Eco-tourism: A new “Green Revolution” in the Third World

Today, we present a document that addresses a number of critical ecotourism issues from the perspective of Third World destinations. It points out that ecotourism driven by Western environmentalism and aided by influential international institutions and developed countries has been introduced in the South in form of a development package and at such a massive scale so that it can be called a new ‘Green Revolution’. The paper first examines the shortcomings of the ecotourism concept, which helps to explain why related policies and projects have generally failed to bring about sustainable development. It also argues that tourism initiatives in Third World economies  with and without an “eco”-label - are likely to further yield their sovereignty to foreign interests as the liberalization of international trade in goods and services advances. Drawing on local experiences from around the world, the following accounts on the impacts of ecotourism schemes on the environment, local residents and particularly indigenous peoples reveal that, while ecotourism development is widely promoted as a viable solution at the international and national levels, the situation on the ground is quite different. The paper then focusses on the positive rhetoric of ecotourism advocates and the suppression of critical reflections from outside of official and professional circles, which underpins the argument of ecotourism primarily playing a legitimizing role. In the conclusionary chapter, it is suggested that ecotourism activities should be restrained, at least  until decision-makers pay sufficient attention to the serious problems it involves and establish more stringent and functional regulatory frameworks.

The Campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team), Thailand
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia
Consumers Association Penang (CAP), Malaysia


Eco-tourism: A new "Green Revolution" in the Third World

By Anita Pleumarom

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team

1. Introduction

In July 1995, an unusual US$5 billion proposal was put forward to the Cambodian government by a Western group based in Phnom Penh, the Society for Ecology and Wildlife Preservation, to forgo industrialisation in favour of an "alternative model of development" that would turn the entire country into a theme park for eco-tourists.

"By making all of Cambodia the 'World National Park', Cambodia would become the major tourist destination of Southeast Asia, or possibly the world," said Marshall Perry, the director of the ecology group in his feasibility study. "All countries, all environmental organisations, and of course, the United Nations will pour millions of dollars into the Divine Cambodian Development Programme, which now becomes the 'Hope' of the world." (cit. in Cambodia Daily 4.-6.8.1995).

Perry, who claimed his proposal had been met with support by all Cambodians he talked to, wanted to shift the development of the country to the service industry, tourism, world environment programmes and research. He argued Cambodians would economically benefit by sticking to areas that support tourism, such as "local handicrafts, traditional dances, shows, singing"; otherwise it would just be another civilisation to lose its rich heritage for "progress" (FEER 31.8.1995). Perry wanted to see his dream come true by the year 2000, although the Khmer Rouge were still fighting a low-level guerilla war against the elected Phnom Penh government, landmines infested large parts of the country, and well-publicised abductions of foreigners limited the tourist trade (New Frontiers 1(5), p. 6). But as suddenly as this fantastic project emerged, it disappeared and was never heard of again.

The Far Eastern Economic Review upon learning of Perry’s proposal commented bluntly in an editorial: "Back in the wicked old days of Empire, Western powers took pains to open their colonies to commerce. In so doing, they built an impressive infrastructure of roads, railways and ports that in many parts of the world still operate today. Not so our new imperialists... though they pursue their cause as vigorously as any colonial potentate, their preferred tools are labour and environmental regulations rather than cannon and gunpowder... the last thing impoverished Cambodians need is a Western form of environmentalism that is essentially a call for them to remain quaint, costumed specimen for foreign tourists. Indeed, Perry's apocalyptic insistence that Cambodia embrace his scheme full force or lose its soul invites eerie comparisons with the Khmer Rouge, whose own alternative was also based on the countryside as the only authentic repository of the Angkor nation." (FEER 31.8.1995).

Undoubtedly, environmental politics has risen to the top of the global agenda. Tourism, supposedly the world's biggest industry, is another global focal point. The result is eco-tourism, which is increasingly introduced in Third World countries in form of a development package, involving capital, expertise, technology and management systems, and is, thus, becoming something like a new Green Revolution.

