Air Date: Week of May 28, 1999
Ecotourism is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry. Host Steve Curwood talks with author Martha Honey who finds that not all travel billed as ecotourism necessarily promotes the environment and welfare of indigenous peoples. There is a wide spectrum from resorts which change sheets every other day to others powered by wind and sun.
CURWOOD: Ecotourism was born of a need to travel to far-away places without degrading the local flora and fauna. And over the years it's developed into the fastest-growing sector of the tourism industry. This means large amounts of money. Worldwide, only oil is a bigger business than tourism. Martha Honey traveled the world to research her new book, Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? She told me she found the ecotourism industry is going in 2 different directions.
HONEY: Basically, what I think I found was sort of 2 trends. One trend is toward what I call real ecotourism. Unfortunately, this is the weaker trend within the industry, and the much stronger trend is what I labeled ecotourism lite, which is basically an attempt by the industry and some of the big players involved, including at times some of the international agencies and some of the large environmental groups, to basically make some minor changes in conventional or mass tourism, and to market it to the hilt as green tourism. And so, you see things like some of the hotel chains now are not changing the sheets or the towels every day, and calling themselves environmentally responsible.
CURWOOD: Ecotourism, what is it? Can you give me a simple definition?
HONEY: Basically, it is a multi-faceted definition that means that it should be as low-impact as possible, respect for the land on which we're traveling, that it is travel usually to national parks or areas that are under some kind of conservation. And the 2 most important parts of it are that it provide some of the resources that are raised from the tourism for conservation efforts and for local communities, the communities living near these protected areas.
CURWOOD: So, what you're saying is, if someone goes on a nice natural history sort of tour in a way out of the way place and doesn't leave any money behind for the locals who support this, that's not ecotourism, no matter how, you know, how infrequently they change the sheets or how much granola is served.
HONEY: (Laughs) I would say not. And in fact, you've really put your finger on what I think is the most difficult part of eco-tourism, and that is the relations with the local community. Conventional tourism, mass tourism, tourism as we've known it in the past, has this horrible tendency, which is that the resources that are spent, the dollars that are spent, leak out of the country. For instance, people traveling, say, to Tanzania, and 90% of the money that is spent there actually, about 90%, leaves Tanzania, does not stay there under conventional tourism. Even if it's nature tourism, even if it's to, you know, beautiful game parks and so on. Because the companies involved are foreign-owned. Because the government has cut deals with those foreign companies to give them tax breaks, etc. etc. So that basically, all that stays in the country is money paid in salaries to hire local people.
CURWOOD: Martha Honey, what's been the impact of ecotourism directly on people like the Masai in East Africa?
HONEY: What I found in East Africa and in southern Africa, and there are places in Latin America that the same thing is going on, is that some of the most vibrant and in some cases violent real struggles these days are around issues of ecotourism. That local people are not satisfied with what they're getting from even what is called ecotourism. And so they are fighting, they're organizing and they're fighting for a bigger slice of the pie.
CURWOOD: Well, how would you solve this problem with the Masai. You don't feel that they're getting a fair shake. It's a major tourist destination. What should be done differently, in your view?
HONEY: I think one of the lessons is you just can't have good, well-run ecotourism on a broad scale, if you don't have a well-run government. You also need to have, I believe, a real support from the international community for developing local projects and local institutions. Unfortunately, much of what the World Bank and other big institutions, AID, that are putting money into ecotourism projects do, is that they foster foreign investment. And this is absolutely anathema to the concept of ecotourism.
CURWOOD: Is there a certain standard that travel agencies or companies are held to for ecotourism? Is there a label that someone can look for?
HONEY: Well, there is. There's been an attempt by something called The World Travel and Tourism Council, which is a European-based organization to develop what they call the Green Globe Program. Now, I'm extremely skeptical of this program. I actually was in Montreal a couple of years ago when it was unveiled, and interviewed the chief guy behind it. And frankly, what this amounted to was an attempt by the industry to say on the one hand, we can monitor ourselves. Basically, we don't need government regulation; we don't need outside monitoring. And what they did was they made this logo of a green globe, and will let companies use it if they pay as little as $200. It kind of depends on the size of the company. And sort of give a pledge that the company intends to undertake environmental reforms.
CURWOOD: Well, what can people who are conscientious travelers do to be sure that they do travel as ecotourists?
HONEY: I think the most important thing is to pick the tour operator in this country who you hook up with very carefully, or to find a locally-owned tour operator in the country you're going to visit, that has a good reputation. Look at who else is using them. Is the Smithsonian using it? Is the Nature Conservancy? What other organizations are using these tour operators? And then look at what they say about themselves? Who are these people? Many of them have lived in these countries for a long time. They specialize in just a handful of countries. They visit them often. They make a point of using local operators and local lodges, locally-owned lodges. And they also have set up funds to make contributions to local conservation efforts, to local communities. So, I think that these are the ingredients you need to look at.
CURWOOD: Martha Honey's new book is called Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? Thanks so much for joining us.
HONEY: Thanks, Steve. It's been a pleasure to be with you.
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