INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY
Year 6 - Issue 64
Professor Ralf Buckley
Ralf Buckley is a Professor at Griffith University, Australia, and Director & Chair of the International Centre for Ecotourism Research. He is a Member of Australia's Biological Diversity Advisory Committee, the World Heritage Science Advisory Committee, and author of over 200 articles in scientific journals and of over a hundred consultant reports, dealing with over 40 countries, in the field of tourism, ecology, environmental management, economics, and law. Professor Buckley has served as an Expert witness, in various parliamentary, judicial and industry inquiries in tourism, biodiversity, aid, trade and development. His recent books include Environmental Impacts of Ecotourism (CABI, 2004); Tourism in Parks (GU, 2004); Nature-based Tourism, Environment and Land Management (CABI, 2003); Case Studies in Ecotourism (CABI, 2003). He has been a keynote speaker on Ecotourism at various conferences worldwide, since 1992. Titles include: Senior Fulbright Fellow (1994), Emeritus Professor, National Environmental Academy, China, and Program Leader, Japan-Australia Science and Technology Agreement. His outdoor credentials include the first known solo return crossing of Simpson Desert, Australia, 1st descent in Mekong Man Wan and Upper Qamdo Gorges, a Scotland to Faeroes return (sailing) with Force 9 winds and Advanced Open NAUI Diving Certification. He holds a Ph.D. in Ecology from Australian National University, and MA from Cambridge. Current research interests include the economics of ecotourism, outdoor recreation and adventure tourism.
Australia is considered today as one of the leading countries in Ecotourism in terms of policy and research. To what extent is this due to a close (asphyxiating?) cooperation between government accreditation bodies, some universities, local authorities and some private companies?
It's true that Australia has a leading reputation
in ecotourism policy, but in many ways it's just a question of
nomenclature. There are backcountry outfitters in North America, and
safaris and game lodges in East and South Africa, which have
effectively been operating on ecotourism principles since the early
part of the last century. Australia didn't have that historical
precedent, so when we picked up the term ecotourism a decade ago, it
had no competition. And it has stayed in use ever since, because it is
a critical component in ongoing political efforts by tourism interests
to gain increased access and rights in protected areas. So we do have
more ecotourism plans and policies than most countries, and a very
active ecotourism industry association. Our best ecotourism projects,
however, are not really very different to the best in other countries.
For example, private landowners who use upmarket tourism to finance
conservation of endangered wildlife. The tools we use to manage
tourism in parks are no more sophisticated than in any other country.
In fact, often we are still in the middle of policy debates that have
long since been settled elsewhere. And our ecotourism research is
actually rather limited. We have a small number of very competent and
active ecotourism researchers, but very little interest from tourism
research funding bodies. Australia and the USA, for example, are about
the same size and have a similar diversity of environments, but the
USA has produced five times as many research publications on the
environmental impacts of hiking, horseriding and off-road vehicles,
and ten times as many on the impacts of tourists on birds and
No, I would say that just like other countries, we have ecotourism enterprises at many different price levels, both those involving Indigenous communities and those that do not. There are five-star eco-resorts which employ Aboriginal people and contribute to Aboriginal projects, and there are five-star tours which are wholly owned and operated by Aboriginal people on Aboriginal land, at five-star prices. And there are tours and lodges wholly owned and operated by whitefellas at all levels from discount backpacker to over a thousand bucks a night.
In your articles, you have succinctly reviewed what we would call, the "global eco certification turf wars". Who are the sides if any, and who is winning? In the light of this contest, should the ecotourism academic community keep a safe distance from the ecotourism certification community? Does it do so? And is the demand for eco-labels marketing or principle-generated?
The critical issue seems to be that most actual tourists at the individual retail level apparently don't care about ecocertification, except as it describes environmental quality in different destinations. They want to know that their holiday destination is clean and scenic and safe to swim in, but they don't seem to know or care whether the company they travel with has good environmental management practices. It's analogous to risk management in adventure tourism: clients want confidence that guides will prevent them from getting injured, but they don't want to know how. And in addition, ecocertification in other industry sectors has not had a very good reputation for reliability. So people really don't trust industry ecolabels. A certain proportion of travellers do pay attention, but they only believe endorsements from well-known and reputable environmental groups, not industry schemes. So the reason that the tourism industry is still pursuing ecocertification programs seems to be more about dealings with government than with markets. In some Australian States, tour operators certified by our ecotourism industry association get preferential permitting to operate in national parks - they get longer licence terms. Ecocertification was still on the agenda at the Tourism Dialogues of the recent Barcelona Forum, but fairly low key. The main focus was on the World Tourism Organisation's Tour Operators' Initiative for Sustainable Tourism. If the accreditation council proposed by The Rainforest Alliance gets some serious teeth, people might pay more attention, but otherwise I don't think tourists are really paying much attention to ecocertification.