Apart from the tourism industry, many governments, academic institutions, development agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are now seeking to develop eco-tourism, which in difference to much-criticised conventional mass tourism claims to be ecologically and socially sensitive. Eco-tourism projects have been actively supported by large business associations such as the World Tourism and Trade Council (WTTC) and Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA); international institutions such as the World Bank, the World Tourism Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the European Union/Community (EU/EC) and the Earth Council; bilateral development agencies; worldwide operating NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the World Conservation Union (IUCN), Conservation International, the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Domestic Technology Institute (DTI), the Ecotourism Society, and the Adventure Travel Society [1].

However, the trend towards tourism development schemes - projected as sustainable, nature-based, soft, green and eco-tourism ventures [2] - has generated considerable public debate and concern due to their potential serious implications on nature and society, particularly in Southern countries. The case of Cambodia not only triggered controversy concerning the question whether this war-torn and poverty-struck country needed more "saviours" making choices for them. If realized, it could have also become a symbol for the excesses of eco-tourism.

There are well-founded concerns that eco-tourism lacks adequate scientific foundations and is therefore not well equipped to arrive at sustainable and practicable solutions to the global social and environmental crisis. The World Bank, for example, has funded a growing number of biodiversity programmes including an eco-tourism component, although there is little evidence that it has the inhouse expertise and means to develop a concrete policy in that field [3].

Many of the claims concerning the benefits of eco-tourism have been exaggerated, or owe more to labelling and marketing, as such projects are often planned and carried out without local consent and support, and indeed threaten rather than benefit local people's cultures, their subsistence economies and life-sustaining natural resource base. It is because of this that critics regard eco-tourism more as an "eco-facade" and as a tactic to conceal the consumptive and exploitative practices of the mainstream tourism industry - by "greening" it [4]. Environmentalists opposing a mega-tourism complex in Costa Rica complained, for example, that "developers were swift in taking advantage of the fashionable terminology with the only aim of filling their pockets with money." (cit. in Panos Briefing 1995 p. 5).

It is also clear that, just as with traditional mass-tourism, the tremendous growth of eco-tourism has not been matched with official efforts to adequately plan, implement and monitor developments through administrative and legal mechanisms. Likewise, in most countries adopting eco-tourism policies, the infrastructure for research and education concerning predictive impact assessments, control regulations and risk containment are deficient or non-existent. Hence, there is no base for the blanket claim that eco-tourism schemes can be properly planned and managed in foreseeable future.

This paper first examines the shortcomings of the eco-tourism concept which helps to explain why existing policies and projects generally fail to bring about profound changes necessary to work towards genuinely sustainable development. It is also argued that (eco-)tourism initiatives in smaller economies are likely to further yield their sovereignty to foreign interests as the liberalisation of international trade in goods and services advances. The following accounts on the impacts of eco-tourism ventures on the environment, local residents and particularly indigenous peoples reveal that, while eco-tourism development is meanwhile widely accepted at the international and national levels, the situation at the local level is quite different. The paper then focusses on the positive and optimistic rhetoric of eco-tourism protagonists and the suppression of critical reflections from outside of official and professional circles, which further underpins the argument of eco-tourism primarily playing a legitimising role. Finally, it is suggested that eco-tourism activities should be restrained until decision-makers pay sufficient attention to these issues and establish functional frameworks for intervention. A major idea underlying this section is that authority over resources for tourism and other forms of development are to be maintained by governments vis-a-vis "global encroachment" and, equally importantly, needs to be handed down to local communities, before more positive results can be delivered.

2. Deficiencies of the eco-tourism concept

2.1 Problems of definition

Eco-tourism has been widely promoted as a viable alternative to ecologically and culturally degrading mass-tourism, as a form of sustainable development, which can yield immediate economic returns without risking major damages to local communities and the natural environment. However, a precise and unambiguous definition of eco-tourism and subsequently a common understanding on its meaning and goals do not exist.    

