INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY
Year 6 - Issue 63
Kreg Lindberg is a Professor in International Ecotourism at Oregon State University (OSU) in the USA. He has lived and/or worked in 14 countries on 6 continents and has traveled in more than 40 countries. His work has been funded by organizations such as the US Forest Service, the World Bank, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (Australia), Tourism Queensland, the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Norwegian Research Council, and the FAO. He was lead editor for both volumes of the book Ecotourism: A Guide for Planners & Managers and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism and Journal of Ecotourism. He has a Ph.D. in forest social science with a minor in Economics from OSU (1995), as well as a Masters in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Do you feel that there nowadays is a universal perception of ecotourism, or are there still divides across occupation (e.g. academics vs. practitioners), geography (e.g. north vs south) and language (e.g. English-speakers vs French-speakers)?
In my experience, there is no universal perception or definition of ecotourism, and I do not expect that there ever will be one. The lack of consensus stems from the differences noted in the question - for example, academics may have more restrictive and idealized perceptions than do those in the industry. However, I think the challenge is more fundamental.
One can conceive of ecotourism as the overlap between nature tourism and sustainable tourism. The former, nature tourism, is largely descriptive and relatively easy to measure. For example, a person might be a nature tourist if and only if he/she is visiting a natural area and meets the definition of being a tourist. The latter, sustainable tourism, is prescriptive and difficult to measure. How do we know if a given activity is sustainable? It is difficult to know both for socio-political reasons and for technical reasons. One person may define sustainability as involving only X amount of disturbance to wildlife, a second person may define it as involving Y new jobs in local communities, and a third may define it as involving both. That's the socio-political challenge-agreeing on what constitutes sustainability. Then there's the technical challenge-even if all agree that wildlife disturbance is the key to sustainability, it is difficult to measure whether tourism activity in fact only leads to X (or less than X) disturbance.
The result of these challenges is that measurement of ecotourism often is measurement of nature tourism. It is based on what people do, or say they do (visit a natural area), rather than on the sustainability of the activity. This is a pragmatic approach, and one that satisfies those seeking a "loose" definition. However, it does not satisfy those who seek a sustainability component, which many view as central to what ecotourism is.
Personally, I do not place great emphasis on defining ecotourism and evaluating whether a given activity is ecotourism. Rather, I feel it is more productive to think in terms of moving toward ecotourism principles, of moving toward greater sustainability. It is difficult to determine whether a given amount of wildlife disturbance is sustainable, but it is generally accepted that reducing such disturbance is positive.
Does, and should, ecotourism really "leave only footprints" or is this nonsense?
I believe that the principle behind such statements is valid-we should minimize the negative changes associated with human use of natural environments. However, from a practical perspective any visitation leads to changes, so we have to accept vegetation loss, soil compaction, and other ecological impacts of ecotourism. From a management perspective, the questions are: "Is the balance of impacts (ecological, social, economic) positive?" and "Can we make the balance more positive?" It is not easy to answer these questions, especially the first one, but they remind us that, usually, we can tolerate some negative impacts if they are outweighed by positive impacts.
This logic also helps one question some conventional wisdoms. For example, many people are opposed to hunting, and sometimes hunting is managed poorly. However, in other cases hunting provides critical benefits to land management agencies, private businesses, and local residents. These benefits mean that hunting can contribute to conservation of species and ecosystems, even though it leads to the death of individual animals.
How successful has the ecotourism movement been in job creation & poverty reduction, compared to mass tourism? Is ecotourism in theory more labour-intensive than mass tourism, and what about in practice?
These are good questions, and difficult ones to answer. Part of the challenge is that mass tourism can involve everything from backpackers to charter tourism to luxury tourism, depending on how one defines it. As a result, answers to such questions can be highly context-specific. In other words, the answer is "it depends."
I have not yet seen a thorough and systematic study of this issue at the international level (if anyone knows of one, please contact me!). Nonetheless, site-specific research suggests that some of the conventional wisdoms surrounding labor and economic impacts of tourism may be false, or at least potentially misleading. For example, the work of Andy Drumm and Sven Wunder in the Ecuadorian Amazon shows that high leakage from "up-scale" tourism can make that option less desirable than "budget" tourism. However, they also provide an example of spending in "up-scale" tourism areas being so much greater than in "budget" areas that it outweighs the limitations of high leakage. In other words, the money staying in a local economy depends on various factors, including visitor spending and leakage, so simple statements such as "low leakage tourism is better than high leakage tourism" can be deceptive.
Conventional wisdoms can be useful heuristic devices, but they can also be misleading. This brings us back to the fundamentals-is a tourism activity beneficial, overall, even if it has high leakage? If so, we should pursue it. Of course, if we can make it even more beneficial by reducing leakage, we should do so. And if there's a mutually-exclusive alternative that is more beneficial, we should choose that one.
From your research, how price-sensitive are tourists visiting ecotourism facilities, meaning, are they really prepared to pay more if they feel that ecotourism criteria are met, or do they feel that ecotourism should be more economical, since there are fewer intermediaries involved?
