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Outrage: the ecotourism hoax

Ecotourism can do more harm than good, but rethinking profit-driven tourism helps fight the climate crisis

Maria smith eco tourism architectural review

Maria smith eco tourism architectural review

Source: Paulette Sinclair / Alamy

Trucks full of gawping and clicking ‘ecotourists’ converge on the banks of the Mara River in Tanzania to watch zebras and wildebeest in their native setting. The money from the tourists is supposedly destined to promote the conservation of the species, but self-interested business has muscled in, placing the wildlife at risk

Ecotourism is an oxymoron. Trying to fix environmental degradation with tourism is like trying to fix a black eye with a right hook. It’s a total farce, but also a helpful case study. Ecotourism is an illustration of the wider phenomenon facing climate action: the interests of economic development are all too often diametrically opposed to the interests of environmentalism. 

Ecotourism was defined in 1990 by the then newly founded International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people’. Sounds good. Grab your wellies, we’re walking into the woods to protect the wrens from Tibbles the cat. Or, grab your bikini, we’re flying to Barbados to sip cocktails through bamboo straws. Like everything else nurtured in the agar jelly of capitalism, noble intentions soon become corrupted and the ‘eco’ prefix amounts to little more than a greenwashing rebrand.

For the ecotourism movement to make a real difference to the communities and environments decimated by mass tourism, we’d need to replace traditional tourism with responsible ecotourism. But of course, we don’t see other forms of tourism shut down as ecotourism grows. We see the opposite: traditional tourism intensifying around the extremities of ecotourism sites. If you saw an influx of foreign visitors to an area near you and had the skills to exploit their eye-watering disposable income, you would, wouldn’t you?

Ecotourism is focused on having an amazing experience, as opposed to temporarily lifting any controls you usually place on your consumerist behaviour. You don’t buy tacky souvenirs, local fashion you’re never going to wear, or recklessly throw your towel on the floor to be washed after a single use. You pick up litter from beautiful sandy beaches, try your hand at local crafts, and eat vegan food cooked up from plants you’ve foraged yourself. But these experiences still rely on environmentally damaging activities, most obviously flying. Tourism has the same embodied carbon problem as architecture. When you include all the impacts – from greenhouse gases released high in the atmosphere to the lithium in the electric tuk-tuk – you’re left with an impact much more difficult to offset by planting a few seedlings. Indeed, much of ecotourism’s embodied carbon problem is embodied in its architecture. You could fly to the Arctic Circle to stay in a luxury eco-lodge suspended in the tree canopy of an ancient forest overlooking the ice sheets melting, but you can hardly boast the moral high ground for the privilege of doing so.

In fact, ecotourism reeks of colonialism. It’s the privilege of an elite few who can afford to adorn their Instagram accounts with views from secret coves accessible only by expertly piloted Polynesian outrigger canoes. Ecotourism exploits global wage discrepancies, supposedly in order to address discrepancies in environmental legislation. Meanwhile, infinitely larger forces are driving wage discrepancies by exploiting discrepancies in environmental legislation. At best, ecotourism is a pressure valve; at worst, it’s the sheep’s clothing for a very nasty wolf.

Ecotourism providers rely on the small, boutique, exclusivity of their offers to maintain that sense of ‘treading lightly’. As ecotourism scales up, it falls prey to the same problems as the mass tourism it seeks to counterpoint. ‘Minimised’ negative impacts multiply until they can no longer be considered negligible. Even those outfits that have managed to attain that regenerative holy grail at a small scale, too easily overwhelm and degenerate their host systems as they intensify.

As long as ecotourism is a vehicle for financial gain, it is almost impossible to resist the pressures to stimulate complementary economic growth, to welcome visitors no matter how they travel or in what carbon-intensive luxury they expect to be hosted, and to scale up and up until any hard-won equilibrium is left for dust. As long as the underlying principle behind tourism is to bring growth-stimulating inward investment, tourism cannot be made eco.

Unsustainable travel and land-use are key contributors to the current global COVID-19 pandemic, and fighting it has forced us to dramatically limit our travel. This has slashed tourism’s environmental and economic footprint and put up to 50 million jobs in the sector at risk. In the wake of the crisis, disaster capitalists will try to prioritise economic recovery over climate action. We saw this after the 2008 financial crash, when tourism was intensified to such an extent that intervention was required to combat damages wrought by overtourism. 

The pandemic and overtourism are symptoms of the same root problem: the pre-eminence of economic growth above all else. The worst thing we could do is not to learn from this. Could we choose not to build a carbon copy – pun intended – of our previous toxic industry but instead a new culture of responsible travel incentivised by environmental protection, mutual aid, and co-operation? Could ecotourism help treat the black eye, not just with a cold compress but by avoiding conflict in the first place?

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today