The problems of defining and conceptualizing eco-tourism became utterly clear at an international conference entitled "Eco-tourism: Concept, Design and Strategy", held in Bangkok from 6 to 8 February 1995. While there was general agreement that eco-tourism is "nature-based, sustainably managed, inclusive of social and cultural aspects, and educational to tourists", only two of the speakers acknowledged that the concept includes "benefits to local people" and "involvement of local people" as components. Most eco-tourism proponents were only concerned with tourism activities attracting visitors to natural areas and using the revenues to fuel economic development and, to some extent, fund conservation efforts; others used the term in a much broader sense and also stressed the "greening of mass tourism", i.e. by the reshaping of existing tours and hotel activities into more sustainable ventures (Hiranburana/ Stithyudhakarn/ Dhamabutra 1995). 

2.2 The question of "sustainability"

Eco-tourism policies, inspired by the 1987 Brundtland Report "Our Common Future" and later by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and their attempts at redefining development through "sustainability" and "justice" have been opposed due to the introduction of a dubious and false linkage between development and conservation. As such, they assist in concealing the actual dichotomy between ecological development and unsustainable economic growth [5].

Harrison points out that sustainability - and thus sustainable tourism - is an especially problematic concept when applied to socio-cultural phenomena:

"Systems theory in social science has long experienced difficulty in distinguishing between social and cultural attributes that are functional and dysfunctional for the continuance of a social system and such analytical difficulties are unlikely to be eased by considering social systems as but a part of the wider natural environment, even though there may be evident a priori reasons for postulating such links. As a consequence, there are no clear criteria for determining which of the socio-cultural changes laid at the door of tourism represent an outright threat to a society's distinctiveness, which will help sustain the status quo, and which allow for adaptation in the face of external pressures to change. In fact, current differences in the assessment of the merits of social change in tourist-receiving societies are based more on differences in ideology and moral positions than on sound social analysis, the tools for which simply do not exist" (Harrison 1995 p.19).

2.3 Working Together?

A major assumption underlying the eco-tourism concept is that cooperation between the industry, governments, NGOs and local communities will translate into successful planning and implementation of eco-tourism. This view can be rebuked as simplistic and unrealistic as it fails to take into account the greatly divergent interests and motives of the various participants in tourism. An ideal is being promoted where sustainable tourism can be achieved with all concerned institutions and their ethical values intact, while in reality, tourism development continues to rest with the narrow economic interests and action plans of the industry and other powerful institutions, which more often than not run contrary to cultural and ecological sensitivities of local communities. West/ Brechin recognise the strong tendency for eco-tourism benefits to be monopolised by large-scale companies:

"This pattern of centralised and highly capitalised tourism development is rooted in easy availability of capital, competitive advantage, power in the political economy, and compatibility with the interests of central governments in efficient 'shearing of the tourist sheep' to maximise foreign exchange.... Yet, [eco-tourism] advocates continue blindly to promise economic cornucopia to local residents from tourism revenues without appreciation of the fact or understanding of the social structural conditions under which tourism can provide benefits to local people" (West/ Brechin 1991 p. 390).

Under such conditions, it is easy to argue that discussions on conflict management and trade-offs between environmental and developmental goals, as suggested by some analysts [6], will hardly, if ever, bring about more equity and justice in tourism.

2.4 Unsustainable consumption patterns

Without challenging the development process itself, "pristine environment", plant and animal species are primarily seen as commodities for tourist consumption, while significant social and political issues such as the maldistribution of resources, and inequalities in political representation and power are marginalised or ignored.

What has been often overlooked is the fact that eco-tourism is a highly consumer-centred activity, mostly catering to the "alternative lifestyles" of the new middle classes of urbanised societies (Munt 1994 p. 50). Leslie, suggests that the norms, values and attitudes of Western industrialised societies need to change first:

"Until we start tackling the issues, one of which undoubtedly is the impact of tourism, arising as a result of consumer societies, then sustainable tourism will never exist outside one's own backyard; but then that is not tourism!" (Leslie 1993 p. 12).

