Green Fork in the Road

A forum on ecotourism, the evils of travel, and a hopeful movement to keep our two favorite things—adventure in wild places and a healthy environment—alive and kicking.

Jan 3, 2003
Outside Magazine

For over 25 years Outside's purpose has been to get our readers out the door and on the road (or trail or river or mountain) in a bold search for adventure and the wild life. It's been good for us, and it's been good for you. But like all journeys do, ours has come to a critical juncture. Travel—the wings that take us on most of our adventures—has itself become a threateningly massive and impactive global industry. How can travel remain liberating, and learn not to destroy the exotic and singular things we travel to discover? This is the theme of our March 2003 issue.

To further explore these questions, Outside convened a gathering of six of the world's foremost ecotourism experts for a freewheeling roundtable on the idea of sustainable tourism and the future of travel. Below are some of the highlights of the conversation.

Hal Espen: Editor of Outside magazine

Costas Christ: Senior Director of Ecotourism, Conservation International

Andy Drumm: Ecotourism Director, The Nature Conservancy

Oliver Hillel: Tourism Programme Coordinator, United Nations Environment Programme

Martha Honey: Executive Director of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and Program Director of the Ecotourism and Sustainable Development Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and Stanford University

Michael Kaye: President and Founder, Costa Rica Expeditions

Stanley Selengut: Eco-lodge entrepreneur and founder of Maho Bay Camps on St. John.


Espen To get things rolling, I'll point out that Outside magazine is, among other things, an adventure magazine with an environmental conscience, and as such, we're interested in finding common cause between the world of adventure travel—the world driven by enthusiasm, by athleticism, by a yen for wild places—and the growing body of ideas that have come to be called ecotourism. Maybe we should begin by defining the difference between ordinary tourism and ecotourism.

Costas Christ: The difference is that ecotourism has a purpose beyond just the personal enjoyment side. Ecotourism leaves behind a direct benefit for the area being visited and also a tangible and direct benefit for those people who live closest to that area. You can have a jungle rafting trip that may be a wonderful trip. It may be fun and enjoyable and you look at the stars and you hear the birds, but it's not necessarily ecotourism. It becomes ecotourism when conversation turns to the site being visited, to the natural areas, to the wildlife and the plants and the biodiversity, and when the trip itself delivers social and economic benefits to the people who live closest to that resource.

Andy Drumm: Ecotourism is travel to natural areas with responsibility. It's enjoying nature's bounty while not eroding its quality for people who come after us. It encourages local people to have a stake in the conservation of the places we are visiting by ensuring that they get an equitable share of the economic benefits generated by the activity.

Espen: Michael Kaye, you own an ecotourism business. What's the difference between regular travel and ecotourism from your perspective?

Michael Kaye: Ecotourism is nature tourism or adventure tourism with that ethical component. The amount that can be given back varies greatly with the situation and with the amount that the market is willing to pay for the benefits that are going to be left. So ecotourism has a lot of different phases depending upon the conditions and on the altruism of the people who are doing it.

Espen: Oliver Hillel, perhaps you can bring an international perspective to the question.

Oliver Hillel: Ecotourism is a learning experience. People traveling on an ecotour should be able to learn about the destination. And the environment at the destination should not be seen only as a natural environment. In other words, you shouldn't only take an ecotour to learn the names of the birds or the plants; it should extend to intercultural learning between hosts and guests. And I think that's very, very exciting. Many ecotourists refer to that broadening of their horizons and learning about themselves and others as the biggest benefit.

Michael Kaye: I just stepped out of a guide's workshop with 35 naturalist guides and the topic that's being worked on right now is "orchestrated spontaneous cross-cultural experience."


Stanley Selengut: Ecotourism caters to people who aren't necessarily interested in knowing exactly what they're getting into, but who are open to new experiences. But even more important is the sustainability aspect. Ecotourism developers take on the responsibility for the long-term well being of the place—not only the place itself but also the community around it. So I think it's a much deeper involvement.

Martha Honey: We're moving away from just vegetating on beaches and other hedonistic activities and really going out to engage places and people on different levels. I see ecotourism as kind of a three-legged stool: positive impact on the environment, on the local culture, and on the tourist.


Espen: What kind of personal experiences have each of you had with ecotourism?

Costas Christ: I paddled Botswana's Okavango Delta with a guide. It was just the two of us for three days, camping along the way. The guide grew up in this area, he knew the waterways of the Okavango, he knew the wildlife, he knew the birds, he knew the lay of the land, and it went beyond just straight information. It wasn't just a question of being able to identify a bird or an animal. It went to a sense of caring, a feeling of spirit, and I felt that I was on a journey into nature and into cross-cultural learning with another individual. And when I left that experience I felt very enriched, and also that I had contributed something positive to my guide's life. I feel this really is what ecotourism is about.

Andy Drumm: I used to work as a naturalist-guide in the Galapagos Islands. I found that people—urban, affluent Americans, who don't really think too much about their relationship with the natural environment—by the end of their week on the islands, were desperately keen to know from me how they could continue to contribute to conservation. They'd been so inspired by their experiences of interacting with wildlife in a sustainable, low-impact fashion—the encounters with the sea lions, with the blue-footed boobies and nesting frigate birds—that I found it easy to motivate them to contribute financially to the conservation of the Galapagos. I found people much more accessible and open to conservation ideals as a result of their interaction with nature in an organized ecotour.

