Treading lightly?: ecotourism’s impact on the environment

Treading lightly?: ecotourism’s impact on the environment – Cover Story

Martha S. Honey

Nestled in a national park on St. John in the U.S.-Virgin Islands, Maho Bay Camps, 114 platformed tents hidden in deep foliage, overlook the turquoise-blue bay. Three miles of winding wooden walkways, designed to protect the growth and minimize soil erosion, connect the tents to the beach. communal toilets, cold water showers, and the large, gazebo-shaped diningcum-meeting room. Maho Bay, the oldest, largest, and best-known property built and owned by New York developer Stanley Selengut, is one of the world’s most famous and financially successful ecotourism resorts. Built in the 1970s, more than a decade before ecotourism gelled as a concept, this site-sensitive construction was both the cheapest and the least controversial technique, given the land’s protected status. While the relatively rustic tents are billed as appealing to “vacationers of a Sierra Club bent,” Harmony Resort, Selengut’s “off the grid” condominium complex located just above the tents on the edge of the national park, has been ranked as the world’s top “ecosensitive honeymoon resort.”(1) These luxury villas are built almost entirely of recycled materials (although not from St. John): The roof shingles, for instance, are recycled cardboard and cement, the bathroom tiles are made from crushed light bulbs, and the decks are recycled newspapers. Each condo relies on solar and wind power, captured rainwater, and has a computer to monitor how much electricity and water guests use.

Today, the Maho Bay tented camp and Harmony condos have become among the most popular destinations for ecotourists from the United States. They operate at nearly 90 percent occupancy, yet Selengut boasts that he spends no money on advertising. Bookings come from repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals and from garnering more good media coverage and awards than any other ecotourism project. By 1993, the tented camp was taking in $3 million per year on an initial investment of $750,000. “It’s almost like stealing,” Selengut told Forbes magazine.(2)

Just a few islands away, in Cuba, a trickle of U.S. residents challenge the travel ban and stay at the state-of-theart Moka Ecolodge, adjacent to Las Terrazas, one of Cuba’s most successful post-revolutionary rural communities. Located in the lush tobacco and timber hills of Pinar del Rio province, Moka was the brain child of Osmany Cienfuegos, tourism minister, architect, and close confidant of Fidel Castro. In 1990, as the island’s economy plunged into its worst-ever economic crisis following the collapse of Cuba’s economic and political patron, the Soviet Union, Minister Cienfuegos conceived of the project as a way of providing a steady income for Las Terrazas in keeping with the community’s ecological and social goals. Las Terrazas, whose red-tile-roof apartments are built on terraces around an artificial lake, was founded in 1968 when approximately 70 scattered farm families, charcoal makers, and construction workers elected to move together to gain access to schools, health care, and other amenities. From its inception, Las Terrazas was an experiment in sound environmental and human management, and its progress has been carefully nurtured and monitored by government officials, sociologists, scientists, and environmentalists. Most of the adults in this 850-member village are involved in reforestation work in and around the Sierra del Rosario tropical mountain forest that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared a biosphere reserve in recognition of its unique ecosystem.

Like Maho Bay’s tented camp, Moka Ecolodge is connected to a national park and has a number of innovative and environmentally sensitire architectural features: No forest was cut or hillside razed in building the 26-room lodge; a small brook runs through the lobby; solar panels provide some of the electricity; and some of the food served was grown in hydroponic, organic gardens. In contrast with the privately owned Maho Bay, Moka Ecolodge was financed and built by the government and is owned and run by the local community, which is scheduled to repay the $6 million investment over a 15 to 20 year period. Ecotourism now provides employment for approximately 150 Las Terrazas residents, either in the lodge itself, as guides in the reserve, or in the several new community tourism projects, including a bakery, craft workshops, a coffee shop, and a small restaurant. Forty percent of the profits from the hotel go into a community development fund overseen by the neighborhood committee, and another 10 percent go directly to the community’s health clinic, which also grows and uses herbal medicines. In addition, 60 percent of the profits from the various community businesses go into the development fund. Ecotourism earnings also have helped finance Las Terrazas’ schools, daycare center, and a community-based radio project.(3)

Defining Ecotourism

Ecotourism is defined most succinctly by the Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” There are other variants of this popular definition. Mexican environmentalist Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, one of several people who claim to have first coined the term, describes ecotourism as “a mode of ecodevelopment that represents a practical and effective means of attaining social and economic improvement for all countries.” The definition used by the ecotourism program of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (or World Conservation Union) (IUCN) is “environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local populations.” In a similar vein, the Canadian Environmental Advisory Council states, “Ecotourism is an enlightening nature travel experience that contributes to conservation of the ecosystem, while respecting the integrity of host communities.”(4) Some analysts prefer “sustainable tourism” rather than ecotourism. In all these definitions, ecotourism (or sustainable tourism) is distinct from “nature,” “adventure,” “wildlife,” and virtually all other types of tourism because it focuses not simply on the type of leisure activity, but on tourism’s impact and the responsibilities of both the tourist and those in the tourism industry (such as tour operators or lodge owners).