2.4 Eco-tourism as development

Claims among eco-tourism protagonists persist that subsistence economies are non-productive, unprofitable and backward, and local people are ignorant of and responsible for environmental destruction. An effective eco-tourism industry, it is argued, will stimulate economic growth and at the same time generate funds for conservation. There is hardly recognition of the fact that indigenous non-dominant, ecologically sound economic systems prevail in many places. Worse, eco-tourism policies often involve the expulsion of people who in fact have contributed to shape biodiversity-rich landscapes and complex plant and wildlife habitats over generations [7]. 

A particular cause of anxiety is the fact that in relation to Third World countries, crucial questions regarding the international political economy and the widening gap between North and South are being sidestepped. Debt-ridden and increasingly tied to the global economy, many Third World governments in need of foreign exchange see little option but to exploit their natural resources for tourist consumption. Meanwhile, the global drive for biodiversity protection has enabled transnational corporations (TNCs) and organisations dominated by industrialised countries to increasingly intervene in Third World affairs and reap profits from their huge investments in eco-tourism ventures.

Conservation-cum-tourism programmes such as the World Conservation Strategy, the Tropical Forestry Action Plan, Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs), Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded projects or the USAID-funded Biodiversity Support Programme have come under severe attack for their top-down approaches shaped by global techno-bureaucrats and their incapability to adequately coordinate activities with governments, NGOs and affected communities.

2.5 Globalisation and "liberalisation"

The efforts of bi-lateral and multi-lateral development agencies such as USAID, UNDP, UNEP and financial institutions like the World Bank, all of which are significantly involved in influencing eco-tourism agendas, are directed towards making Third World countries compliant through homogenisation of policies and standards. Examples are the Structural Adjustment Programmes and the liberalisation of trade and services through the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), which increasingly undermine economic and social progress in Third World countries and result in more destruction of cultural and ecological diversity.

"The General Agreement in Trade in Services or GATS, a separate agreement in the Uruguay Round of GATT, provides for the opening up of signatory countries to 100 per cent foreign investment in tourism services and disallows any protectionist measures for local tourism concerns. This will edge out small, independent enterprises as TNCs and their affiliates, with the advantage of financial resources and technology, muscle their way in to control the tourist trade in countries of the South. The GATT/ WTO [World Trade Organisation] and trends for liberalisation of tourism benefit not only the TNCs of the North. Joining the TNC bandwagon are a number of tourism-oriented development concerns in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore which are independent or have linkages with Japanese capital and have expanded operations in the fast-growing East Asian region" (Tujan 1995 p. 5). 

With the envisaged liberalisation measures under GATS rule (World Tourism Organisation 1994), tourism-related TNCs may in future face less restrictions to operate businesses across the world, without adequate mechanisms for public scrutiny and environmental auditing. As the eco-tourism approach has neglected a wider debate on such crucial issues, there is a strong possibility that social and ecological conflicts around related programmes will aggravate [8].

3. Impact of eco-tourism

3.1 Environmental trap

Biodiversity and environmentally intact lands form the basis of ecological stability which has already been severely affected by industrialisation, urbanisation, unsustainable agricultural practices, and last not least mass-tourism. While eco-tourism sounds comparatively benign, one of its most serious impacts is the usurpation of "virgin" territories - national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other wilderness areas - which are then packaged as green products for eco-tourists. With the tremendous expansion of commercialised eco-tourism,  environmental destruction - including deforestation, land deterioration, disruption of ecological life systems and various forms of pollution - has in fact increased and still carries on apace.

The contrast between conservation as practiced by local people, and profit-making conservation-cum-tourism ventures, is illustrated in the following example from Kenya: The Maasai from Loita Hills, some 320 kms south-west of Nairobi, have been fighting a fierce battle to prevent an indigenous forest from being turned into another eco-tourism destination. As one local comments on the neighbouring Maasai Mara Reserve: "Tourism has been allowed to develop with virtually no controls. Too many lodges have been built, too much firewood is being used and no limits are placed on tourist vehicles. They regularly drive off-track and harrass the wildlife. Their tracks criss-cross the entire Maasai Mara. Inevitably, the bush is becoming eroded and degraded." (cit. in Carrere 1994 p. 2). Having experienced the negative effects of tourism by themselves, the community decided to protect the "Forest of the Lost Child", which for generations has been under their management and control and carefully kept as a sacred place for worship and communion with Maasai deities. The Maasai here are small-scale subsistence agriculturalists who have used resources in a sustainable manner. As a result, the forest is still dense and biodiversity-rich with abundant wildlife,  plants which serve as herbal medicine, sufficient water sources and pastures to raise healthy cattle. Undoubtedly, not only the environment would be under siege, the spiritual and material way of life would also degenerate rapidly if tourism intrudes the area. (ibid. pp. 2-3).

