Ecotourism: Try Not To Destroy What You Love

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a red-eyed tree frog, one of many species ecotourists want to see
Red-eyed tree frog, one of many species ecotourists go to Costa Rica to see
Photo by Careyjamesbalboa (Carey James Balboa), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

They say not to shit where you eat. But what if you HAVE to shit where you eat? What if you can’t eat without also shitting? What if you want to pay a bunch of money to travel to a place just so you could shit and eat at the same time? What if this analogy has completely failed me?

This is the constant concern with the special form of travel we call “ecotourism”. Not the… well actually yeah, sometimes the literal shitting. But not just that. We’ll get to that. Ecotourism is kind of exactly what it sounds like. In its most basic form, you could say it’s just any kind of tourism where the goal is to see a new ecosystem. If you’ve ever traveled to go to a state or national park, you could call that ecotourism. I guess. That’s not necessarily going to cut it these days, though. Because while people have always traveled to see ecosystems, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the term “ecotourism” popped up. The difference between just going to go see the Grand Canyon, for example, and real ecotourism, is the focus of ecotourism isn’t you, the tourist. Rather it’s both the ecosystem you’re going to see and the local community or indigenous peoples.

See, when you take that trip to the Grand Canyon, you typically would drive or fly there, stay at a hotel that’s probably a corporate-run chain, eat a lot of fast food that’s also from corporate-owned chains, tromp around with a gazillion other people and take some pretty great selfies, sometimes moments before you plunge to your death. Survivors benefit because they are entertained, inspired, or relaxed. The locals benefit some, because you are spending money there, but a lot of that money’s going in to the pockets of big corporations rather than staying local. Assuming you visit the actual Grand Canyon National Park, and not just lurk around nearby, your park fees will help to maintain the visitor facilities at the park. But, it honestly doesn’t amount to much. While you’re helping the local economy some and the park itself a little bit, the main benefactor is still going to be you.

Ecotourism as a conservation tool

Ecotourism kind of turns traditional tourism on its head. The tourist hopefully gets a lot out of the experience, but the key element of ecotourism is that both the ecosystem and the local community you’re visiting are getting the most out of the deal. The bulk of the money you spend should be going to protect the local environment and wildlife, as well as to improve the situation of the locals. The simplest way this can happen is just by you being there, spending money. See, when you’re talking about countries that are trying to grow their economies as quickly as possible (or most countries, really), they tend to look at their natural resources as just something to be exploited as fast as possible. Or worse, as an obstacle to growing their economy.

If the local government is looking at a tropical rainforest and only seeing it as potential timber sales and farmland for cash crops… well it’s awful hard to convince them not to cut it all down for short term economic gain. And when you try, they often say, “Why shouldn’t we? It’s what Europe did. It’s what America did.” And… dammit, they’re right. Of course they’re right. We should have been more careful, we should have understood that once we destroyed these ancient ecosystems, it would be hard or impossible to ever replace them. But our hindsight doesn’t make it any easier for these other nations to make a different decision than we did. The fact that our own past mistakes make it even more important to preserve the last few wild places left on the planet, doesn’t take the pressure off them to grow their own economies.

A plot of rainforest that's been slashed and burned for agriculture
Rather than lecture, we have to offer people a better alternative to slash and burn agriculture
Photo by -JvL- from Netherlands, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

But if they can find an alternative, one that’s equally or even more lucrative than turning their wilderness in to palm oil plantations and exported hardwood, then we don’t have to convince them of anything. They’ll preserve their ecosystems on their own, because suddenly the economic calculus shifts. The short term gains and the long term benefits will both point towards conserving their ecosystems and wildlife. It’s a win-win-win. Potentially. Maybe. Hopefully.

