RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL TO NATURAL AREAS
By Michael Kaye
An edited version of this piece appeared in CondeNast Traveler, Nov. 2002.
In October 1980, a couple of years after I started Costa Rica Expeditions, a reporter from The Tico Times, Costa Rica's English language newspaper, wrote an article about my fledgling enterprise.
Almost 20 years later, researching for her book on ecotourism, "Ecotourism and Sustainable Development. Who Owns Paradise," Martha Honey found my long-forgotten answer to a question about what made my vision of tourism different, "Tourism should contribute to, rather than exploit (the land)...It should be active rather than passive, emphasizing cultural exchange rather than mere sightseeing." Honey called them "pioneering words."
In a brochure published in June, 1981, I developed the idea a little further: "Unique travel experiences mutually beneficial and nourishing to both the visitor and the visited." Nine years later, after seemingly endless debate, much of which took place at a seminal ecotourism conference at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach (eco-deco). The newly-formed Ecotourism Society adopted the definition, "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people."
These concepts, culminating in the United Nations declaring 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism, have spawned several clear trends. There has been the trend to give out ecotourism awards. Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, the American Society of Travel Agents, Smithsonian and British Airways are just a few of the organizations recognizing ecotourism merit.
There has been the trend to research ecotourism. Hordes of university professors, graduate students, and scientists from every conceivable kind of NGO have infested the world's natural areas to study such hot topics as foot induced insect deaths per bed night. A whole book is devoted to "Environmental Seals, Ecolabels & Environmental Awards In Tourism, An International Overview Of Current Developments." The ecotourism research mating call is trumpeted on the International Ecotourism Society web site, "Calling all you lucky ecotourism researchers! There are unlimited topics to investigate, whether you are a professor, consultant or student."
There has been the trend to have international meetings and congresses devoted to ecotourism. Ironically, with few exceptions, the fever to talk about ecotourism has not extended to being concerned with the environmental friendliness of venues at which the meetings are held.
There has been a trend to jump on the ecotourism bandwagon in the hopes that it will promote business. My favorites are a company in Costa Rica called Ecological Rent a Car (I called and asked what made them ecological. They told me that they rented 4 wheel drives.) and a Costa Rican promoter whose company actually managed to trade mark the term "Ecotourism®" and threatened to sue anyone who did not pay him a royalty. Both companies went bankrupt.
In nutshell there is too much involvement from professors, planners, students and greenwashers and not enough from travelers and host communities - the visitors and the visited.
Where ecotourism can and does make its greatest contribution is by simply creating well-paid fulfilling employment for people who otherwise would have little choice but to subsist in environmentally destructive ways. Ideally jobs in ecotourism are structured in such a way that allows the most able of the employees to move on to form their own enterprises and in turn provide employment to others. This in turn creates an environment in which the host community insists that the visitation contributes to the conservation of the natural area and well being of the community and this in turn creates consciousness among the visitors in much more effective ways than giving lip service to "Your Travel Choice Makes a Difference."
In my more cynical moments I think that ecotourism is like communism; it is such a good idea that somebody ought to try it. But that's not at all fair. There are lots of wonderful things happening out in the field. They would be even more wonderful if it was not for all the hype.