Searching for "untouched" or "authentic" places, young and adventurous travellers already served to open up many new destinations "off the beaten track" to mass tourism, accelerating the pace of social and environmental decay in host communities. Mainstream conservation groups have reinforced this trend by stressing the economic value of so-called conservation-cum-tourism projects, in order to make their environmental protection strategies attractive to international funding sources and the private industry in particular. As a result, even mega-resorts including luxury hotels, condominiums, shopping centers and golf courses, are increasingly established in nature reserves in the name of eco-tourism. Such projects, in many cases protested as "eco-terrorism" rather than "eco-tourism", tend to irretrievably wipe out plant and wildlife species and entire ecosystems to replace them by completely artificial landscapes.

The list of outright destructive developments is indeed endless [9]. In Costa Rica, for instance, eco-tourism has been a boom industry and a model for other parts of the world. If eco-tourism can not succeed here, it is often argued, its role elsewhere looks distinctly doubtful. Meanwhile, however, local NGOs and small-scale tour operators have alerted to more and more unsustainable developments which clearly pave the way to mass tourism and turn the country into an "eco-tourism graveyard" (Castilho 1994 p. 9). In 1994, Costa Rica's biggest tourism development ever, the Papagallo Gulf project on the North Pacific coast, was frozen due to charges of corruption and violation of legal procedures. The US$2 billion project, covering 2,000 hectares of pristine beaches surrounded by tropical forests, has set a target for 40,000 hotel rooms - almost five times as many as have been available in the entire country. The mega-resort has not only become a sensitive issue because of the alleged illegalities and devastating environmental impacts, but it has also unleashed a heated debate on Costa Rica's "sustainable" tourism future (ibid.).

The countries of Indochina have only recently decided to develop their tourism industries, but there are already alarming signs that the very same mistakes as in other countries are being repeated. A case in point is Champasak province in Southern Laos, including the famous Lee Pee Waterfalls at Khon Phapheng on the Mekong River, which has been earmarked for international-level resort development. Some years ago, plans surfaced for the establishment of a US$300 million tourism complex, including luxury hotels, casinos, golf courses, a hydro-power station, and an international airport, on 500 hectares of land around the Lee Pee Falls, notwithstanding that the area has been proposed as a world heritage site because of its outstanding beauty and biological diversity. The Thai developer proposed to attract 1.8 million tourists annually to the area and claimed that the project would be carried out in an environmentally friendly manner in consultation with NGOs. However, the environmental report commissioned by the developer was strongly criticised as insufficient by environmentalists in Laos and the Thai press because the project involved deforestation, ecological disruption of the fragile Mekong river system, displacement of villagers, and probably undesirable social and cultural changes in nearby communities (The Nation 3.2.1995; 21.7.1995).

Indeed, commercial tourism to "unspoilt" pristine natural places - with or without an "eco"-prefix - is a contradiction in terms. To generate substantial revenue - whether for foreign exchange, tourism businesses, local communities or conservation -, the number of tourists has to be large, and that inevitably implies greater pressures on eco-systems.

Goodall agrees that the unprecedented growth of the tourism industry continues to threaten the environment, even where future operations are environmentally more efficient than current ones. He concludes that environmentally sustainable tourism will remain an elusive goal, not least because of its use of transport, air transportation for example:

"British Airways's flying operations in 1992-93, when measured by standardised environmental performance indicators such as emissions per available seat kilometer improved over 1991-92, but total carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions increased by six per cent because of increased volume of business" (Goodall 1995 p.36).