That’s what ecotourism can do. For instance, while the value of an elephant tusk on the international black market can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, the poachers themselves may actually only get a few hundred bucks for it. A little bit of money is going to the local community in exchange for the life of that elephant, but the vast majority of the profit is going in to the pockets of smugglers and crime syndicates. But, when you can start charging tourists hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person per day just to look at wild elephants, suddenly the math changes. It becomes more profitable for the locals to protect the elephants than to harvest their oversized teeth. Plus when you figure that people will pay more to see a shit-ton of elephants than to see just a couple, there’s even more incentive to keep those guys alive.

The elephants win, obviously. The whole ecosystem wins because you have to preserve all of it in order to keep the elephants going. Locals win because now they’re working in lodges, restaurants, as tour guides or armed rangers, and they’re making more money than they did poaching. Tourists win because they get an amazing experience that they can’t get at home, and ideally we all win because those tourists become advocates for wildlife and the environment. When ecotourism is done right, tourists go back home caring more about not just preserving ecosystems, but also about things like climate change. They tell others about their experiences, and let them know that all of that will just go away if we stop paying attention.

If only ecotourism were that easy…

That’s the ideal, the dream. In theory, ecotourism is amazing. We get to have fun, preserve the most threatened ecosystems and wildlife on the planet, and the locals get to make money doing it. There’s almost no downside. But… the reality unfortunately is a lot messier. You’ll notice, for example, that people are still poaching elephants. Countries are still burning their rainforests. It’s a lot easier said than done, and ecotourism may not be a good fit for every situation. More than that, if we’re not careful, it can all backfire. Not just for the ecosystems we’re trying to protect, but for the local people, too.

Costa Rica is kind of the poster child for ecotourism. They were one of the first countries to seriously invest in ecotourism as a national economic strategy. Costa Rica happens to be a biodiversity hot-spot. Especially for birds… bird nerds get wet just thinking about going there. So, Costa Rica made a conscious choice to turn to ecotourism and make the most of that incredible array of life, much of which is only found there. But it’s been quite a learning curve, and they’re still working it out.

A suspension bridge in the Monteverde cloud forest, allowing ecotourists to experience the forest canopy
A suspension bridge in Monteverde cloud forest lets ecotourists experience the forest canopy
photo by Fran Devinney from New York, United States, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

I mean, there definitely have been some good results from Costa Rica’s ecotourism. A big one is that they’ve devoted over 20% of their landmass to national parks and other protected areas. That’s… that’s ridonkulous. That’d be like if the United States turned the states of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, and Illinois in to national parks. We probably wouldn’t notice Montana, but the rest of those would be a pretty big deal.

And without that protection in Costa Rica, some, if not most, of that land would almost certainly have been cleared for agriculture and development. And the influx of foreign money has had a dramatic impact as well. It’s even been credited with saving their flagging coffee industry… they no longer need to compete on the international market with cheaper coffee from other nations, because they’re able to sell enough to their own tourists that they no longer have to export it.

Trouble in paradise

But it’s not all been smooth sailing. In fact, while Costa Rica has shown the world a way forward with ecotourism, they’ve also discovered every little pitfall that comes with it. It was all pretty cool at first… until it became successful. Once businesses started seeing that there was real money to be made in ecotourism, new players came in with the main goal of maximizing profits. Any conservation or community benefit became just a fig leaf.

And if you want to maximize profits, one of the things you do is pack as many ecotourists in as possible. That means, ironically, clearing forest land for bigger hotels and resorts, rather than having small lodges built inside the forest. That means crowds of people scaring off the very wildlife they came to see. That means sewage systems that weren’t designed for huge crowds leaking in to the groundwater or overflowing when it rains. See, I told you we’d get back to literal shitting. Even just a pit toilet has to be planned and built correctly, and if you’re going to have 5000 guests a day, you’d better plan for a lot more shit than when you just had 500. Some areas still have problem with poop in the water to this day.

