Increasing concern for the environment has led to a new way for people to experience the natural world. Ecotourism, also known as sustainable travel or green travel, is becoming one of the largest global industries.
That’s a good thing, right?
Not entirely, said Robin Andersen, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies.
Andersen is studying how ecotourism is promoted—especially with regard to conservation efforts, biodiversity and wildlife management. Eventually, she hopes to design informational materials that will increase tourists’ involvement in wildlife conservation efforts.
“Let’s figure out a way to change attitudes and behaviors so that tourists really want to preserve the environment or save animals,” Andersen said, “not just go and have a thrill ride into the animals’ habitats.”
Although ecotourism affords tourists the opportunity to travel to pristine and natural environments, and often encounter wildlife, it isn’t always socially and environmentally responsible.
“Most wildlife tourism is unregulated and unmonitored. Most tour operators are not wildlife or habitat specialists and most tourists don’t know the impact of their wildlife encounters,” Andersen said.
Take, for instance, an experience that allows travelers to swim with dolphins, an attraction that is popular at many vacation destinations around the world. Tourists are boated to an area of ocean where food is used to lure the marine mammals to the surface. This regular feeding by humans changes natural behaviors and leads to habituation, leaving the animals more vulnerable to other human activities such as fishing and boating.
Andersen also participated in an excursion in Cuba and found several issues: The animals were removed from their pods and placed in an open-sea facility.
“They’ve got the dolphins in this nice facility out in the ocean, but [tour operators]don’t give tourists any conservation information to help them understand the animals and their habitat, or the dangers posed to dolphins and turtles when they get caught by those huge factory trollers.”
Even if tour operators are well versed in the biology of a dolphin, language is often a barrier.
Moreover, on the excursion in which Andersen participated, roughly 14 tourists were interacting with two dolphins at any given time. The animals worked hard that day, often towing often two adults at a time.
There are several reasons tourism to wild places is growing in popularity. Humans are increasingly living in urbanized and non-natural settings. Factors such as increased airline routes, cheaper airfare and the popularity of nature and wildlife television shows are boosting people’s desire to encounter wild animals in their natural settings.
Through her research, Andersen developed models to describe why tourists seek such excursions.
In the “edutainment” model, tourists seek recreation, fun and entertainment with some information. In the extreme action model, they seek danger and an adrenaline rush at the expense of wildlife, such as alligator farms, or as in Baja California, from speeding past sea lion colonies in banana boats. There is also the snorkel/dive model and healing/therapy model, both of which could use animal encounters more effectively to inspire tourists to become more knowledgeable about animals and their habitats.
So are there any positive ecotourism models?
Andersen found excellent examples in Central America, such as the Community Baboon Sanctuary in Belize. There, wildlife is encountered in the context of conservation and community development. Also, education about the species and threats to the animals are conveyed to tourists. More importantly, the local community is involved, she said.
“A private conservationist came in and asked local farmers who were cutting down trees to leave some trees up so that howler monkeys have a habitat,” Andersen said. “It worked. So now the locals have created more sustainable agricultural practices, the howler monkeys have a habitat and tourists can come in and enjoy all of it while leaving it intact. Everyone wins. It’s a great “best practices” model.”
The popularity of ecotourism led to the creation of the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC), a coalition of 32 organizations that foster better understanding of sustainable tourism practices.
In 2008, GSTC devised criteria for what qualifies as responsible ecotourism: If a tourism locale or operator demonstrates effective sustainability planning; maximizes social and economic benefits for the local community; enhances cultural heritage; and reduces negative impact on the environment, it fits the bill.
Not so fast, according to Andersen.
“They completely left out almost anything having to do with wildlife,” said Andersen, who is drafting a report to GSTC. “Our work is cut out for us. It’s a wide- open field. It’s really great that they are trying to coordinate this globally, but they should include a component about wildlife.”