SOMEONE ELSE'S WINDOWS: Democratizing the ecotourism industry

Introduction

This article attempts to gather some insights on ecotourism, in particular the contentious issues that have cropped up in relation to theory and actual practice. It proceeds from the framework that ecotourism is one potential area of investment whose larger benefits should accrue to the local communities in that, in the final analysis, they absorb the direct weight of hosting an industry that may exact adverse, long-term social costs. As such, it takes a critical view of state- or corporate-run ecotourism ventures for the simple reason that they have, for the most part, failed to live up to expectations.

To be fair, it could be that the shortcomings have resulted from a lack of introspection on what ecotourism should be. Aside from the change in name there has been no significant departure from the practices of conventional tourism. Profit remains the main obsession of government and corporate investors in ecotourism. The problem, however, is not profit per se but the overwhelming tendency to maximize it to the detriment of an area's ecology and the welfare of local communities.

Local communities, on the other hand, bear the brunt of the negative impacts of ecotourism. Among these are environmental hazards and degradation, poorly implemented or nonexistent regulations, threats to indigenous cultures and displacement.

These realities spell doom for ecologically important areas which, ironically, ecotourism seeks to sustain, if not enhance. Hence, the need to implement community-based ecotourism, or a kind of ecotourism wherein the local community maintains full or major control over the project and the profits or benefits derived from it. The approach calls for community development and participation of the marginalized groups instead of regional or national development.

In a nutshell, therefore, ecotourism requires, at the minimum, [a] ecosystem conservation and [b] livelihood for local communities the sustainability of which rests on setting a balance between the two elements. Too much of conservation will deprive the people of sufficient economic benefits and force them to eventually use up the resource to make a living. Similarly, too much of livelihood will put a strain on the ecosystem and cause the disappearance of valuable species.

Problems with definition

Ecotourism is generally defined as a form of tourism that strives to minimize ecological or other damage to areas visited for their natural or cultural interest. It involves travel to destinations where biodiversity and cultural heritage are the primary attractions.

But while this definition sounds harmless the problem lies in the fact that different sectors have different interpretations on how it should be implemented. Environmentalists, corporations and governments view the same thing from divergent planes. The latter two simply append the prefix "eco" but continue doing activities that are environmentally destructive, economically exploitative, and culturally insensitive.

Some critics would call this "greenwashing", a trend towards the "commercialization of tourism schemes disguised as sustainable, nature based, and environmentally friendly ecotourism." This explains the emergence of such terms as nature tourism, low impact tourism, green tourism, bio-tourism, ecologically responsible tourism. These are used as marketing ploys for ventures that do not necessarily amount to ecotourism. If the erroneous labeling has achieved anything, it is the realization of profits by hoodwinking tourists into believing that they are patronizing things that benefit the environment.

In other words, nothing is basically new except for the admission that tourism is expected to result in some form of damage. And as the above definition suggests, damage is not only ecological. It could also be social and cultural (impact on local values and community life). What is new is that tourism has joined the environmental bandwagon by attaching the prefix "eco".

Responsible ecotourism

Responsible ecotourism includes programs that minimize the negative aspects of conventional tourism on the environment and enhance the cultural integrity of local people.

Ideally, it should satisfy several criteria, such as conservation of biodiversity and cultural diversity through ecosystem protection, sharing of socio-economic benefits with local communities, minimal impact on the environment, and local culture, flora and fauna as the main attractions.

Meeting these standards would contribute to conservation not just in the ecotourism sites but also in other areas, as well-meaning tourists or visitors would likely try to ingrain in their own places the good ideas they have learned from their visits.

Mitigating the impact of tourism

The solution is not to do away with ecotourism altogether but to implement controls and restrictions, among others, so as to at least mitigate its adverse effects. For a start, the following measures are suggested:

1. regulations and penalties for violations – e.g., waste disposal, number of visitors at a given time and space, checklist of prohibited acts (similar to those imposed in protected areas)
2. environmental awareness for visitors/tourists
3. enlisting local community support with clear, substantial benefits for them

Any program that does away with local people's support is doomed to fail especially if it displaces them, which is the usual case. Discontent cause by the absence of a quid pro quo beneficial to the people results in environmental degradation, as the lack of livelihoods will force them to deplete the resources. This phenomenon explains the continuing degradation of the uplands and other resource base areas.

Moreover, the presence of ecotourists may even lead to worse forms of exploitation. For example, in Siargao Islands, a protected landscape and seascape in Surigao del Norte, residents have resorted to hunting the endangered marine turtle for sale to Japanese tourists who believe that its meat is a source of aphrodisiac.

Benefits for local communities: how much for what?

There are various ways through which host communities may be benefited by ecotourism projects. The benefits could either be direct or indirect. In most cases, the local people are able to get some benefits through indirect means in the form of trickledown opportunities – employment as porters and guides, sale of homegrown products, and other attendant gains. In this kind of arrangement, however, the amount of benefits the communities would get highly depends on the concessions the ecotourism operators (government or private) are willing to give.

This happens since most ecotourism ventures are owned or controlled by foreign investors and corporations. Local communities get but a few benefits while the super-profits line the pockets of investors instead of going to the local economy or environmental protection. Given the nature of the market being catered to and the usual services rendered by the industry, it is only able to employ a few local people who receive low wages.

Hence the ideal setup is one that enables the communities to reap direct benefits. This requires allowing them to have a wider control over a project. Control in this sense means the power over planning, management and other aspects.

It should be stressed that benefits are not only economic in nature. These could also mean the intangibles such as promotion of people's culture or cultural significance of certain areas. Furthermore, allowing communities to manage ecotourism projects preempts conflicts over land use and profits and serve as incentive for local participation in biodiversity conservation.

On the other hand, the role of local governments in this setup is to provide technical and material assistance and come up with ordinances in support to ecotourism such as those pertaining to waste management, sanitation measures, zoning and the kind of infrastructures that may be allowed. (
H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno received in 1987 the Jose W. Diokno Award for winning in a national editorial writing contest sponsored by Ang Pahayagang Malaya and the family of the late senator.)

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