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Ecotourism and the Ecology of Independent Travel

by Edward Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad”

Ecotourism and “responsible travel” are growing trends, reflecting rising public awareness of the ill effects and irresponsibility of much tourism, and a desire on the part of increasing numbers of travellers genuinely to immerse themselves in the places they visit.

But what is “ecotourism”? How should a concern for the environment influence the way you travel? And is it really more “green” or “responsible” to take an ecotour than to travel on your own?

All travel, and especially long-haul air travel, has adverse ecological consequences. Unlike trains, which if electrified can get power from a variety of renewable sources, airplanes all fly on fossil fuel (“jet fuel” is kerosene). The present window of opportunity for transoceanic air travel — affordable to large numbers of people — is likely to be, in historical terms, a brief one before the world runs out of oil. There is no such thing as “sustainable” or “low-impact” air travel.

More of the effects of travel on the physical environment are related to transportation, such as petroleum extraction, refining, distribution, and burning, or the cutting of trees and paving of land for roads, than anything about what you do when you get where you are going. It makes no sense to label a trip as “ecotourism” if it involves flying 20,000 km (12,500 miles) — from North America to Asia and back — for only a few weeks.

If what you are seeking is an environment relatively uncrowded and undamaged by people, a more ecological choice for North Americans may be to stay closer to home. As the most geographically (if not culturally) diverse country on Earth (only China can compare), the USA has become a major ecotourism destination for travellers from overseas, especially from crowded parts of Europe and East Asia that lack American-sized open spaces, parks, wildlife preserves, and wilderness areas.

Given that getting there by air is an unavoidable ecological cost of long-distance travel, ecological responsibility in travel means both minimizing the avoidable environmental costs and trying to make a positive contribution in some other way to offset them. That’s what ecotourism is supposed to be about.

There are serious problems, though, in realizing those goals in any prearranged tour. Tour operators in the First World spend more on marketing, support, and other costs in their country (where wages, after all, are at First World levels) than on tour services in destination countries in the Third or Fourth World. Which is another way of saying that tourist services purchased locally in a Third World destination country would typically cost no more than half what they would cost as part of a tour prearranged through a First World operator. Tour travel itself, moreover, is skewed toward more expensive, usually meaning higher-impact, travel.

Few people would knowingly pay twice as much to arrange a tour through an operator in their own country if they believed themselves capable of arranging it locally, or doing it themselves independently. So tour operators have a vested interest in promoting fear, disempowerment, and ignorance on the part of would-be travellers, and in keeping people from learning how to travel on their own, as part of persuading them that they can’t or wouldn’t want to travel on their own and that it’s worth paying the price to book a tour in advance.

To compound the problem, most self-styled ecotourism publications are financed primarily by advertising from tour operators, and thus can ill afford to criticize or to provide information that would reduce the market for the products of the industry on whom their existence depends.

There is an obvious contradiction between persuading people that they need a tour operator as an intermediary between themselves and the local people and environment, and persuading people to immerse themselves in and learn about the local environment.

Prearranged tours add foreign agents, middlemen, and communications and money-transfer costs to the costs of services provided in the destination country, thus greatly inflating the price of travel. And those agents and middlemen all have an incentive to push tourists to more expensive tours to maximize their commissions. Because travel on a tour basis is more expensive, people on tours are, on average, richer people (or at least people traveling more expensively) than independent travellers. And there’s the rub, or at least part of it.

Wealth is power. The more expensively tourists are traveling, the more power they wield to have the local environment altered to suit their needs and desires. And, quite frankly, richer people are more accustomed than poorer people to having their desires accommodated regardless of the consequences for others. They frequently have higher expectations of Western norms of luxury and service, and are less culturally diverse than a more economically diverse range of tourists would be. The result is these tourists create greater material and cultural pressures to reshape the local environment in a Western mold than would an equal number of tourists traveling more cheaply.

