Tourism isn't Ecotourism in Asia

by Christina Gosnell, Jan 26, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Phuket

"Southeast Asia, with an abundance of natural resources, has under-exploited the potential of ecotourism," says Ross Dowling, an associate professor of tourism at Edith Cowan University in Australia. "Ecotourism is a niche within natural-resource-based tourism that focuses on education about the resources, environmental responsibility, and bringing financial benefits to local communities," he says.

Asia is a land of some of the most glorious natural resources on earth, but the tourist industry there invites visitors to come to their shopping malls. Asia is a land of mountains, of endless beaches, and marine areas comparable to none, yet visitors are invited instead to spend time in luxurious hotels and retreats. While early ecotourists may have participated in the conservation of the places they visited, today's traveler is more likely to visit national parks and other "protected" areas. Despite its attractive and good-meaning philosophy, ecotourism seems to be appropriated much in the same way as the word "environmentally-friendly" which we now see on just about every household product sold.

True enough, the word ecotourism in recent years has begun to roam the pages of travel brochures a little too freely. Ecotourism has become a "buzz" word for tour operators looking to cash in on the appeal of ecotourism. The word is used in promotional material and as a tool to attract travelers, but what does ecotourism really mean?

Since there's no global standard for use of the term, it means different things to different people. In fact, the concept itself is still evolving, especially in Asia. The Ecotourism Society, a non-profit organization established in Vermont in 1990, has defined ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." In the world of tourism, the concept of ecotourism is also known by other trendy names such as "nature travel", "green travel", "responsible travel'', ''low-impact travel'', ''village-based tourism" and "sustainable tourism." It's easy to see why no one quite knows how to define ecotourism and why the concept itself remains fairly enigmatic.

The core belief of ecotourism involves nature-sensitive travel that relates to ecological or environmental issues. This includes travel that allows people to participate in some effort to preserve the natural environment and interact with local people. And Asia has a true natural advantage over a lot of other travel destinations, yet the nation tends to overlook this advantage. "This region has a tendency to promote its big cities and shopping complexes, instead of its natural resources and indigenous cultures," says Lyn Hikida of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

In a report on culture and tourism in Southeast Asia, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) notes: "Tourism can be a positive and powerful tool to protect and sustain the cultural and natural resources on which the tourism industry itself is ultimately based, while simultaneously serving as a forceful agent for employment generation and poverty reduction in affected communities."

But why hasn't Asia jumped on the ecotourism bandwagon and promoted its best assets? In general, it's because there isn't a strong understanding of what ecotourism entails. While the term has been used to describe organized tours and other services to remote areas, many other elements of ecotourism have been ignored. Ecotourism is about nature-sensitive travel, but it's also about the local communities and their economic and employment gain.

But lack of understanding hasn't been the only obstacle for some Asian communities, transportation to these remote locations is another problem. These hard-to-reach spots aren't being visited because there aren't the infrastructure and transport facilities to support visitors. Not to mention the quality control issue that exists. Currently, there is no system that rewards tour operators who are environmentally and socially responsible and no labeling system that helps would-be travelers from choosing one place over another. Tourists are stuck not knowing what they're getting until they get there. Another dimension that further stalls the efforts of ecotourism, is that the local communities in these out of the way locations are often often indigenous tribes who are already under threat from the commercial activities such as logging to fuel the ambition of economic growth. "If left unchecked, tourism has the potential to destroy the very elements that created the industry," says the UNESCO regional advisor for culture.

There are many communities around the world, in under-developed regions, that have embraced tourism as a way to sustain themselves without destroying their forests, lakes, streams, mountains, or coral reefs. Tourism does bring wealth to the destination. Tourism brings cash to the community, and if it is properly managed it can help pay for the protection of parks, via entrance fees, and it can help support local people through simple homestays, locally owned lodges, or via tours with local guides.

One excellent example of both good and bad sustainable development is in Phuket, Thailand. Here, a property has been built on a disused tin mine. Laguna Phuket is a five-star, 1,100-room resort built on a 60 acre abandoned tin mine. The resort has its own waste water treatment plant, employs energy efficiency and heat reclamation techniques as well as adopting state of the art waste disposal and recycling programs. The property attracts a very upscale market, with most of the clientele coming from Asia and Europe. However, not so far from here, new resorts are being carelessly planned on neighboring empty beaches in their pristine state, and delicate ecosystems.

Ironically, ecotourism has really been its own enemy. While it has done a good job attracting interest to Asia, it has also attracted commercial interest and aided in the destruction of the local environment and culture. Some experts would argue that this contradiction isn't such a bad thing for Asia. After all, a good economy is a good economy if local communities can get a piece of the pie. But studies are showing that this isn't quite so. Even places like Thailand, one of Asia's premiere travel destinations, are beginning to see the slump.

The failure of the government to step in and help the bottom-line of the tourism industry has had something to do with the overall lack of commitment to ecotourism. This lack of commitment to protect forests, mountains, beaches and marine areas not only causes environmental problems, but it also undermines the industry it seeks to promote.

How can travelers make choices that benefit the grassroots? Selecting tours or hotels that are owned by local people is the most fundamental tool. Ask lots of questions when scheduling your trip. Find out who runs the company on the ground for your trip, and get more information about this company's practices. Ask if they hire and train local guides. Ask what hotels will be on your tour, and find out if they are locally owned. Your goal as a socially responsible traveler should be to ensure that the majority of the money you are paying is going to the local economy.