The issue of appropriate environmental management in tourist destinations has been addressed for many years now, but little has been done on the ground, and efforts to rearrange existing tourism towards eco-tourism have rarely been successful. This is due to the general reluctance to limit tourism growth, the lack of controlled development and the lack of a thorough examination of the impact on the environment, i.e. the impact of resource utilisation, the consumptive nature of tourism and its continuous discharge of pollutants.

A number of environmental methodologies and techniques, such as ecological accounting, "polluter pays" principles, and environmental impact assessments (EIA) have been put forward in relation to eco-tourism management, with little discussion and appraisal of their limitations and shortcomings (Fernandes 1994 p. 7). EIAs, for example, are usually not carried out by independent institutions, but private consultancies are hired for this purpose by the project owners who naturally want their schemes approved smoothly, without having to pay the high costs for precautionary environmental protection measures. Thus, EIAs are mostly produced in favour of the tourism companies rather than for the public good.

Benidorm in Spain, Acapulco in Mexico, and Pattaya in Thailand, all of which lost their reputation as fine seaside-resorts, clearly demonstrate the failure to clean up popular holiday destinations. Hawai'i is another typical example: The dark side of rampant tourism growth was showing up already 20 years ago, when descriptions of Waikiki began to surface as a "concrete jungle, a raucous sideshow - a billion-dollar cement mistake" (Rohter 1992 p. 2). Today, Hawai'i is encountering an even worse plague of problems which are by no means easily solvable. What islanders are witnessing is further over-building of their lands and continued environmental degradation characterised by loss of green space, beaches and marine life, overflowing sewers, depletion of limited water supply, and contamination of water and food by toxic chemicals. Hawai'i's tourism-centred economy, now almost completely dominated by powerful multinational corporations, has burdened locals with low wages, excessively expensive housing, and a cost-of-living 35 per cent higher than on the US mainland. The gaps between extremes of rich and poor has widened tremendously. Yet, political and business leaders believe that all these problems can be managed in an eco-friendly and democratic manner - even in prospect of a new tourism boom. Inspite of the alarming truths and far from effectively tackling existing social and environmental decay, there have been preparations for nearly doubling the number of tourists to the Hawai'ian islands, to 11.5 million annually, in the next 20 years.  As a result of in-migrating workforce necessary to serve the growing tourism industry, the number of people residing in Hawai'i is expected to increase by 70 per cent! (ibid.).

"Self-regulation", as promoted by the "Green Globe" programme of the World Travel and Tourism Council's Environment Research Centre (WTTERC), has been lauded by industry leaders as a  significant step towards environmentally sustainable tourism. However, in Josephides's words, "what generally happens is that a state monopoly, more often than not an inefficient one is replaced by a more ruthless, efficient private sector monopoly with short term aims, designed to satisfy city investors." (Josephides 1994 p. 10).

As a result of the worldwide trend to seek corporatisation or privatisation of basic services such as good roads, clean water supply, sewage treatment and waste disposal, local people will be left even more to their own devices, particularly in situations where poor sections of society are already disadvantaged. For instance, "private water companies will demand effective metering and cost recovery. In the Western Samoan capital of Apia, where tourism is targeted to play a major role in future development, there is the real possibility of a two-level water supply in the near future. The one being clean and expensive and available to a limited number of consumers (including tourist establishments) who can afford to pay for it, and the other, dirty and unreliable, and available to the majority." (Lea 1994 p. 4).

3.2 Social erosion

With the establishment of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other protected areas for conservation and tourism purposes, locals have in many cases lost their homes and livelihood, often without any compensation [10]. McIvor explains the problematic relationship between people and nature reserves in Zimbabwe as follows:

"(Colonial enterprise) appropriated the best agricultural lands in Zimbabwe for a small elite of European farmers and evicted communities, like some of the ones around Hwange, from their traditional homes to make way for recreational reserves and safari hunting areas that only benefited the small European population in the country or foreign visitors. This story is repeated in many of the park areas of Zimbabwe as communities contemplate the lost resources and opportunities on the other side of the fences that exclude them. While tourism may have brought some jobs and even stimulated a craft industry around a few of the parks, it is that sense of alienation and dispossession that has maintained uppermost in the minds of the people... For them, the best thing would be for the parks to disappear altogether, their animals destroyed and the foreign visitors transported to some other locations so that they could be left in peace." (McIvor 1994 p. 1).