Oliver Hillel: I'm Brazilian, and I've just recently gone back to the Brazilian Pantanal wetland. I visited a 7,500-hectare farm that was bought by Conservation International and managed as an ecotourism destination and also as a research center. The interesting thing there is that this led several other landowners in the area to turn to ecotourism as a way to complement their revenues, which they normally got from cattle ranching but now can't generate the kind of economic return as they did before due to the economic situation. And it's worked for them.

I took my two daughters there—they're four and six—and we spent ten days on the farm. There are moments when these experiences can be mystical or just very human; when you see how people living how they have lived for many, many generations, and the kind of relationship they have with their environment. The magic part of this for me was to not only to be there with my daughters, but to also imagine that because of that particular setup, I knew that my girls, in twenty years, will be able to see this beautiful place again. For me that was sort of a recharge. Sometimes I need to go back to those places to see why I'm doing this, you know?

Stanley Selengut: I've been doing this for something like 25 years. One of the things that I remember is from early on, when I wanted to try composting toilets at my resort. I went to the health department and the official there said he didn't know how he could ever give me a permit. There was nothing in the building code. And I said, wouldn't it be wonderful if toilets that use no water, no electricity, that turn human waste into compost and could be used to support the soil? And he says well, I'll tell you what I'll do. You're a person of good will. I'll give you a permit on one condition: promise me that if the toilets don't work you will fix them. So I got my health department permit on the basis of that promise. What I'm pointing to is that there's the sense of trust you get with the community around you in terms of being part of it, and that's very gratifying to a developer.

Martha Honey: I was at a park in Zimbabwe in a very remote area that was part of the Campfire Project. There was an upscale lodge there. It was a place where they had been doing hunting safaris but had moved into just doing camera safaris. They had an arrangement with the local villagers, who were getting certain benefits from the hotel. I went out to the village thinking I wouldn't real see any results. I happened to arrive there just when the local committee was deciding what to do with their profits from the hotel. They were sitting under a baobab tree with an easel, and the local schoolteacher was the chair of the committee. And they were listing out all of their priorities, and then how much money they had, and what they could do with it. It only amounted to maybe five thousand dollars, but the amount of things that they were able to do with that in this small, remote village was really extraordinary. I drove around and they had built three or four new classrooms, along with cattle dips and a grinding mill so that the women didn't have to walk thirty kilometers to grind their corn. They had installed new water pumps around the village, and electricity was coming in for the first time. All of this generated from a modest-sized eco-lodge that was nearby. And so it made me realize that ecotourism really can make enormous changes in people's lives.


Espen: How big is this phenomenon? At what rate is ecotourism growing? How do we help Outside readers understand how to measure this against the larger universe of travel?

Martha Honey: The conventional wisdom during the 1990s was that ecotourism was the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry. But this is really a revolution of the mind. I look at ecotourism as the most profound innovation in tourism, perhaps ever. It's a concept that has to do with both what the tourist gains from the travel, and also what they give and what they leave behind in terms of real benefits for communities and conservation.

Costas Christ: I believe that ecotourism is the single most significant event to occur in the history of the travel industry. And I'm not comparing it to the creation of an airplane or something like that. But it is literally challenging conventional travel the way we know it. We are being asked to try and harness one of the world's largest industries, an industry that is growing at a very significant rate. The World Tourism Organization talks about the number of tourists doubling in size by the year 2020. This is an industry that consumes vast amounts of natural resources. What we're seeing is a growing pattern of tourism that is moving increasingly into areas of areas of high biodiversity—the last wilderness areas on our planet. Left to its own devices, this travel industry has the potential to do devastating damage to the earth. To all those Outside readers who seek adventure and seek nature as a form of solace through travel, the large-scale tourism industry in its fastest growing sectors of nature and adventure travel has the potential to, as the cliche goes, kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

So where does ecotourism come in? It's not just a trick. It's about a philosophy and a set of principles and practices that if properly put in place can turn the potential for a negative into a positive, and indeed help transform an industry that has had devastating consequences for biodiversity and indigenous cultures in places like Cancun, Mexico, and other mass travel destinations on our planet. Hopefully it can harness the economic part of the industry so that it makes lasting contributions both to conservation and some of the world's poorest people, who happen to live in areas where tourism is growing the fastest.

This is somewhat controversial, and I'm sure even within our own group we'll hear differences of opinion. Not everybody embraces it. But if we are going to make a lasting contribution to protecting endangered species and expanding benefits to some of the earth's poorest citizens, I believe we need to take the principles of ecotourism and paint them across the broadest canvas of the travel industry as possible.

