Is ecotourism a ‘magic bullet’ for sustainable development? — An anthropological essay
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) 1991 defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people’ (TIES 1991, cited in Das and Chatterjee 2015). Ecotourism has emerged in recent years as a saving grace for sustainable development as it counters the detrimental effects of mass tourism, inculcates participants with an environmental consciousness and attempts the lowest possible impact on environments, ecosystems and cultures. Contrary to its grand aims, ecotourism has been shown to contribute to environmental degradation, a breakdown of local social and cultural relations (both between people and between them and their environment), and deepened economic inequalities in situ. These are all valid critiques, this essay argues that they all stem from the underlying principles of ecotourism — that is, the neoliberal ideology that drives it, and ensuing tensions between neoliberal and conservationist regimes. The essay first lays out a brief summary of ecotourism’s positive aims and the reasons why it has been considered a ‘magic bullet’ for sustainable development. It then introduces the main critique of ecotourism as a neoliberalisation of conservation, and shows how the contradictions between neoliberalism and conservation manifest in various ways. Firstly, neoliberal ideology is shown to be inculcated in local actors as Foucaultian subjects of governmentality, often at the expense of their own ontologies and customs. Thereafter the essay elucidates social, environmental, developmental, and economic critiques of ecotourism as the result of neoliberal principles, as well as its obfuscation of its own local and global context. The essay concludes by suggesting how the very critiques of ecotourism could pave the way for new forms of environmental governance. It suggests that the critique of neoliberal hegemony is itself essentialising, diminishes the agency of local actors, and discounts their critical perspectives and contributions to new hybridised regimes of nature.
Ecotourism has understandably been touted as a ‘win-win’ scenario between conservation and development. By harnessing the wealth and power of tourism and directing it towards protection of biodiversity, ecotourism can make an economic contribution to development projects that are themselves geared towards non-consumptive, non-extractive use of natural resources. By providing an economic alternative to extractive resource use, ecotourism incentivises local people to become more environmentally conscious, and to protect rather than exploit their environments. The value of ecotourism lies in its relative accessibility; it supports livelihood diversification, is labour intensive, and has relatively low entry barriers in relying primarily on unspecialised labour (Das and Chatterjee 2015). The UN has touted ecotourism as a main focus for ‘poverty eradication and environment protection,’ highlighting its ‘positive impact on income generation, job creation and education, and thus on the fight against poverty and hunger.’ It suggests that ‘ecotourism creates significant opportunities for the conservation, protection and sustainable use of biodiversity and of natural areas by encouraging local and indigenous communities in host countries and tourists alike to preserve and respect the natural and cultural heritage’ (UN Declaration 2002, cited in Das and Chatterjee 2015:4). Certainly there is evidence to suggest that ecotourism initiatives are considerably less detrimental to forests than logging, hunting or agriculture (Stronza 2005), and that it can make a significant contribution to local livelihoods. Das and Chatterjee (2015) reference a number of ecotourism case studies that have succeeded on various fronts. That being said, ecotourism in practice has been far more problematic than UN rhetoric and some choice case studies suggest.
Neoliberalisation of conservation is the main critique of ecotourism, and its discussion forms the backbone of this essay. That is to say that it incorporates conservation into neoliberal principles of commodification, cost-benefit analyses and economic growth. Ecotourism appeals to a huge range of interest groups because it seems to simultaneously address a variety of agendas: ‘capitalist development, community development, poverty alleviation, wildlife conservation and environmental protection’ (Duffy 2009:314). This make it difficult to challenge or critique, and it ‘receives powerful support from a complex range of interest groups, including local communities, global NGOs, donors and IFIs’ (Duffy 2009:341). This pressure to engage in ecotourism is effectively a pressure to subordinate concern for environmental conservation and respect for local communities (which ecotourism ostensibly supports) to ‘concern for attracting ecotourists and their money’ (West and Carrier 2004:491). McAfee (1999:133) terms this a ‘postneoliberal environmental-economic paradigm’ wherein developing countries are required to ‘sell nature to save it,’ ultimately continuing to reinforce exploitative capitalist relations.