Ecotourism is a multifaceted concept consisting of seven basic characteristics: traveling to natural destinations, usually national parks or other protected areas; minimizing impact through environmentally and culturally sensitive architecture and regulating the numbers and mode of behavior of tourists; promoting environmental awareness for both tourists and local residents through well-trained and knowledgeable guides; using some of the profits to provide direct financial benefits for environmental protection, research, and education; providing financial benefits and economic empowerment to the local people who live nearest to the ecotourism destination; respecting the local culture; and supporting human rights and democratic movements.

In sum, ecotourism is travel to fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas that strives to be low-impact and (usually) small-scale. It helps educate the traveler; provides funds for conservation; directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and fosters respect for different cultures and human rights.

Origins and Growth of Ecotourism

Today, ecotourism is hailed as the fastest-growing sector of the tourism industry. By the early 1990s, 20 years after its inception, the concept of ecotourism coalesced into the hottest new genre of travel. The historical roots of this phenomenon can be traced to four different sources: conservationists, multilateral aid institutions, developing countries, and the traveling public and the travel industry.

In the 1970s, the ecotourism concept emerged from conservationists in Latin America and Africa simultaneously, although for somewhat different reasons. In South America, scientists and environmental activists were alarmed at the rapid destruction of the world’s remaining tropical forests – vital reservoirs for both biodiversity and oxygen – and came to view ecotourism as a potential alternative to logging, oil drilling, mining, and other extractive industries. In East Africa, it evolved as an alternative to a failed protectionist philosophy of wildlife management based on separating local people from national parks. Amid rampant elephant and rhino poaching, some scientists and park officials began arguing that wildlife would survive only if those living on the parks’ borders had a financial stake in the parks, wildlife conservation, and tourism.

A cross-fertilization of these concepts quickly occurred, such that today ecotourism is a tool for benefiting both fragile ecosystems and local communities. In the 1980s, for instance, IUCN issued the World Conservation Strategy, which reflected the views of a growing number of organizations in stressing that protected-area management must be linked with the economic activities of local communities. In 1982, conservationists at IUCN’s World Congress on National Parks that met in Bali, Indonesia, endorsed this concept, arguing that conservation programs need to be communityfriendly and promote economic development. The congress called for increased educational programs, along with revenue- and management-sharing schemes. A decade later, IUCN’s Fourth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas, held in Caracas, Venezuela, expanded on these concepts, making a policy recommendation that “in developing greater cooperation between the tourism industry and protected areas, the primary consideration must be the conservation of the natural environment and the quality of life of local communities.”(5)

The origins of ecotourism can be traced, as well, to the growth of the environmental movement in the 1970s and a growing disenchantment with prepackaged “sun, sand, and sex” tourism at beach resorts and on cruise ships. Spurred by relatively affordable and plentiful airline flights, an increasing number of nature lovers began to seek serenity and pristine beauty overseas. At the same time, many developing countries began to view conventional tourism as a failed development strategy. Disturbed by the negative social and cultural spin-offs from mass tourism – currency black markets, drugs, prostitution, and AIDS, as well as the “leakage” of profits (estimated to range from 50 percent to 90 percent) back to developed countries – developing countries around the world began viewing ecotourism as a cleaner, greener alternative. As Third World debt mounted in the early 1980s, these countries also looked to ecotourism as a foreign exchange earner that was potentially less destructive, more long term and, in some instances, more profitable than economic alternatives such as logging, soil extraction, raising cattle or bananas, or commercial fishing. In South Africa, one study found that the net income from wildlife tourism was almost 11 times more than that from cattle ranching and job generation was 15 times greater. In Kenya, it is estimated that one lion is worth $7,000 per year in income from tourism, and an elephant herd is valued at $610,000 annually.(6)

Today, ecotourism, or at least a revamped version of nature and wildlife tourism, is the core of many developing countries’ national economic development strategies and conservation efforts. At international conferences and in environmental and travel literature, the choice of countries seems endless: Bolivia, Belize, Dominica, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan, Fiji, Indonesia, Senegal, Namibia, Madagascar, Uganda, and Zimbabwe are among the countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America now on the ecotourism bandwagon. In several countries, nature-based tourism mushroomed into the largest foreign exchange earner, surpassing bananas in Costa Rica, coffee in Tanzania and Kenya, and textiles and jewelry in India. South Africa’s national tourism board declared 1996 the year of “Going Wild” and the Mandela government launched a major international campaign to promote the country’s ecotourism attractions. In 1997, Brazil launched a $200 million program to develop ecotourism in its nine Amazonian states, and Latin American countries were reported to have invested $21 billion in ecotourism. In 1998, the World Tourism Organization predicted that developing countries would continue to gain from the tourism boom and that international travelers would remain “interested in visiting and maintaining environmentally sound destinations.”(7)