The poorest tourists simply don’t have the economic clout to transform their destinations. They have to learn the local culture and language, even perhaps studying them before they arrive, to survive and get around. They stay in the places local people stay, eat the local food, and use the local mass transportation. Having more time than money, and being more dependent on local goodwill, they are compelled to be both more patient and more tolerant. They can’t afford to change things much, and they leave them pretty much as they found them.

People traveling more expensively are also likely to have less time, and, being more rushed, are both more able and more willing to make ecological (and other) compromises to fulfill their travel agendas in their limited time: flying rather than taking trains, driving rather than walking, and in general supporting infrastructure changes to make the “marquee attractions” more “accessible.” They also have less time to develop an awareness of what this sort of development, and the effect of their own visit, leaves behind.

People traveling on their own who can’t afford to charter private transportation are less likely to get into the most environmentally sensitive areas, because these are likely to be without regular public transport. There is a strong argument, in fact, for city tourism as having less impact on either the physical or the cultural environment than the tours to less densely populated (or even unpopulated) areas that are more often thought of, and promoted, as ecotours.

Even the more sensitive travellers on prearranged tours are limited in their opportunities either to become aware of the ecological implications of their visits or to adapt their styles of travel to minimize those effects. Distributing the costs of prearrangement over many people makes group travel more affordable than individualized prearranged travel, so travellers who prearrange their itineraries are more likely to be in groups than ones or twos. Participants in escorted groups inevitably do much of their socializing within their groups, making them less aware of the local culture and their own effects on it than independent travellers immersed in and interacting constantly with the culture. Tour groups are further insulated from such interaction and awareness by their escort, who inevitably has a vested financial interest in making them feel good about their experience.

Equally important is the fact that even those who want to adapt can’t, because everything has perforce been committed to before they left home. The unfortunate fact is that what has to be sold is more the image of the tour than the experience of the tour, because the tourist has to buy and pay for the tour before experiencing it. No matter how wonderful the tour is, it won’t sell if it doesn’t promise (in advance) what people think (in advance) they want, or think will be appropriate. What they find they want, or decide would be appropriate, when they get there matters much less.

Even some tour operators admit, in confidence, to arranging trips in a way that they themselves would never choose, but that “the customers want.” If prepaid tourists discover on arrival that what they thought they wanted, and have already bought, is culturally or ecologically inappropriate, they are stuck. Travellers who make their arrangements locally are more likely to notice, and at least have a chance to consider before committing themselves, the implications of the style of travel they are contemplating.

I don’t want to seem too critical. I strongly support ecotourism. I do want to encourage travellers to acknowledge responsibility for their effects on the physical and cultural ecology of the places they visit, and to use the lessons they learn from travel to live more responsibly when they return home.

Ecotourism operators run the gamut from politically committed, money-losing environmental organizations to utterly unprincipled hucksters looking for new marketing angles to sell the same old tours in new packaging. But nothing about ecotourism or responsible travel, or its values, requires a tour, and even the best tours have several strikes against them, as I’ve tried to explain.

Independent travellers, of course, run the gamut too. It’s all too easy to fall into a rut of going from one place listed in a guidebook for foreigners, or recommended by other foreigners, to another; to stay and eat only in places catering to, and patronized exclusively by, other foreigners like you; to spend most of your time in ghettoes of foreigners; to socialize mostly with other foreigners; and to interact with local people only as service providers. Some people argue that, to the extent that they succeed in getting “off the beaten path” or into newly touristed areas, independent backpackers are the vanguard of cultural imperialism and the destructive effects of mass tourism.

But I would argue strongly against letting yourself be talked into an “ecotour” as necessarily being a “more ecological” or “more responsible” way to travel than traveling on your own. (For both sides of this debate, see the “Backpackers” and “Guidebooks” special issues of Tourism Concerns’s journal, Tourism In Focus.) To me, the key thing is that if you make your own arrangements, you have to take personal responsibility for the ecological implications (physical and cultural) of the way you travel. Traveling independently means not having a tour operator to rely on for ecological awareness or decision-making. It’s past time, however — at least in my opinion — for independent travel to be recognized as offering more diverse possibilities for ecotourism, and greater opportunity for responsible tourism, than any tour.

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