Oliver Hillel: We've got to think about what mainstream and conventional tourism can learn from ecotourism. How can we make the broader industry do what's already happening? There's a very nice attraction in Costa Rica called Rara Aves, which is basically a private reserve linked to a lodging facility. Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic is a much, much bigger resort, but it also has a private preserve. I may be exaggerating, but I do think that people are learning. The mainstream industry is learning from the ecotourism pioneers. They're taking the lessons learned in ecotourism and applying them at a broader level.

Andy Drumm: I think today's ecotourists can be compared back to the Australian Aborigine walking the song lines to sing the creation into existence. Ecotourism in a global economy is doing something similar by visiting the natural areas of the world and giving them value in the global economy. Many areas that aren't being visited are in fact being eroded. Ecotourism is often the economic justification for the survival of important biodiversity in protected areas. The ecotourist is very often a de facto ally of local people who are being marginalized in their regular economic relations with the mainstream economy.

: Stanley Selengut, as an ecotourism businessman, do you have something to teach to the larger travel business? Are they interested in hearing it?

Stanley Selengut: I think we take the lead in all kinds of stuff, things like alternative energy systems and recycled building materials. We were the first people to go into things like flow restrictions to conserve water because these things are really necessary for surviving in remote places. But I don't think there's a hotel being built today that doesn't use many of these principles.

Espen: Michael Kaye, what kind of dialog does ecotourism have with the mainstream travel industry?

Michael Kaye: There are relatively very, very few tourists whose buying decisions are actually driven by the benefits their tourism gives back to the environment and to the local community. Everybody else is working with an uneducated marketplace that doesn't really care, and it's very, very widespread. I have never once been asked about the environmental friendliness of any place that the groups have gone to, or that the individuals have gone to.

Costas Christ: I think what you're saying is a half-truth in one sense. Recently Conservation International sent a group with you on a wonderful trip, and we specifically selected your company because of your track record, and we talked to the clients about why we selected your company. Maybe they didn't ask you directly, but I think the key thing is that we in this case are selecting individuals like you because of the outstanding record your company has with the principles of ecotourism.

Michael Kaye: I've said only half-jokingly that ecotourism is like communism: it's such a really good idea that somebody ought to try it.


Espen: Why should Outside readers consider the distinction between conventional forms of tourism and ecotourism when they're making their travel plans? What's the pitch?

Martha Honey: The short answer is that we're going to ruin all these places. I think one of the things that we've failed at, is that we haven't done enough to find the places that are environmentally and socially responsible, and ones that have great guides, who will give visitors a better experience.

Espen: Trying to inspire behavior that's based on altruism in the marketplace is a risky proposition, isn't it?

Oliver Hillel: When you have a trained local guide accompanying you on a wilderness experience or natural history experience, it really adds exponentially to the quality of the experience. You're able to see and experience a place through the eyes and the ears and nose of somebody who's always lived there. The cultural dimension, as well as a much deeper natural connection, really enrich the experience for a visitor on an ecotour, as opposed to a conventional tour. And also typically, ecotour operators will have a much lower guide-to-tourist ratio.

Costas Christ: Fifteen or 20 years ago, the organic food industry was a strange thing. It was off the corner —you had to go look for it. Only certain people had heard of it. Today we find that the mainstream marketplace is embracing organic food. Ecotourism without question is still an evolving field. We are finding ourselves up against a brick wall here and there, and then we've got to figure out how to scale it, and how to move beyond it.

But there's a clock ticking. And that clock is a very large, very demanding, and in many respects, very destructive industry called tourism and travel. And in terms of its footprint on the earth, it has been devastating in a number of places, and it's continuing to grow. We need to find a way to tame this beast, or we will find that like fire, it will burn the house down. We're just beginning to scratch the surface. I don't think we have a lot of time to waste.

Espen: Local communities are being asked to make choices between different temptations: between extractive industries and ecotourism, between more intensive development forms of travel and this light footprint of ecotourism. How well are we succeeding in making local cultures our partners?

Martha Honey: That's been the weakest part of the equation. Ecotourism has done well in terms of giving travelers a better experience. But the local communities, that's the most difficult part. To bring them into an industry like tourism, which is international and fast-paced and so on, is extremely challenging and in many ways unrealistic. In many of these places, the first order of business is poverty alleviation. In many of these places, ecotourism is just one small drop or part of a solution, and we certainly can be doing it much better than we have.

Espen: The world seems like a much more dangerous place since 9/11. How can ecotourism play a role in pointing the correct way for travel to go?

Martha Honey: The current uncertainty and fear points to the fact that even with the best of planning tourism can be thrown off by circumstances beyond its control, like the recent bombings in Kenya and Bali. Tourism is a volatile industry. But I think also that the current tensions in the world are an argument for traveling more along the lines of ecotourism.

Oliver Hillel: I thinks ecotourists, and probably Outside readers too, are more discerning travelers in general than mainstream, conventional tourists, and so less likely to be thrown by the slings and arrows of outrageous foreign policy. They're more resilient, they're more thoughtful, they put more effort into planning their trips. They go to more remote places, and to areas that at times are volatile. Developing countries, by and large, are living in constant states of crisis, and yet somehow they manage to be great hosts for ecotourists. I think that's something that we can factor into this discussion. Ecotourism can sometimes come through even in times of instability on a global level.

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