Major international conservation organizations, including IUCN, the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, Conservation International, Africa Wildlife Foundation, Sierra Club, and World Wildlife Foundation, have initiated ecotourism-linked departments, programs, studies, and field projects, and many are conducting nature tours, adventure tours, or ecotours for their members. International lending and aid agencies pump millions of dollars into projects with ecotourism components. The major travel industry organizations have set up programs, developed definitions and guidelines, and held dozens of conferences on ecotourism, and many of the leading corporate players have tried to “green” their operations. In the United States alone, there are scores of magazines, consultants, public relations firms, and university programs specializing in ecotourism. The Ecotourism Society (TES), a small, energetic nonprofit organization based in Vermont, includes among its 1,200 paid members travel industry representatives, government officials, academics, and consultants in more than 75 countries. There are, in addition, an increasing number of nationally based and regional ecotourism societies in countries and regions such as Australia, Zanzibar, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kenya, Brazil, Belize, and the Caribbean.(8)

Today, virtually every country in the world is marketing some brand of ecotourism. Tourism has become a big business: As a $4 trillion-plus annual industry, it is the world’s number one employer, and it vies with oil as the world’s largest legitimate business. If it were a country, it would have the second-largest economy, shadowed only by the United States. The world’s biggest generator and beneficiary of tourism is the United States, accounting for about 15 percent of total spending, but tourism plays a major role in the economies of 125 of the world’s 170-plus countries.(9)

Estimates concerning ecotourism vary depending on the definition used and whether it is lumped with or viewed as distinct from nature, wildlife, adventure, and cultural tourism. A 1994 study found that 77 percent of North American consumers had taken a vacation involving nature, outdoor adventure, or learning about another culture. Over the last decade, ecotourism earnings have soared as well, although estimates vary widely. A 1989 approximation put the annual amount earned by developing countries at $2 billion to $12 billion, and subsequent estimates have been as high as $30 billion per year.(10) Estimates of ecotourism’s annual growth in demand range from 10 to 30 percent, and the Ecotourism Society projects that “no drop off [is] foreseen as we head into the 21st century.”(11)

Sound Ecotourism vs. Ecotourism “Lite”

Throughout much of the 1990s, ecotourism has been trumpeted as a way to provide resources to help protect wildlife and fragile ecosystems, a development tool for rural communities living around parks and other protected areas, and a greener, cleaner alternative to the ills of conventional mass tourism. In reality, the picture is more complex. For instance, held up to this multilayered definition of real ecotourism, the two Caribbean resorts Maho and Moka show both strengths and shortcomings. While Maho Bay has helped to popularize the concept of ecotourism and is creatively pushing the perimeters of ecolodge design, it has paid little heed to other ecotourism principles involving the local community, conservation, and tourist education. Maho Bay employs few West Indians (most of the staff are young, single North Americans working for low wages in exchange for a stint in the tropics), does not promote local crafts in either its decor or gift shop, and has done little for the island in terms of financial contributions to environmental or social welfare projects. “These are green lodges, not real ecotourism,” comments Joshua Reichert, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ environmental program, who attended an ecotourism workshop at Maho Bay.(12)

Moka Ecolodge, in contrast, is clearly providing jobs and badly needed income to the local community of Las Terrazas and is generating additional resources to help protect the nearby biosphere. This state-financed lodge is too costly and cumbersome, however, to be easily replicated elsewhere on the island, and so far there has been scant foreign investment in Cuba’s ecotourism sector. Foreign investment, generally in the form of joint ventures with Cuban government agencies, is funneled into large-scale beach and urban tourism projects. Most of the island’s international ecotourism attractions are refurbished and upgraded small hotels, spas, cabins, chalets, and campgrounds used for domestic tourism before the economic crisis of the 1990s. Government financing for these projects has been limited, state-run tourism agencies have not effectively marketed the Moka Ecolodge and Cuba’s ecotourism offerings overseas, and prepaid package tours remain the norm, making it difficult and expensive for ecotourists not in groups to plan their own itineraries.

Most importantly, however, visiting Moka presents a tough political choice for U.S. residents. The most serious impediment to the success of Moka and Cuba’s other ecotourism projects, contends Tourism Minister Osmany Cienfuegos, is the U.S. embargo that has been in place for nearly four decades and carries the penalty (never fully enforced) of large fines and up to 10 years in prison for unauthorized visits to the island. “If the blockade were lifted, ecotourism would jump dramatically with the influx of North American tourists,” Cienfuegos contends.(13) In pre-revolutionary Cuba, 95 percent of the tourists came from the United States; today, as the rest of the world does business with Cuba and tourist arrivals have tripled this decade, only a few thousand U.S. travelers brave the embargo or succeed in getting special U.S. Treasury Department licenses allowing educational or humanitarian visits to the island. A growing numbers of U.S. citizens are concluding that contact, not isolation, is most likely to strengthen the democratic forces within the island.

