Eco-tourism?

  • Posted in Default
  • By admin
  • Date January 26th, 2011 18:13
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  • Growing up, several of my friends had modest summer cabins on lakes nearby our hometown. Every year, when summer finally came around, friends would invite me to join them for 'clean-up' weekends. The goal of these 3-day trips was to make these summer abodes 'livable' for the summer months. After seasons of neglect, lawns were wildly overgrown, taken over by weeds and seeding grasses. Swimming areas were plagued by seaweed, frogs, fish, and bugs. We'd spend the weekend hacking away weeds and trees, ripping out seaweed, and burning winter deadfall. Over the summer, frogs, turtles, ducks, and fish would gradually meander away as our foothold on the property became more physically defined.

    At the time, I was too young to understand the obvious negative impact we had on the natural surroundings. This system was kept in balance thanks to our departure each fall. Once humans disappeared, nature's ability to adapt and change took over again and regenerated for the next summer.

    Since moving to Asia, I have taken several 'eco-tours', mostly to escape Shanghai's urbanity, though also to study what has become a growing fad cropping up throughout the region. Certainly, not traveling uses less energy, and produces less waste, but the idea of using tourism to remediate our environments is a very intriguing (and I believe possible) concept. This is the goal - positive impact.

    I visited Siem Reap in 2008, just shy of 10 years after Pol Pot's death and the huge launch of tourism in Cambodia. Certainly tourism has brought revenue to Cambodia and breathed life into other burgeoning industries, though not without costs. The infrastructure of the cities couldn't keep pace with the hundreds of thousands of annual tourists and the destructive impacts of visitors is palpable. The murky Siem Reap River smelled equally suspect, ancient temples showed immense distress and wear - physical threats to the very economy that has improved the living standard for many Cambodians (admittedly, this also comes with significant ecological consequences - increased revenue has created a market for consumer products. Enter cheap plastic goods, stage left.).

    A similar fate threatens Luang Prabang, Laos. Lacking a municipal sewer system, waste water (even from eco-retreats) is dumped directly into the Mekong River - the vein that supports a massive percentage of Southeast Asia. As tourists continue to flock to Laos, the limits of this natural system are put to the test.

    Ecological preservation and restoration initiatives typically require a certain proximity to see, understand, and respond. Logically, it is this very proximity that often leads to problems in the first place, though not in all cases. The best example of ecological tourism I've seen is the Gibbon Experience, located deep in the Bokeo forest in northwest Laos. The NGO project supports forest conservation and rehabilitation. The experience creates a jungle adventure connecting treehouses to a series of hiking trails and zip lines. The entire experience is led and controlled by local residents who depend on the forest to survive. These very people are charged with its protection. The trip is expensive by Southeast Asian standards (130 Euros for 2 nights, in 2008, now 220 Euros) but it's this very fee that keeps the whole project flourishing - environmentally speaking. Fees are high enough that the project can operate by allowing a minimal number of tourists in an expanse of jungle (32 tourists were legally registered to the 123,000 hectare reserve). Profits help to push the boundaries of the reserve outwards, and provides a safe environment to rehabilitate animals captured by poachers.

    Whether intentional or not, this project exemplifies the concept of Ecological Capital - in practice. The project has found a way to monetarily value the natural and social ecosystems to prevent their destruction. Consider - the Bokeo Reserve does not have guards or police. Poaching and illegal logging plague many parts of the country. The Gibbon Experience is the only group which employs police and guards to protect the forest and its inhabitants from human intervention. Though inexact - the tour fees create enough revenue to incentivize conservation while deterring a scale of visitors that the land cannot support. A near perfect balance.

    Is eco-tourism only for the affluent? Maybe, for now. Until our economies value environmental capital - the value of a tree, or a liter of fresh water - external companies, like the Gibbon Experience, are critical conserving and remediating our favorite travel spots. Once ecological capital is valued, all tourism becomes eco-tourism. Similar to GIGA's vision for products and materials - all tourism is eco-tourism, the question is simply of impact.

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