From a Foucaultian perspective, this subordination can be classified as a form of ‘governmentality’ (Foucault 1991), specifically neoliberal governmentality. Foucault differentiates between sovereign governmentality which is concerned with making its subjects internalise a set of norms and values by which they then ‘self-regulate in accordance with planners’ over-arching goals,’ and neoliberal governmentality which seeks to ‘create and manipulate the external incentive structures in terms of which subjects, understood as self-interested rational actors, make decisions on the basis of cost-benefit calculation’ (Fletcher 2013:31). Agrawal (2005:161) suggests that by participating in monitoring and enforcement of environmental protection, Indian villagers become environmentally conscious and concerned subjects within what Agrawal terms ‘environmentality.’ In the context of neoliberalism, Youdelis (2013) highlights the contradictory logic in ecotourism between disciplinary environmentality and neoliberal environmentality, forcing conservation and development into opposition. This essay shows that the emphasis on market mechanisms in ecotourism tends to be more dominant, and inculcates actors with a neoliberal mentality. This often comes at the detriment of the existing ontologies and customs that sustainable ecotourism development aims to protect.
Various authors (Stronza and Pêgas 2008, Gray and Campbell 2007, Das and Chatterjee 2015) suggest that ecotourism cannot be genuinely sustainable unless the local communities it purports to help gain a significant economic and social benefit (through participation in planning and management). Conflicts arise when community interests conflict with ecotourist demand, thus with neoliberal market principles. A decision over the placement of an eco-lodge in the Crater Mountain reserve of Papua New Guinea which required two years of negotiation between resident tribal clans, was vetoed in a five-minute discussion, because the decided location didn’t have a nice enough view (West and Carrier 2004). This is a perfect example of the sort of ideological and ontological domination that ecotourism encourages, in spite of ostensibly aiming to protect — and have a minimal impact on — local communities and customs. If ecotourism development destabilises local communities and causes conflicts, this does not count as sustainable under the given definition.
Even in instances where communities are respected, remunerated and involved in management, sustainability is not guaranteed. Stronza and Pêgas (2008) cite instances where income from ecotourism was spent on items facilitating increased forest extraction and agricultural production such as chainsaws and shotguns. Because of these purchases, new income from ecotourism did not reduce direct exploitation of resources. This is arguably an example of local actors becoming incorporated into a fundamentally individualistic, growth-oriented neoliberal paradigm.
Being so popular on the international stage, ‘ecotourism’ as a label becomes rife for abuse. It is the fastest growing sector in tourism (Das and Chatterjee 2015), and there are many cases of tourist projects being labelled as ecotourism either by companies to attract tourists or indeed by governments to attract funding and legitimise tourist development policies (Carrier and Macleod 2005). The result is a proliferation of destinations and projects which adopt the ecotourism name without espousing its sustainability ethos, with all the accompanying environmental and social issues associated with mass tourism (Gray and Campbell 2007).
Even when projects can be legitimately considered ‘ecotourism’ (again, the lack of a general definition is problematic), there is little immediate economic incentive to limit activity. In places like Bahia Magdalena in Mexico, the popularity of whale-watching as an ecotourism activity drives growth from the demand rather than the supply side. There is no consensus on how much boat traffic is too much, no studies on the effect that short-distance watching by up to a dozen boats has on whale behaviour (Das and Chatterjee 2015, Young 1999). Lack of local infrastructure creates problems of waste disposal, public health issues and environmental hazards, yet to provide such facilities would only encourage the expansion of tourism and development, putting a strain on natural resources and threatening the marine habitat (Young 1999). Here again, the contradiction of ecotourism development is manifest — it relies on market principles to protect natural resources, and yet that very same market drives the expansion which depletes the resources that the tourists are coming to see. From this perspective, ecotourism is absolutely a ‘magic bullet’ for development, but without study into proper management, it is absolutely not sustainable.
In line with market principles, ecotourism tends to favour those with the resources and skills to enter the market. Notwithstanding the heavy advantage this gives to US- and European-based companies, it also tends to exclude the locals who live nearby these ‘less developed’ environments, who are typically poorer and less educated. In the same bay in Mexico, Young (1999) reports less than 1% of $5M gross earnings going to local salaries and supplies. While this might have changed since the time of writing, many other authors cite a very small amount of ecotourism earnings going to the people and communities most effected (Das and Chatterjee 2015). The economic impact is much more visible at regional and state levels — hence their willing cooperation in a scheme which simultaneously devolves responsibility for conserving natural resources to the locale while bringing them economic benefits; neoliberal governance in a nutshell (Ferguson and Gupta 2002).
To reiterate an earlier point, it is only when local communities are able to resist the dominant neoliberal ideology that they may benefit as a collective — rather than a few individuals gaining the vast majority of the benefits (Belsky 1999). This requires strong existing institutions and communal forms of management. However, this actually goes directly against the neoliberal principle of free competition. Kuna ecotourism in Panama, which is held up as an example of total local ownership and control of ecotourism activities (this is done through policies which limit the size of the industry and prohibit investment by non-Kuna), has been criticised by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) who hold that ‘Kuna protective measures are at odds with (‘violate’) Article XVI of the 2006 General Agreement on Trade in Services, which advocates efficiency and competitiveness through liberalisation of markets’ (Chernela 2011:46). This again highlights tensions within ecotourism in contributing to sustainable development.