While, like Maho and Moka, many projects around the world may be missing a few of the pillars of sound ecotourism, others amount to little more than green packaging or labeling of conventional or mass tourism. In Costa Rica, Papagayo, a $3 billion mega-resort project that will include shopping centers, two golf courses, and a polo field – is officially called an “ecodevelopment.” “Everyone calls themselves ‘ecodevelopments,’ but Papagayo is a city,” retorts Costa Rican environmental activist Leon Gonzales.(14) Along Mozambique’s southern coast next to South Africa, a U.S. developer is building “an $800 million ecotourism paradise” including a floating casino, a golf course with hippos in the water hazards, Club Med-style hotels, and imported wild game and San (popularly but derogatorily referred to as Bushmen) from the Kalahari Desert as additional “tourist attractions,” while 10,000 local subsistence farmers and fishermen are to be moved out. Marketed as a “beast and beach” holiday package, the project’s wildlife reintroduction plan “reads like a cargo manifest for Noah’s Ark,” according to the New York Times.(15) In Nepal, tourists can avoid climbing the mountainous terrain via what is marketed as “ecotourism of the future” – helicopter treks to the summits of various mountains.(16) Even Wait Disney is capitalizing on the traveling public’s desire to “go green” with an ecotourism-type theme park, Animal Kingdom, which has transformed a central Florida cow pasture into an African savanna. Now the public can “go on safari” without leaving the shores of the United States.(17)

Much of what the big players in the tourism industry sell as green tourism is known as “ecotourism lite” – minor environmentally friendly, cost-saving measures (such as not washing sheets and towels each day) or “add-ons” (a half-day hike into a rainforest or bird watching, for instance) to conventional vacations. Mainstream ecotourism, or ecotourism lite, is often described with catchy phrases such as “treading lightly on the earth” and “taking only photos, leaving only footprints,” and its advertisements and brochures contain buzzwords such as quiet, pure, lush, unspoiled, bio- and, of course, eco- and green. In the mid-1990s, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), whose members include the directors of airlines, hotel chains, cruise lines, and major tour agencies, launched its “Green Globe” logo program designed to promote companies “committed to environmental improvement.” As originally outlined by WTTC president Geoffrey Lipman, for as little as $200 a travel and tourism company could purchase the right to use the Green Globe logo in all its literature, giving the impression it was “going green.” However, there was no oversight to ensure the company had instituted environmentally sound practices.(18)

While big players in the industry try to package themselves as green, on-the-ground ecotourism frequently involves conflicting control of natural resources and tourism dollars, struggles over local versus international ownership, and public policy versus private enterprise debates. However, the most contentious and overlooked part of the ecotourism equation is typically involving, benefiting, and respecting the rights and culture of the local communities.

Lessons from Kenya and Tanzania

East Africa is renowned as the home of both mankind’s earliest ancestors and some of the world’s finest wildlife game parks. It is also one of the places where the concept of ecotourism first evolved. Kenya, in particular, was the site of the continent’s earliest government experiments with applying ecotourism principles to several national parks and reserves. Today, virtually every country in East and southern Africa is aggressively competing in nature tourism and ecotourism, and tourism has surpassed coffee as the number one foreign exchange earner in both Kenya and Tanzania. In many ways, East Africa serves as both a beacon light and a warning light for community-sensitive ecotourism policy and practices.

Under colonialism, Africa’s national parks were originally created as exclusive domains for white hunters, scientists, and tourists. Hundreds of thousands of rural poor were forcibly moved (some chiefs were tricked with phony “treaties”) and relocated to the parks’ perimeters. The colonial philosophy, initially adopted by post-colonial governments, was that wildlife had to be protected from the local Africans with fences, fines, and firepower. In fact, pastoralists such as the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania had evolved elaborate systems for living in harmony with wildlife; it was only with the arrival of European hunters and settlers that the rapid extermination of African game began. Despite this reality, colonial park policy typically barred Africans from hunting (or even having a gun), collecting grasses, firewood, or water, or visiting sacred and burial sites inside national parks. Those living on the parks’ peripheries received little or no benefit from the parks, wildlife, or tourism.

Resentment grew, as did resistance borne of necessity, including illegal hunting, fires, grazing, and collection of firewood inside the parks and reserves. Despite the escalating military tactics by park guards – endorsed and sometimes financed by international conservation organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature – poaching within parks of elephant, rhino, and other wildlife soared sharply in Kenya and Tanzania during the 1970s. Faced with this growing clash between people and parks, scientists, park officials, and environmental organizations began to rethink the protectionist conservationist model and to argue that threatened species and ecosystems would survive only if those people living nearest them benefited financially from both the parks and tourism. Thus, the origins of ecotourism can be traced, in part, to East Africa, where in the late 1960s and 1970s conservationists began to posit a “stakeholders” theory of conservation: that those living on their perimeter should receive direct benefits from wildlife and tourism. As scientist David Western, the on-again, off-again director of Kenya Wildlife Service and the first president of the Ecotourism Society, writes,

Conscientious concerns for nature were soon extended to local (usually indigenous) peoples. Implicit in the term [ecotourism] is the assumption that local communities living with nature can and should benefit from tourism and will save nature in the process.(19)

It was in Kenya that Africa’s first official experiments with this new approach began. The imperative to find a balance between people and parks had been great in Kenya because nearly all of its 50-plus national parks and reserves are small, incomplete ecosystems. Up to 75 percent of the wildlife either live in or migrate into the surrounding buffer zones where they destroy crops, harm livestock, and on occasion, kill people. In 1961, at the time of independence, Kenya’s new government agreed to put two of the most popular tourist destinations, Maasai Mara and Amboseli game reserves, under the control of local county councils, which subsequently began receiving revenue from both park entrance fees and hotel and other tourism facilities inside these reserves.