Tourists that weren’t tightly controlled have carved their own trails through the wilderness, damaging sensitive environments and causing erosion. Litter has been a frequent problem at some locations. Perhaps most disturbingly, a few years ago, a mob of tourists spontaneously crowded a beach while a massive sea turtle egg laying event was taking place. Thousands of olive ridley sea turtles were coming ashore to dig nests in the sand and lay their eggs, but they were met with thousands of tourists. Normally tourists aren’t a problem for this regular event. It takes place during the rainy season, and the local rivers are flooded, preventing most outsiders from making it to the beach.

olive ridley sea turtles laying eggs on a sandy beach... unimpeded by unruly tourists
Olive ridley sea turtles laying eggs when they manage to avoid tourists
Claudio Giovenzana, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

But that year was unusually dry due to an El NiƱo weather pattern, and the rivers not only didn’t flood, some actually dried out. So a swarm of tourists descended on the poor turtles, blocking their access to the breeding sites, taking selfies with them, letting their kids ride on their backs. Just think of the worst, most stereotyped behavior you could imagine from a tourist, and they were doing it. I don’t know if there were any drunk, shirtless frat bros puking on a turtle, but I just have to assume that there were. Many of the turtles just gave up, turned around and went back to sea without laying eggs. It was pretty much the opposite of what ecotourism is supposed to achieve. It was a real low point for ecotourism in Costa Rica.

And with the big businesses swooping in to make big money, the local people likewise have been getting screwed over. While they are still getting employment out of the deal, it’s often not much more than they would have made farming the land. The better paying jobs are filled by foreigners with degrees, and locals are rarely promoted. These foreigners then essentially gentrify the local towns, raising the cost of living to the point where the natives can no longer afford to live there. Along with the ecotourism boom in Costa Rica, income inequality has been on the rise… the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. Meanwhile the international companies are funneling their profits out of the country entirely.

All of which is not to say that it’s a complete failure. There’s still ecotourism companies in Costa Rica that are doing things right: safeguarding the environment, lifting up the locals and making them stakeholders, and providing quality experiences for the tourists. And if you ever go there, you should absolutely find those groups and give them your money. But there’s scant regulations compelling other companies to follow suit, and there’s hardly any international guidelines on ecotourism at all. It’s basically the Wild West there, and the government has been hesitant to reign it in for fear of losing out on the genuine benefits that it’s brought.

Is it worth doing ecotourism?

So, with all these problems, should you still considering doing a little ecotourism yourself? Sure, if you want. But it’s going to take a little more work than your average vacation if you want to do it right. Right off the bat, you’re looking at the travel it takes to get there and the carbon footprint associated with that. If you live in Minneapolis and you want to visit Costa Rica, or South Africa, or Indonesia… you’re almost certainly going to have to fly, and that means a lot of carbon dioxide spewed out. You can mitigate that a bit, of course. Direct, international flights are actually more efficient than domestic flights or trips with connections or stops, though they’re generally more expensive. And you can always buy something called a carbon offset to make up for the carbon dioxide you generate… though those are really just a band-aid at best, not a real solution. So that’s your first issue with planning your ecotourism trip: is it worth actually doing the traveling, regardless of what you do once you get there? Is there any place closer to home that you could do a little ecotourism at without burning an assload of jet fuel? It’s something to consider.

penguins and ice in Antarctica, a destination that may not be well suited for ecotourism
As amazing as it would be, the distance involved and the fragile ecosystem makes an Antarctica trip hard to justify
photo by LBM1948, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Next, assuming you’re going to travel, there are some places you maybe just shouldn’t go to. Any destinations that are popular or trendy, you should just consider avoiding. They are already probably dealing with problems like I described above due to the large number of tourists, and you don’t want to strain their fragile ecosystems any further. Likewise, some places maybe just shouldn’t ever be visited at all. Antarctica comes to mind. It is possible to visit Antarctica and check out the penguins and leopard seals… but should you? It’s an incredibly fragile ecosystem that’s getting hit harder by climate change than just about anywhere else on the planet. There’s already a significant human presence there in terms of scientific researchers, and it’s not clear how much tourism the environment down there could handle before you’re just doing more harm than good.