From your research, do government laws and penalties or voluntary schemes work better, when it comes to environmental protection in tourism?
Well, it's certainly not only from my research, but from work by environmental lawyers, managers and scientists across many countries and industry sectors: voluntary schemes only work where they are backed up strongly by laws and penalties, and laws are generally much more effective. As one often-used example, if you want buildings or appliances or vehicles to become more energy efficient, it's much more effective to change the building or manufacturing codes, or increase the price of power or fuel, than to rely on voluntary schemes such as ecocertification. In fact, even where rules and programs have been worked out and introduced by operators, they don't work unless the industry gets government to enshrine them in law. Quotas on Grand Canyon raft tours are a well-known example. It was the rafting companies which worked out the quota system, to the advantage of existing operators, but to make it operational they got the parks service to adopt it officially. The same sort of approach has been used by some of our local operators here, who take people to a heavily-visited glow-worm cave in a national park. Broadly, it seems that industry groups typically adopt voluntary schemes either to stave off government regulations, or as a competitive strategy for one group of companies to gain an advantage over others. That doesn't mean that voluntary schemes are useless, of course: they can achieve quite a lot. But ultimately, laws work better.
Academic teaching in Ecotourism: Are you generally satisfied with the level of teaching, research and especially of the students? Can Ecotourism now be considered a premier league academic discipline, or is it still considered a soft option?
I can really only speak for my own university, where I know the entrance qualifications and exam results. We started the world's first full specialist ecotourism degree back in 1993, so it's probably as good a test case as any. For us, ecotourism is a specialist degree. It's a tough course, most of an environmental science degree and most of a tourism degree all at once, so it's certainly not a soft option. It's a specialist degree, with a small intake quota so it gets well-qualified students who work hard and get jobs when they graduate. But you couldn't call it a premier league academic qualification, because those are the single-discipline degrees like medicine and law, with high intake as well as a high workload and high entrance qualifications. In fact, we think that after a pioneering decade, the specialist named ecotourism degree is no longer needed. We are still offering the degree, but in future it will only be a major in our broader environmental science programs.
Ecotourism Statistics: Is anyone bothering to collect any, and of what quality is it. Who would like to purchase it, governments or private firms? Can it do harm in the wrong private hands, or is it the only way forward for correct public policy decisions?
There are academic research projects which collect ecotourism statistics - for example, we have done two national surveys of all outdoor tourism businesses in Australia. But of course, businesses don't have to take part. There are government statistical exercises on origins, destinations and activities of individual tourists, usually conducted in international airports. But there is no multi-national system to collect and compare an agreed set of ecotourism statistics. This is partly because of disagreements over definitions of ecotourism. And it's partly because the System of National Accounts, the international protocol which countries use to collect economic data to calculate GNP and so on, doesn't include tourism except as a so-called satellite account, and even that was only introduced a few years ago. I don't think there is a big commercial demand for such statistics. They are used more for policy purposes. For example, many national parks agencies now collect data on visitor numbers, origins and activities, and some have calculated economic contributions to regional economies as a way to lobby for increased funding. But most individual businesses aren't concerned by national statistics, only their own particular markets. For example, recently we offered to provide a free summary of our national outdoor tourism statistics to any business that asks for it, but only about 15% took up the offer.
In your capacity as Director of the International Centre for Ecotourism Research, do you feel that ecotourism research worldwide is of comparative, educational value? Can / have any new solid theories been inducted from it, or is it more helpful for business deals and projects on a micro, local scale?
Ecotourism research is a useful name for research relevant to any of the many different interactions between tourism and environment. So, for example, it can include research on actual patterns and trends in outdoor tourism businesses, on the ecological impacts and environmental management of tourism and recreation, on the effectiveness of policies and practices used to control people in parks, on the contribution of commercial tourism operations to conservation of biodiversity, and many more such topics. Our impression is that whilst lots is written about ecotourism in rather general terms, there is rather little rigorous repeatable research in any of these fields. There are individual researchers who are highly productive, especially in recreation ecology and economics. But they have to devote a lot of effort to finding funding, because large-scale national science funding programs think tourism is too applied, and large-scale tourism funding programs are mostly interested in marketing and political lobbying, certainly not in measuring environmental impacts. They might be prepared to fund a few surveys and some fancy-looking models, but not the basic scientific, economic and social-science research that those models must rely on. Research centres such as ICER, or the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in the USA, can lead the field but aren't large enough to do all the research that's needed. Instead, we have to find ecologists and economists and policy analysts who already have established careers and reputations, and get them interested in tourism-related projects. For example, we recently completed a book on Environmental Impacts of Ecotourism, published by CAB International in Oxford UK, with contributions from recreation ecologists worldwide.