Over the decades, both reserves have gone through bureaucratic permutations and a variety of experiments with community-run tourism projects and revenue-sharing schemes. These pioneering ecotourism experiments meant that sizable numbers of Maasai pastoralists living around the Mara and Amboseli received employment as hotel staff, drivers, guides, and park guards and rangers and that entrance fee revenues and a percentage of hotel profits supported local community projects. While poaching continued elsewhere – between 1975 and 1990 Kenya’s elephant population dropped 85 percent and rhinoceroses by 97 percent – poaching was stabilized around Amboseli and Maasai Mara.

However, despite high income from tourism and low incidence of poaching, these two experimental parks are in trouble. The distribution of tourism profits has long been plagued with corruption and cronyism, enriching a handful of powerful politicians and businessmen. “The issues have always centered around money, and how the money is spent,” commented one Maasai dissident. Today, few community projects are visible: The roads are in terrible disrepair and conditions in these most popular reserves are degraded by overcrowding and overdevelopment.(20) These problems have been compounded by an overall decline in tourist numbers to Kenya, due to political instability, massive rains, and the country’s declining international reputation.

The deterioration of Kenya’s premier national parks and reserves has led to the rapid increase of private wildlife ranches. Most ranches are owned by white settler families who market an elegant but colonialist “Out of Africa” experience under the banner of ecotourism, catering to a very upscale international clientele. They have fenced off their estates to make wildlife parks: Some are involved in breeding endangered species such as the black rhinoceros or Rothchild’s giraffe, others care for orphaned or wounded animals, and still others offer specialties such as bird watching or fishing. Many of these ranch owners are active in the Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK), the continent’s first such organization intended to set standards and promote ecotourism principles and practices.

Much of this is ecotourism lite, however: These ranches have carefully cultivated relations with powerful politicians and international conservation organizations, the travel press, and film makers, and are doing little revenue sharing with either local communities or Kenya’s national treasury. According to environmental consultant Robert Hall,

These owners cry about their huge expenses to maintain their fences and protect their pet rhinos but the truth is more complex. These guys have their own air strips, and no one, and I mean no one, knows how many people come and go during a year. Their charges are generally at least $250 to $600 per person per night. And what does the Treasury receive? Nada.(21)

Many of these settler farms have expanded into wildlife conservation and tourism in hopes of preserving and protecting their sizable tracks of land from government or squatter takeovers. Fundamentally, these private reserves are an attempt to maintain family wealth and a lifestyle from a bygone era “under the guise of conservation and ecotourism,” says Maasai activist Meitamei Ole Dapash.(22)

Neighboring Tanzania is also the site of a number of government and private ecotourism experiments. Unlike Kenya, which after independence adopted a free-wheeling style of capitalism, Tanzania (including the island of Zanzibar) pursued a policy of nonaligned socialism with the government running or heavily regulating much of the economy, including the tourism sector. Tanzania had a very small settler class, most of whom left during the socialist era, so that today there are only a small handful of private game ranches and wildlife reserves. Instead, the country’s wildlife tourism has always centered on its large number of outstanding national parks, most – including the world famous Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Mt. Kilimanjaro – based in the northern part of the country. During the 1960s and 1970s, the government built a string of architecturally beautiful lodges, but Tanzania’s state-run tourism was sluggish, inefficient, expensive, and poorly marketed, making tourism a minor foreign exchange earner. After 1977, Tanzania’s tourism industry nearly died completely when, in a political dispute, the government closed its road and air links with Kenya, thus preventing international safaris originating in Nairobi from entering Tanzania.

For a combination of reasons, Tanzania’s wildlife-viewing tourism began to turn around in the mid- to late-1980s, with much of it recast as ecotourism. The border reopened in 1984 with the sensible proviso that only Tanzanian tour operators be permitted inside the national parks. Under pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tanzania adopted major economic liberalizations, including denationalizing its tourism sector and opening it to foreign investment. In compliance with the World Bank and IMF, Tanzania enacted a new investment code offering foreign capital broad incentives and declaring tourism a “high priority” area for foreign investors. By the mid-1990s, Tanzania had attracted what then director of tourism Hassan Kibelloh described as a “mixed grill of investors” whose projects ran the gamut from city hotels and beach-front resorts to the refurbishing and upgrading of existing government and private game lodges, construction of new luxury lodges and tented camps in the parks, and a handful of more modest, innovative community- and ecologically sensitive projects. By the mid-1990s, Tanzania was experiencing a tourist boom and tourism had become the country’s number one foreign exchange earner.

