way to achieve this goal of respectful and responsible travelling is by adhering to three general principles: conservation, communities, and interpretation. Overall, this means travelling with a good conscience. How is one’s vacation impacting the local people and their landscape? And are you there to learn something about the place you’re visiting, or are you using someone else’s home as just another checkmark on your bucket list?
But why is this so important? The most obvious reason is respect.
One of the benefits (and consequences) of capitalism is that it gives us the sense that as long as we can afford something, it’s not really our concern as to how we have access to it. The most obvious example of this is our industrial food system. As long as meat continues to remain cheap and accessible, most of us usually can’t be bothered to do a background check on the health of the animals and rainforests that are being exploited in order to keep us fed. And we all know how that’s turning out.
The goal of ecotourism is to provide some accountability for the industry as a whole by focusing on the wellbeing of the places we love visiting. After all, if the local economies and ecosystems are suffering at the hands of tourism as-is, then these places of relaxation and luxury won’t be around for much longer. But even more importantly, we need to ask ourselves, “Is my brief experience of a place worth the longer-term harms it might be causing the local residents? How would I feel if this were happening in my hometown?” And “What can we do to improve this situation and make it better?”
With this knowledge and perspective, it would seem like ecotourism is a no-brainer. With such a promising ethical platform, why hasn’t this become the status-quo of the tourism industry? Let’s take a look into some of those reasons now and see if we can come up with some solutions.
Where are all the ecotourists?
The first point to note is how ecotourism manifests. That is, it tends to fall under “nature-based” tourism. This is tourism where the main attraction is the natural world itself. This includes guided hikes through rare forests or small boat tours to secluded islands. Unfortunately, “nature-based” tourism makes up about 20% of all tourism worldwide, and not all of it falls under the “eco” umbrella. Finding that number is much more difficult, but nowhere does it exceed 5% of all tourism activities.
Another problem with ecotourism is that it has a historical reputation for causing tremendous harm to local inhabitants long before it results in any good. For example, it’s a well-kept secret that the beloved National Parks of the United States, considered a pioneering achievement by conservationists worldwide, were created at the expense of thousands of indigenous peoples.
Even worse: this is a trend that still happens today. If an area is deemed a prime candidate for conservation, parts of which might be used to bring in capital in the form of ecotourism, then anyone already living within these areas will be expelled from their home by those in positions of greater power. Sometimes forcefully. This reality rarely makes the final cut on the brochures and there is little that can be done retroactively once the damage is done. Still, it is a scar that ecotourism must own up to.
How accessible is ecotourism?
The other major issue with ecotourism, and most probably the reason it makes up so little of the overall industry to date, is its unapologetic exclusivity. Case and point: the Misool Foundation.
The Misool Foundation has recently received acclaim as a kind of “poster child” of ecotourism. In 2019, the Economist ran a story about how its founders, Marit and Andrew Miners, have saved some of Indonesia’s endangered coral reefs, sea turtles, and fish populations from local poachers, by funding a kind of ocean patrol with the revenue from their luxury seaside resorts.
To their credit, their story is inspiring. The efforts of the Miners, as well as their team of coral reef “rangers,” deserves all the positive attention it has received. But it also shows the often inherent inaccessibility of ecotourism.
For one, the islands are literally half a world away. This is well-illustrated by the fact that their website features the geographical coordinates of their location, almost out of necessity. They’re located on the eastern-most islands of Indonesia, and the Miners are so aware of their seclusion that they even have a page called “Getting Here” with tips on which combination of flights to book from mainland Indonesia. You can probably see where this is going.
If you wanted to visit the Misool Foundation from mainland Europe, not only would you have to fly first to Jakarta, then to Sorong, you would then also need to be ready to pay nearly $400 US per night for this oceanside experience. While this price includes four meals per day, you are ultimately at the mercy of Misool’s monopoly on services from boating trips to scuba gear to child care. The cost of such a trip would easily exceed $5,000 for two people on airfare and accomodation alone.
An impressive experience? Undoubtedly. Affordable? Not so much.
None of this is meant to disparage the efforts of the Misool Foundation, or the many similar operations out there doing their best to change the face of tourism in a way that is beneficial for both people and the planet. But is their vision actually scalable? Is it reasonable to consider the price tag of such an experience as a model for how other tourism sites might expect to operate? I’m not so sure.
Ecotourism is still a game changer
Limitations aside, ecotourism presents a positive ideal for the future of tourism. Most notably, it makes us ask ourselves what nature is worth to us.
Perhaps the answer to the problem of tourism lies in the fact that we believe we need to go “far away” in order to appreciate “true nature,” because we don’t believe we’re already part of nature. By emphasising this difference, we stop seeing the wonder and wildness which is often in our own backyards, and, over time, we stop taking care of them as though they were something precious and magical.
Ecotourism inspires us to think outside the box when we’re trying to find a little escape from our everyday lives. It has made space for innovative ideas like “staycations”, where we might look for the most beautiful and exciting destinations just outside of our hometowns, saving time, money, GHG emissions, and jet lag. And if everyone did this everywhere, then we’d finally be on the right track towards returning earth to her most beautiful and habitable state for all of her residents worldwide.