What are current hot research topics in Ecotourism at your Centre and beyond, do you sense any new trends? Are any students researching thorny topics such as profit repatriation, foreign ownership and labour relations in Ecotourism, or are these out of fashion as they can not lead to profitable careers, as, say certification?
There are lots of interesting student topics, certainly. For example, some recent theses looked at the economic value of ecotourism compared to logging, the effectiveness of interpretation in reducing environmental impacts, etc. One of our current students is looking at the role of tourism in supporting farmers, and its links to conservation on private land. But some topics are too thorny to give to students. A PhD student's entire career depends on them being able to complete their thesis, to the satisfaction of examiners, within three years. So academic supervisors have a responsibility to help them find topics which will make a significant contribution to academic knowledge but at the same time, have a reasonable chance of success within the time and resources available. It's not likely that any university will have funds to fly a student around the world to trace financial transfers. And if a company has carefully set up systems to quarantine revenues from local tax agencies, for example, it is not likely to spill the details to a student. So, profit repatriation and so on are indeed interesting topics, but they would need an experienced researcher in international finance, not a student. Last year I finished a book called Case Studies in Ecotourism, also published by CABI, where we screened about 500 ecotourism operators worldwide and reported on about 170. We found that some of these, certainly, have made a virtue of local ownership and local employment, and were prepared to give us relevant statistics. Others have tried, but fell foul of local mafias. But of course, data are preferentially available from particular companies. There are no doubt many more which have a very different approach to international business, but the chances are we don't have any data from them because we didn't count them as ecotourism.
When one opens glossy international magazines who claim to patronise Ecotourism through awards and fairs, it is sometimes hard spotting the trees amidst the forest of SUVs and fashionable travel gear. As an academic, do you sense a danger of a capture of the heart of Ecotourism by the automotive, fashion and media industries, or does the end justifies the means?
Well, speaking as an academic, I have to say that "capture of the heart of ecotourism" is perhaps an ambiguous phrase. I would say that as a product, ecotourism is part of a larger sector which has variously been called nature, eco and adventure tourism (NEAT); adventure, cultural and ecotourism (ACE); geotourism; or outdoor tourism. When we look at actual tour products on sale to retail clients, they often include excitement-based adventure components, contemplative nature components, and interactive culture components in the same package. And historically, adventure tourism has arisen through commercialisation of outdoor recreation. Most types of outdoor recreation need specialist equipment, so there are now some strong crossovers between tour operations and equipment manufacturers. At the same time, the manufacturers want to project a green image, and ecotourism is one way to do it. Outdoor sports are fashionable, so the clothing and entertainment industries have used adventure recreation as a marketing tool. So there is indeed a chain of links between ecotourism and equipment and clothing manufacturers. As to the consequences, that's harder to assess. The question is, does watching TV programs, buying gear, and taking adventure tours lead people to change their personal consumption, investment or voting patterns so as to reduce their environmental and social impacts, and if so do these changes outweigh the impacts of their travel and equipment? We don't have anything like the research data needed to answer such a question.
"Ism" beauty contests: (ecotourism, geotourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism): A case of creating little niches for academic pulp wars, seconded by powerful business interests, "holier than thou" contests, or valuable debates about how best to reach common goals?
All of the above. Like most such terms, it's not the word itself that matters, but what people use it for, and what they actually do. The same word can be used as a marketing buzzword, a pejorative label, or a useful shorthand descriptor in analysis. The same ambiguity applies to ecotourism awards and prizes. They are valuable if they help to promote companies which have adopted particularly good environmental management practices, or are using tourism as a tool in conservation; but not otherwise.
Is the Internet seen as a threat, static noise, or as a valuable tool by traditional deposits and channels of knowledge such as Universities and Academic Journals?
It's an extremely valuable tool, but also a source of noise. I don't think it's seen as a threat - universities and journals have embraced it strongly, and use electronic communication and publication extensively. Ultimately it just means quicker, easier and cheaper communications: we get more info but also more junk, and we are still learning how to separate them. As Martin Routh said two centuries ago, "You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references." We have to teach students that internet sources differ in reliability, just like printed materials.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Well, perhaps it's worth remembering the global context for ecotourism. Ecosystems worldwide are experiencing ever-greater impacts from ever-growing human populations, and so far we have been unable to find human social institutions which can successfully stop people producing so many children and consuming so many resources. Ecotourism is potentially one way which can harness the leisure time and funds of richer people in richer nations to help conserve ecosystems in poorer nations. If it doesn't, then it deserves no special distinction from any other industry, including tourism more generally. And even if it does, it is only one of many approaches we need to pursue, if human life is to survive on this planet. That's the issue, and if we don't face up to it, we're wasting our time.
Thank you very much
Further information about Professor Buckley and studying
Ecotourism at ICER is available at:
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