Most of my research on price sensitivity deals with responses to park entrance fees. In that context, I'm comfortable concluding, in general, that visitors are not particularly price sensitive at current entrance fee levels at most sites. Of course, there are exceptions; sites with high fees and many substitutes (i.e., they are not particularly special or unique) may loose substantial numbers of visitors from price increases.
The question of whether visitors are willing to pay more if they feel ecotourism criteria are met is a different, important, and difficult one. The answer is important in the context of ecotourism generally and accreditation in particular. Many consumer surveys suggest visitors may be willing to pay more to achieve sustainability goals, but, again, I have not seen a comprehensive evaluation of this issue, particularly one involving actual behavior rather than survey responses. One of the benefits of working in the field of ecotourism is that we know so little, so there's plenty of opportunity to do interesting research…
Tourism leakages and profit repatriation are two usual villains of mass tourism. Less talked about and more politically controversial, are foreign ownership and unequal distribution of income. What change if any, can ecotourism bring in all the above matters?
A common ecotourism principle is that local residents should benefit from tourism in the area in which they live. Foreign ownership and unequal distribution of income exist in ecotourism, but there are also many examples of operators and communities working together to enhance local benefits (e.g., the collaboration between Rainforest Expeditions and the community of Infierno in the Peruvian Amazon).
Ecotourism certification seems to be all the rage these days. What is the view of the academic community in terms of ecotourism certification's feasibility and usefulness? In economic terms, is it an attempt to corner the market that may lead to oligopoly?
I'm not an expert in certification and can't describe the view of the academic community as a whole. Personally, I feel that certification holds a lot of promise - it can provide a stimulus for achieving a wide range of ecotourism principles. Indeed, the specific requirements that are developed in certification programs and that must be met to receive certification become, in effect, local operational definitions of ecotourism (if one meets these requirements, one is certified as an ecotourism business).
My impression is that most businesses involved in certification participate for philanthropic and/or legitimate business reasons (e.g., to provide a sign to customers of their sustainability ethic and practices). Nonetheless, some businesses apparently view certification as a means of achieving market advantage-to form an oligopoly and retard competition. This may be especially true where certification is a requirement for commercial access to certain sites (e.g., national parks with limited "slots" for tour operators).
In general, I support certification efforts. However, I do not believe certification is a panacea for achieving ecotourism principles, so attention paid to such efforts should not come at the cost of other activities (management planning at natural areas, training for local communities, development of entrance fee policies, etc.).
From the point of view of the ecotourism academic, who or what exactly is "the community" and how does it differ from "the stakeholders"?
Though I've not been involved in such discussions, there has been a debate within academia concerning how one defines a local community. For example, what are the geographic boundaries of local communities? Are new residents treated the same as those who have lived in the community for many years or generations? Can we treat a community as a homogenous entity, or must we recognize diversity, including diversity of opinions toward ecotourism? As in other areas, my goal is not to define such concepts precisely, but rather to recognize the complexity inherent in this field (including complexity of opinions within a community) and to define community on a case-by-case basis, depending on the nature of the analysis.
Regarding stakeholders, I consider anyone with an interest in the situation to be a stakeholder. In this globalised world of ours, some situations will involve stakeholders from around the world, while others will involve only local stakeholders. Of course, decisions must be made regarding how much weight one should give to the preferences of each stakeholder.
Is in your view outside financing necessary and compatible with the sustainable, ground-roots principles of ecotourism? In the end, are current global levels of funding for ecotourism, too much, or too little?
Let me answer this broadly since it overlaps with the issue of local ownership and benefits. In my experience, grass-roots efforts often lack skills vital to successful ecotourism. Gaps might be both specific (e.g., ability to speak the language of the likeliest target market) and general (e.g., understanding the "personality" of that market and how to attract them to one's destination). NGOs can play important roles in providing training and bridging the gap between local communities and tourism markets. However, I believe the private sector also has an important role to play, and thus are key collaborators in ecotourism development. Such collaboration will not be easy, but mutual commitment, and the development of mutual trust, between partners can lead to success. There are already examples of collaboration (such as the Rainforest Expeditions and Infierno case noted above), and it is my hope that partnerships between the private sector, the public sector (public parks), and local communities will flourish.
Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
One topic that is of ongoing interest and concern to me is the continued focus on "carrying capacity" as a management tool. Though I agree with the motivations for seeking carrying capacities (concern about the negative impacts of visitation), decades of experience in outdoor recreation management demonstrates that simplistic applications (finding the "magic number") can lead to results that are less than optimal. For example, in some cases park revenue, industry viability, and local economic benefits may be jeopardized by access limits that achieve little or no ecological gain. Two of the challenges for ecotourism professionals are 1) to develop management systems that can be applied with limited resources yet that overcome limitations of simplistic carrying capacity applications and 2) to better understand the relationships between visitation and important ecological, economic, and sociocultural variables, to help determine when the gains of management intervention outweigh the costs.
Thank you very much
Information about Dr. Lindberg is available at: http://www.osucascades.edu/directory/lindberg.php
Information about studying international
ecotourism at Oregon State University is available at:
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