Carrier and Mcleod (2005:329) cite Marx’s notion of fetishization of commodities in capitalist systems; ‘the tendency to present the commodity for sale in a way that obscures the social relations and situations that bring it into existence and to the attention of the potential buyer’. This same tendency is present in ecotourism, which seeks to manage and insulate ecotourists from the realities and contexts of their destinations (Carrier and Macleod 2005). Protected areas and development projects rarely advertise the dislocation and disadvantaging of local peoples that go into their creation as this would adversely affect consumer demand. For example, ‘the growth of tourism has adversely affected the coastal environs in Bayahibe. What had been ecologically useful woods and wetlands got turned into [privatised] lawns, beaches, and construction sites’ (Carrier and Macleod 2005:321).
A number of authors also highlight this paradoxical ignorance of context on the side of ecotourists. Carrier and Macleod (2005) cite the example of a visitor to Antarctica who was very careful not to tread on any plant life because it was so fragile, but was completely oblivious to the considerable ecological costs of getting her to and from Antarctica. Seemingly the purported valuing of the environment by ecotourists begins only once they’ve stepped off the plane — Gössling (1999) cites a cost of 205kg of fuel and 650kg of carbon emissions per tourist coming from the northern hemisphere to visit a tropical country. This environmental cost ‘is routinely excluded from the ecotourist bubble by those who discuss — and especially those who support — ecotourism’ (Carrier and Macleod 2005:317).
Another issue in ecotourism which is both facilitated and ignored by neoliberal globalised networks is the redistribution of resource extraction. While not an ecotourism initiative, the planting of noncommercial Scots pine instead of industrial forest in Scotland was only possible because of increased extraction in Baltic states, Indonesia and Ghana, ‘where global timber demand has led to rapid decreases in forest cover’ (Robbins and Fraser 2003:113). Spatial redistribution of resource extraction is an inevitable consequence of protected areas, and is especially pertinent when ecotourism is presented as an alternative to localised resource extraction. If locals are dependent on particular resources (such as wood for fuel, or fish for sustenance), their consumption will only be displaced, not reduced. If deforestation or small-scale fishing has decreased, that just means that extraction has been increased elsewhere. This is not to suggest that we should not be protecting the extremely biodiverse forests that inhabit the earth’s tropics, but it comes back to Gössling’s (1999:305) lucid observation that conservation ‘may be a necessary response during times of rampant habitat loss, but it does not address the fundamental economic and social causes of the threats to biodiversity.’
While critiques of ecotourism and its potential for sustainable development are many, local peoples are establishing sustainable initiatives and forms of governance which mould, transform and appropriate these western notions to serve new agendas (see Cepek 2011, O’Malley 1996, Chernela 2011). One could argue that the critique of neoliberal ontological domination (see Blaser 2009) is itself an essentialising narrative which diminishes local agency, resistance, and environmental praxis. Fletcher (2010:178) notes that it is precisely within critiques of ecotourism and neoliberalism that we may find a new form of governance, a ‘“post-development” era emphasising genuinely participatory and collaborative processes for enhancing people’s well-being within culturally-appropriate frames.’ This echoes Escobar’s (1999) cultural hybridisation which opens up new antiessentialist regimes of nature and culture. It is critical to remain open to new possibilities and avoid old dichotomies in establishing new ways of relating to each other and to our surroundings.
To conclude, while ecotourism seems promising as a marriage of conservation and development, its sustainability falls into contradiction with its neoliberal underpinnings. As a dominant global ideology, neoliberalism subordinates local ontologies and customs to market principles, which can destabilise and cause conflict in communities. Even with representation and remuneration, income from ecotourism often ends up offsetting its own reduction of resource extraction. Even if the ecotourism label is not being mis-appropriated, initiatives may still fail to sustainably handle tourist influx, or consider ecotourism’s long-term effects on flora and fauna. Infrastructure development might increase pressure on the very environmental resources that it ecotourism hopes to save. Free market principles engender inequalities, both within and without communities. Strong local institutions and management practices may remedy this, although they themselves come under pressure from dominant neoliberal narratives. Marxist fetishization of ecotourist destinations tends to obscure the local and global context and cost of ecotourism, and does nothing to prevent spatial redistribution of resource extraction. Ultimately we must look to these critiques and spaces of conflict for new forms of environmental governance, moving beyond essentialising narratives into a genuinely collaborative era of human and environmental relationship.
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