Plus, remember that time Kurt Russell went down there and found that weird alien creature that assimilated people and turned their heads in to spiders and shit? Remember what it did to those dogs? I mean, it’s probably not very likely that would happen to you, but is it really worth the risk?

Hang on, I’m sorry. Turns out, that was the 1982 John Carpenter film “The Thing.” Not a documentary, apparently. Good thing I fact check these things before I publish them.

Do your research before your ecotourism

Anyway, besides just the destination, you need to research… basically everything about the place you’d like to go to. Learn not just about the places and wildlife you want to see, but also about the local community, any indigenous people living there, the culture. Then, armed with that knowledge, investigate your options for where to stay, what to do, what companies provide tours or packages. Find out which companies or organizations are fulfilling the real purpose of ecotourism. Make sure your money is not only going to help preserve the things you’re going there to see, but that it’s also going in to the pockets of locals and to help support the community. Try to find out that they not only hire locals, but that there are locals involved in planning and running the organizations as well. Avoid chain hotels and restaurants, try to make sure every penny you spend goes to the folks who live there and to groups working to preserve the ecosystem.

Avoid anything that allows large tour groups. If they’re allowing 100 people at a time on a hike through the jungle, they’re probably not really doing ecotourism. It’s hard to minimize your impact when there’s so many of you at once. Once you’re there, avoid traveling by car if you can. Instead go by bus, train, bike, horseback, or on foot. Don’t engage in any activities where they feed the wildlife or otherwise encourage interaction with it. That’s ultimately not going to be good for the wildlife. And for crying out loud, don’t engage in any of this shit where the local indigenous people are used as photo ops. People are not props for your Instagram feed, so if a tour promises to let you take pictures of natives in authentic dress or whatever, think hard about that. Is that activity really improving their lot, or is it dehumanizing and exploiting them? At the very least, make sure folks are okay with you taking pics of them. It’d be creepy and weird if you took photos of random folks you met at home without their permission, so don’t be creepy and weird on your vacation.

ecotourists taking photographs from a boat in Argentina
ecotourism in Argentina done right
photo by: Claudio Bertonatti, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

And finally, just respect all the rules. All of them, from the national laws to the instructions given by your tour guide. Stay on the trails. If they say no photos or no flash photography, then don’t. Don’t fucking feed the animals. If the local people have customs about things like gender that you don’t like… just go with it. Making a point of defying them to their faces isn’t going to convince them that you’re right, and it certainly isn’t going to enhance your vacation experience. If you don’t think you can handle that, then maybe you should consider visiting somewhere else instead. If you want to impose your own values and beliefs on people, then you’re traveling for the wrong reasons. Instead, be open to learning what their lives are like, good and bad.

In other words, don’t be a dick. This is actually a pretty good rule in general, but especially when you’re not a citizen you’re not sure where the nearest embassy is.

DON’T BE A DICK

And that’s about it. Ecotourism has a huge potential to replace the economic incentives that lead to habitat destruction and extinctions, but it also comes with a lot of risk and potential downsides. Ultimately, it just needs better regulation. Governments need to keep a tight lid on how ecotourism companies operate, there need to be better certifications, and we probably need international regulations on ecotourism. Until then, it’s kind of buyer beware out there. So whether you want to snap pics of the resplendent quetzal in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, dive with manta rays in Hawai’i, or chill with the lemurs in Madagascar, do your research first. Make sure you’re not doing more harm than good. Remember, ecotourism is first and foremost about preserving the local ecosystems and lifting up the local people. Your desire to be entertained or thrilled has to come second to that.

In other words, make sure you don’t shit where you eat. And you probably also shouldn’t eat where you shit. Look… if you guys can’t keep your food and your poop separate, there’s really not much I can do for you.

MORE READING:

Benefits and risks of firefly ecotourism
Why we need more ecotourism
BBC’s guide to ecotourism

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