As in Kenya, escalating poaching forced Tanzanian parks officials and conservationists to rethink its police-like approach to the Maasai and the other people living around the parks. In 1989, the Tanzania National Parks Service (TANAPA) set up the Community Conservation Service (CCS), which invests a modest percentage of gate entrance fees (under 10 percent) in small-scale development projects such as cattle dips, primary school classrooms, dispensaries, and safe water systems. Under the slogan “Ujirani mwema” (“Good neighbors”), TANAPA (with help from nongovernmental organizations, overseas aid agencies, and some private tourism projects) supplies the expertise and some funds, while the villagers choose the project and supply the labor. In addition, a greater percentage of gate revenue now goes directly to support the particular park, in contrast to the past practice of sending park revenue to the central government, from which a tiny percentage was eventually redistributed back to the park.

In a parallel but more controversial initiative, the Tanzania Wildlife Division has been developing a community wildlife management program aimed at helping rural villages derive benefits by conducting hunting safaris and hunting for their own consumption. (Commercial hunting is banned in Kenya, but not in Tanzania or elsewhere in Africa.) In 1988, German aid and technical advice helped establish the first experimental project in the Selous, an enormous and rugged game reserve in southern Tanzania. By 1993, 31 villages were involved in the project and receiving both employment and revenue from development projects. Like a similar project known as CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe, Tanzania’s community-based sport hunting presents an ultimate paradox for ecotourism: While reprehensible to most wildlife lovers and ecotourism enthusiasts, hunting safaris can be lucrative – a hunter in Tanzania is estimated to spend 50 to 100 times more than a wildlife viewing tourist – as well as lower impact – hunters usually travel on foot, carry their supplies, and pitch tents, in sharp contrast to the hoards of minivans and luxury lodges that accommodate photo safaris. Further, because hunters often go to inaccessible areas unsuited for camera safaris, they can also help prevent poaching by providing both on-the-ground surveillance and alternative revenue to remote villages. Although the arguments for commercial hunting are impressive, they presume that the system functions well, and in Tanzania this has not been the case. For decades, Tanzania’s commercial hunting has been infected with corruption, mismanagement, and excessive, inappropriate kills.(23)

While the community projects of TANAPA – and to a lesser extent, the Tanzania Wildlife Division – mark a significant step towards instituting sound ecotourism principles as part of government policy, there are drawbacks: TANAPA and Wildlife Division officials complain they lack expertise in community development and are fulfilling functions that should be the responsibility of other ministries in the central government. Further, given the enormity of the need and decades of broken promises with the rural communities, resentment and tensions have continued. While TANAPA and nongovernmental organization officials often talk of CCS as a brave new “partnership,” it’s more like a tug of war between mistrusting parties. Tribal elder, writer, and activist Tipilit Ole Saitoti says bitterly that the Maasai have “virtually been reduced to museum pieces whose sole function is to showcase their art and culture for the benefit of the tourism and conservation industry.” A Maasai organization, for instance, points out that it recorded 20 hours of videotape in five Ngorongoro area villages in which people voiced “the depth of [their] mistrust, disappointment, and anger.”(24)

The private sector, which has mushroomed in recent years, has also contributed to the misunderstanding and exploitation. One of the recurring community demands is for employment but, incredibly, none of the hotels at Ngorongoro Crater or in the Serengeti employed any Maasai staff as late as the mid-1990s. During this decade, new hotel construction has doubled the bed occupancy inside these two conservation areas, raising an array of concerns about the way contracts were awarded and the environmental impact of the hotels on wildlife and the Maasai. Two new, foreign-owned luxury lodges that received financing from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) were built on the rim of the crater next to water sources used by the Maasai, ignoring the objections of both the community and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area board. Serena Lodge is owned by the Aga Khan, one of the world’s richest men, who, according to African Business magazine, has “taken on environmental protection as a personal crusade,” insisting that the lodge “causes the minimum . . . disruption to human, animal, and environmental needs.”(25) IFC documents assert the project is providing money for conservation and “promot[ing] the welfare of the local communities.” However, the Maasai organization KIPOC disagrees, contending that Serena Lodge was built on land belonging to a local village that is vital for their cattle and without consulting them.(26)

In contrast, in Tanzania there are a handful of exemplary, private-sector ecotourism projects that have worked hard to benefit from and build good relations with local Maasai communities. One is Oliver’s Camp, a dozen-odd low-impact, green-canvas tents under a spread of acacia trees on the edge of Tarangire National Park. Jim Howitt, one of the camp’s two British owners, says he and his partner, Paul Oliver, set out to promote community conservation and “a business with morals.” The land was a patchwork of wildlife migration routes, government-sanctioned hunting blocks, cattle grazing land, and farms established by newer migrants. Howitt and Oliver spent more than a year negotiating with two Maasai villages to lease the land for camera safaris. The younger Maasai wanted to sell or farm the land, but the village elders and women opted for conservation and ecotourism and their views eventually prevailed. In signed agreements, Oliver’s Camp agreed to pay the two villages $12 per night for each overseas tourist, plus an annual rent for use of the land for camera safaris. The Maasai agreed not to farm, cut trees, hunt, or graze their cattle on the land except in times of real need. Under the terms of the agreement, the funds are split evenly between the two villages, projects are voted on at public meetings open to all villagers, a four-person council in each village handles the accounts, and Oliver’s Camp regularly posts in the two villages all their payments and how much has been spent for various projects, including classroom repairs, school furniture, teachers’ housing, boreholes, and a cattle dip. In addition, Oliver’s Camp helps support national park conservation by paying $20 per person per day to TANAPA for rights to pass through and use Tarangire National Park.(27)

