Eco-tourism to the rescue?

A couple of weeks ago I posted about ethical dilemmas concerning so-called nature tourism or eco-tourism. Since eco-tourism is a trendy “buzz word” for many holidaymakers, what might be marketed as ecological, environmentally friendly, sustainable, ethical, etc., can sometimes be anything but.

St. Paul Subterranean River Puerto Princesa Palawan, Philippines, pic: Storm Crypt (Flickr CC)

Yet it’s not just greenwashing destructive tourism development and labelling it “eco,” there is also the problem of genuine efforts for low impact, or sustainable tourism. How do governments, businesses and organizations know what they are offering ethical tourists is the real thing? When profits are the motive, can ethics survive?

New research attempts to develop a mathematical formula for eco-tourism and – specifically – the preservation of national parks. The findings show that limited, expensive and exclusive eco holidays are the way to conserve and protect nature while developing natural areas as holiday spots.

From Wanderlust:

As part of the study in an Austrian national park, three factors were measured concerning a rare bird population. Visitor numbers were limited, habitats conserved and buffer zones expanded. The study found that where conservation takes priority over tourism with visitor numbers reduced, higher quality tourism occurs with fewer visitors willing to pay more for an improved experience.

Another approach is that of Australia, which has instituted its ECO-certification program, yet so far this is only limited to eco-themed accommodation.

At the upcoming Global Eco Asia Pacific ecotourism conference in Cairns, Australia, a number of themes will be tackled. One is how the host country simply cannot compete with less expensive Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand and Bali.

From AAP:

We pay our hospitality and construction workers and anyone else involved in tourism per day more than our competition pays their workers per month. We can never overcome that, so what we need to do is go back to the fundamentals of what makes an Australian holiday unique and worthwhile and appeal to a market that’s looking for that.

–Global Eco Asia Pacific ecotourism conference convenor and tourism consultant Tony Charters

Billabong Sanctuary, Australia, pic: Christian Haugen (Flickr CC)

Tony Charters is further quoted in the Asia-Pacific edition of Travel Daily News on a wider range of issues which will be addressed at the conference, which takes place from October 15 to 17th:

Showcasing natural wonders is a key priority for government policy-makers right across the region, including Indonesia, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and beyond, however discerning travelers are becoming savvier about sustainability, business practices and issues like fair trade. Certification covers off on these issues and countries without credible certification programs will lose lucrative markets. At the moment Australia has a good grip on this competitive advantage.

Another option is developing the growing sector of voluntourism, where patrons pay to do something to help nature or local communities instead of taking a standard, “selfish” holiday. This is the preferred model for Cindy Chng, the 23 year-old winner of the 2012 Asean Youth award 2012. Chng, from Singapore, has started recycling and conservation projects aand founded a company that takes tourists on treks through the Thai wilderness with local hill tribes. She also started Agents for Change, a two-year program pairing Singaporean youths with other young people in developing host countries in order to cooperate on humanitarian or ecological projects in the hosts’ communities.

Here is one example of an Agents for Change participant:

Mr Tan Jia Hann, 27, is one Singaporean participant who has been working in Hanoi, Vietnam, upgrading mud and wood houses into plastic bottle-and-concrete hybrid ones. Said the engineer : “It’s been interesting to meet different youth from different countries, all passionate about protecting the environment and doing something for their community.”

Read more in the New Paper.

Voluntourism in Cambodia, pic: Thomas Wanhoff (Flickr CC)