The Ethics of Ecotravel
Are you thinking of
going on safari in Kenya but haunted by fears that you will only add to
the growing crowds that are destroying wild places? You're not alone. As
ecotourism becomes one of the fastest growing segments of the travel
market, its paradoxes become more complex. Megan Epler Wood, president of
the International Ecotourism Society,
of Burlington, Vermont, and a 25-year Audubon member, answers these and
other travel questions.
Q: There's a boom in ecotravel and adventure travel. Should we visit wild places, or should we leave them alone?
A: There are fragile environments, such as areas of the Amazon, Alaska, or Siberia, that have never supported much human life and should be zoned for no visitation. But it's another story in places that are already inhabited. These areas are going to be developed one way or another. Americans need to understand that the world's population is increasing and that international environmental destruction is happening at an alarming rate. We can't tell local people that they can't profit from their own natural areas, and tourism presents a far nicer alternative than, say, logging or strip-mining.
Q: How is ecotourism the lesser of two evils?
A: Take the Amazon. Malaysian and other loggers are stripping extensive areas here, and most of the profits get shipped offshore. In several years the rainforest is going to be gone. What will the local people do then? Ecotourism presents a sustainable opportunity that also preserves the world the indigenous people live in now. Plus, when they are well managed, small ecotourism businesses can keep 50 to 60 percent of their profits in the country, as opposed to big international businesses, which often leave as little as 5 percent. Ecotravel companies should make contributions to conservation in the areas they visit. We did a survey of 15 of the largest tour operators and found that they had donated more than $1 million to local NGOs over the last decade. And many ecotourism companies encourage their guests to donate, too.
Q: By visiting, though, don't we risk "loving a place to death"? How do we prevent that?
A: That's up to us. Good companies will bring in only small groups, and they will manage them so as to have the least impact on the land. The International Ecotourism Society works with 1,700 members who are developing projects in more than 70 nations to try to educate them about responsible, low-impact ecotourism. We also work with governments to convince them of the importance of using funds earned from tourism for conservation.
Q: How do I know if an ecotourism company is a "good" company?
A: The best way to make a good decision is to ask the company a series of questions, many of which are listed on our web site (www.ecotourism.org/travelchoice). Ask the companies for their environmental policy; the good companies all have them. Find out who their partner is in the country you are traveling to and whether they use local, trained guides. Ask how much of your fee will stay in the country and if the outfitter donates any of that fee to local conservation organizations. If you are booking a hotel on your own, one of the most important questions you can ask is how the hotel or lodge disposes of its waste and sewage. I'm not kidding--this is one of the biggest problems we encounter, even in well-managed countries like Costa Rica. It might not be the most pleasant thing to ask, but if hotels start to realize that guests care about these things, they will be more responsible. Last, our definition of ecotourism implies that there are education and conservation components involved--that you are going to learn about the ecosystem you are visiting. This is what makes true ecotourism different from adventure travel.
Q: Is there any certification process or list of award-winning ecotourism companies or hotels?
A: There are two national certification groups: One of them operates in Australia, the other in Costa Rica, which is the only place that has been successful at implementing on-site inspections. Unfortunately, many of the awards that are handed out for "ecotourism" don't mean much, because there is usually no on-site inspection. Only one awards program I know of, the German To Do! award, actually sends judges into the field. It also gives feedback to the companies it inspects.
Q: When you are on a trip, what are some problems you should watch for, and is there any place to report back?
A: The most important aspect of an ecotrip is the local guide. Good companies train local guides, who then become ambassadors in their own communities. Guides should have a very good understanding of the ecosystem and know what will and won't harm it. The best companies have guidelines for how their visitors should interact with virtually every species they might encounter.
Birdwatching is a special concern these days, as so many birders forget that it is more important to protect the species than it is to get the bird on their lists. The general principle is not to disturb the animals in their natural habitat. Keep a healthy distance! The place you see the most difficult problem is in East Africa, where there is a very entrenched system of going after the Big Five mammals. Guides report back to each other by radio, and the next thing you know, a handful of trucks are circling around a lion and her cubs or chasing a cheetah as it is trying to hunt. What makes it worse is when clients tip guides to see specific animals.
If you do see a tour operator or a guide acting irresponsibly, write that country's ministry of tourism and ministry of the environment and tell the company's U.S. travel partner.
Q: What about the impact we have on local people?
A: We may feel guilty about visiting a place, but thousands of people are literally begging for ecotourism to come to their areas. The money that is generated goes a long way. More important is that once the people see how much we care about their place and how they can benefit from that, keeping it wild becomes more important to them as well. Every member of Audubon is an emissary for conservation.
Do and Don't
* Let the company you travel with know you care about the environment. The best way is to send it a personalized copy of "Five Questions From an Audubon Traveler."
* Ask your hotel or outfitter for a copy of its environmental policy; the best companies all have them. Your tour operator probably partners with a local outfitter, so ask for the partner's ethic as well. Many companies post their ecotravel policies on their web sites. To read the National Audubon Society travel ethic, click here.
* Make sure your tour operator or lodge uses trained local guides who can teach you about the environment.
* Find out what your operator or lodge is doing to help conserve the area you are visiting. For instance, find out what portion of your fee stays in the country and how many locals the company employs.
* Contribute to local conservation efforts, and find out how much your outfitter or hotel contributes as well.
* Ask how your lodge conserves natural resources. Be sure it disposes of sewage and other wastes responsibly, and recycles if possible.
* Respect local cultures and traditions and support local economies.
* Always believe "green" awards or labels--most citations are awarded on the basis of an application, with no on-site inspection.
* Travel with large groups or big tours or go to overcrowded areas in high season. You'll have a greater impact on the environment, plus you'll be less likely to see wildlife.
* Get too close to wildlife. Ask your guide about the appropriate distance to keep from the animals or birds you'll be seeing, and never tip a guide to get you closer.
* Take home wild "souvenirs." Transporting shells, leaves, or feathers is not only a good way to introduce exotic species, it's often illegal.
* Go off the trail or stray away from the guide. You may be stepping on delicate plants or destroying a turtle or salamander nest.
* Enter restricted areas or visit villages that have no exposure to the outside world. Don't enter homes, shrines, or sacred sites without getting permission first.
* Expect the same levels of comfort or security you would in the United States. Find out how rigorous the trip is before you leave and what, if any, precautions you should take to protect yourself and your valuables.
Some of the best models of ecotourism are recognized by the To Do! awards, presented by Germany's Institute for Tourism and Development, which goes on-site to inspect all finalists. The 1999 winners included:
* Prainha De Canto Verde, a fishing village in Brazil that warded off developers and gangs, set up regulations for sustainable fishing, and is using its reputation for its embroidery and a local fishing-boat regatta to draw tourists to small, locally owned guest houses.
* The regions near Lehm and Backsteinstrasse, a poor agricultural area in Germany, reinvented itself as a model for conservation by creating nature reserves, building a green-construction business, and turning farmhouses into inns.
* The Cultural Tourism Program of Tanzania, a project that enables Masai tribes to directly host and guide tourists, and to realize profits themselves rather than return them to foreign outfitters.