In looking at the ecotourism scorecard for Tanzania and Kenya, a number of lessons can be drawn. Both these East African countries have been trailblazers in government-sponsored ecotourism experiments within their national park systems. Here, unlike many other places in the world, ecotourism has begun to move beyond the confines of individual projects and infuse with the broader tourism industry and government policies. The decision of these countries to use a portion of park revenues for community projects and to try to build better relationships with the rural poor surrounding the parks offers an important example for other countries. But these programs by the Kenya Wildlife Service and TANAPA have been relatively small and plagued by bureaucratic bottlenecks, inflated objectives, and poor planning. In addition, the corruption that is rampant in both countries, political unrest and rising crime in Kenya, and the horrific August 1998 terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in both capitals, have undermined their tourism industries and ecotourism experiments.

While state-run tourism in socialist Tanzania (as in Cuba and elsewhere) lacks the flexibility, drive, and competitive spirit needed for the international market, unregulated free trade by the private sector also is incapable of delivering sound ecotourism. For ecotourism to move beyond a few good projects or even a few game parks, the government needs to place ecotourism within its overall development strategy: to set standards and monitor ecotourism projects, both government and private: and to carefully delineate which functions it should perform. These include external marketing, infrastructure development, taxation and redistribution of tourism profits, setting environmental protection standards and carrying out environmental impact studies, and helping to implement the principles and practices of sound ecotourism, including giving preference to local and community-based projects over foreign-owned ones and insuring that the private sector contributes to both community development and conservation protection, especially protection of the national park systems.

The Future of Ecotourism

Some experts have pronounced ecotourism dead. passe, or hopelessly diluted. However, amid the superficiality, hype, and marketing, there are excellent examples around the world of dedicated people, vibrant grassroots movements and struggles, and much creativity and experimentation. Although real ecotourism is indeed rare and usually imperfect, it is still in its infancy, not on its deathbed. Ecotourism has succeeded in fulfilling some of its stated goals: Most ecotours are educational for the tourist and many ecotourism projects are lower impact than conventional tours and are providing expanded benefits for conservation and environmental protection. The long-term challenge is to find ways to maintain the rigor and multidimensional qualities of genuine ecotourism while widening it beyond individual projects and making it integral to the concept of tourism in general.

The path toward a more planet-friendly tourism is paved with pitfalls. At present, ecotourism is a set of interconnected principles whose full implementation presents multilayered problems and challenges. Among the most pressing and only partially analyzed issues are: how to make poor, rural communities equitable stakeholders in parks and ecotourism; how to ensure, in this era of free trade and economic globalization, that locally owned enterprises and national capital can compete with strong foreign companies; how to balance a developing country’s need to earn more foreign exchange by increasing tourism numbers with the need of fragile ecosystems for low-impact, small-scale tourism; how to allow, as ecotourism implies, exploration of pristine and uncharted areas of the Earth that are often home to isolated and fragile civilizations; and how to set up independent and competent mechanisms for monitoring, evaluating, and setting standards throughout the ecotourism chain.

As the millennium draws to a close, ecotourism has opened a bold new direction in how to explore the world. Whether ecotourism matures into adulthood, gains permanence, and becomes the predominant way we travel and interact with our physical and cultural environment in the 21st century depends on myriad factors. One step toward ensuring ecotourism’s survival is helping to build a more discriminating and informed traveling public. The good news is that today’s socially conscientious traveler can, with a bit of research and advance planning, find excellent ecotourism projects in nearly every corner of the world. Despite the constraints, there are growing numbers of travelers walking the path of socially responsible and environmentally respectful tourism.


1. “Clipboard,” Travel Weekly, 6 June 1994.

2. S. Oliver, “Eco-profitable,” Forbes 153, no. 13 (1994).

3. Osmany Cienfuegos, tourism minister, as well as local villagers, interviews with the author, Moka Ecolodge, Cuba, 1994; and Karen Wald, Cuban-based American journalist, letter to the author.

4. The Ecotourism Society, “Uniting Conservation & Travel Worldwide” (North Bennington, Vt.: TES, 1992); K. Brandon, Ecotourism and Conservation: A Review of Key Issues, Environment Department paper no. 033 (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, April 1996), 1; H. Ceballos-Lascurain, Tourism, Ecotourism, and Protected Areas (Gland, Switzerland: International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 1996), 20; and P. A. Wight, “North American Ecotourists: Market Profile and Trip Characteristics,” (1996), on the Ecotourism Society’s website (

5. Brandon, note 4 above; and Ceballos-Lascurain, note 4 above.

6. D. Grossman and E. Koch, Ecotourism Report: Nature Tourism in South Africa: Links with the Reconstruction and Development Program (Pretoria, South Africa: South African Tourism Agency, 1995); and D. Nicholson-Lord, “The Politics of Travel: Is Tourism Just Colonialism in Another Guise?” The Nation, 6 October 1997.

7. R. Jaura, “Tourism: Developing Nations Expect Big Cut from Tourist Income,” Inter-Press Service, 11 March 1998.

8. Megan Epler Wood, executive director of the Ecotourism Society, interviews with the author, Montreal, Washington, D.C., and St. John, 1998.

9. Nicholson-Lord, note 6 above, page 14; Ceballos- Lascurain, note 4 above, page 9; and B. Crossette, “Surprises in the Global Tourism Boom,” New York Times, 12 April 1998.

10. K. Ziffer, Ecotourism: The Uneasy Alliance (Washington, D.C.: Conservation International and Ernst & Young, 1989), 9; and World Resources Institute, “Ecotourism: Rising Interest in Nature Vacations Has Mixed Results for Host Countries and the Resources They Promote,” in Environmental Almanac (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 149.

11. The Ecotourism Society, “TES Ecotourism Statistical Fact Sheet,” found at the Ecotourism Society’s website (, accessed February 1997.

12. Joshua Reichert and Stanley Selengut, interviews with the author, Maho Bay, 1998.

13. Osmany Cienfuegos, tourism minister, interviews with the author, Moka Ecolodge, Cuba, 1994.

14. J. Brown, “Officials, Tourism Leaders Dispute Papagayo Project,” The Tico Times, 21 January 1994, 13.

15. D. McNeil, “Maputo Elephant Reserve Journal: Thinking Big ($800 Million) to Rescue Big Game,” New York Times, 7 March 1996.

16. I. Muqbil, “German Tourism Activist Sounds Warning on Bogus ‘Ecotourism,'” Bangkok Post, 7 April 1994, tourism supplement page 3.

17. M. Navarro, “New Disney Kingdom Comes with Real-Life Obstacles,” New York Times, 16 April 1998; and J. Nordheimer, “Disney Goes Live with Its Newest Park,” New York Times, 26 April 1998, 8-9, 25.

18. Geoffrey Lipman, president of World Travel and Tourism Council, interview with the author, Montreal, September 1994.

19. D. Western, “Ecotourism: The Kenya Challenge,” in C. G. Gakahu and B. E. Goode, Ecotourism and Sustainable Development in Kenya, Proceedings of the Kenya Ecotourism Workshop, Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, 13-17 September 1992 (Nairobi: Wildlife Conservation International, 1992), 15

20. Among the numerous publications on Kenya’s parks and tourism are R. Bonner, At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); Gakahu and Goode, note 19 above; C. G. Gakahu, ed., “Tourist Attitudes and Use Impacts in Maasai Mara National Reserve,” Proceedings of Wildlife Conservation International Workshop (Nairobi: English Press, 1992); and P. Olindo, “The Old Man of Nature Tourism: Kenya,” in T. Whelan, ed., Nature Tourism: Managing for the Environment (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1991).

21. Robert Hall, interviews with the author, June 1998.

22. Meitamei Ole Dapash, activist, interviews with the author, Washington, D.C., 1997, 1998. Publications include C. Alderman, “The Economics and the Role of Privately Owned Lands Used for Nature Tourism, Education, and Conservation” (paper presented at the Fourth World Congress of National Parks and Protected Areas, Caracas, Venezuela, February 1992).

23. Based on author’s research and interviews in Tanzania in July 1995, as well as her experiences and recollections from living there for a decade (1973-83). In addition to articles from Tanzanian newspapers and magazines, publications on Tanzania’s parks and tourism policies are: Bonner, note 20 above; International Institute for Environment and Development, Whose Eden? An Overview of Community Approaches to Wildlife Management (London: Overseas Development Administration. 1994); R. Neumann, “Local Challenges to Global Agendas: Conservation, Economic Liberalization, and the Pastoralists’ Rights Movement in Tanzania,” Antipode 27, no. 4 (1995); and A. Kiss, ed., Living with Wildlife: Wildlife Resource Management with Local Participation in Africa, World Bank Technical Paper No. 130 (Washington, D.C., 1993).

24. “Tanzanian Wildlife Conservation Project Threatens Local Community,” EcoNewsAfrica 5, no. 1 (1996).

25. A. Versi, “Dawn of a New Age?” African Business, November 1994, 40-41.

26. International Finance Corporation officials, interviews with the author, 1995-98; and Neumann, note 23 above.

27. Jim Howitt, Oliver’s Camp director, interviews with the author, July 1995.

Martha S. Honey is director of the Peace and Security Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Her latest book is Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999). She may be reached at the Institute for Policy Studies, 733 15th Street, NW, Suite 1020, Washington, D.C. 20005 (telephone: (202) 234-9382; e-mail:

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