Eco-tourism planners and managers have in recent years put provisions for the "involvement of local communities" or "people's participation" high on the agenda of their project proposals, mainly as a means of confusing dissent and damage control. Yet, local residents have rarely been involved in the planning and implementation of eco-tourism. Decision-making authority - including deciding whether a project should go ahead or not - has been generally denied. The independent evaluation of the GEF pilot phase, for example, states in relation to GEF-funded biodiversity projects, which often include an eco-tourism component: "Most GEF work to date has been characterised by a top-down approach rather than responding to the needs of governments. It has not involved local communities in an effective way; it has sparked destructive competition among Implementing Agencies and other global organisations in the field of biodiversity; it has given inadequate consideration to sustainable use of biological resources; it has not meaningfully involved the NGOs; and it has been overly dependent on international consulting firms." (UNEP/ UNDP/ The World Bank 1993 p. 60).

Koch observed in 1994 that in fact, "there is a growing awareness in South Africa that efforts to promote community participation in development projects can give rise to new forms of conflict and fragmentation", and recalls, for example, events in Maputaland, where the establishment of "community-based" game reserves has promoted secessionist organisations (Koch 1994 p. 39).  

It does not come as a surprise then that eco-tourism ventures are increasingly regarded as just another repressive form of economic development. Local communities continue to face exploitation and abuse, including the loss of cultural and social identity. It is a form of development that further undermines the autonomy of residents peoples by making them dependent on external forces and by making it harder for local organisations to function. As such, it erodes society's capacity and potential to sustain "self-reliance".

Other social issues such as changes of behaviour and values, especially among local youths, prostitution and AIDS, spreading fast from mass-tourism centers to eco-tourism destinations, have been studiously avoided in eco-tourism discussions [11]. 

Education and employment for locals have been emphasised as the main criteria for "involvement of communities" to make eco-tourism projects successful. But the number of locals who can participate in tourism projects is relatively small, and in many cases, diverse social and economic activities are replaced by an eco-tourism "monoculture", thus causing tremendous losses and leaving little choices for communities. Neither do local people necessarily benefit economically. Tourism-related employment has been greatly overrated, and locals are usually left with low-paying service jobs like tour guides, porters, food and souvenirs vendors, for example. In addition, tourism workers are not assured of year-round-employment and are laid off during off-season.

A study by Wells and Brandon on ICDPs confirms this bleak picture and asserts that "(t)he results (of eco-tourism projects) thus far have been disappointing, to say the least. In general, all spending by visitors - on transportation, food, lodging, or even park entry fees - goes directly to the central treasury or to private corporate interests that have been granted concessions... At popular sites, tourism revenues greatly exceed protected area operating budgets. It is unusual for any of these revenues to be returned directly for park management and extremely rare for a revenue share to go to local people. For example, the value of visits to Khao Yai National Park in Thailand has been estimated at $5 million annually, which is about 100 times the national park budget; none of it goes to local people." (Wells/ Brandon 1992 p. 34).

Even if locals participate in eco-tourism in a meaningful manner, i.e. by setting up small-scale businesses, their livelihood is not secure as such initiatives can be easily jeopardised when financially strong outsiders take over ownership and control of the destination. In addition, large-scale eco-tourism investments tend to drive up land and property prices as well as prices for daily necessities, so that higher incomes will be eaten up by inflation (West/ Brechin 1991 p. 391).

In Third World countries in particular, the economic benefits from eco-tourism have been seriously questioned as it is abundantly clear that, as with conventional tourism, most of the profits are made by foreign airlines, tourist operators, and developers who repatriate them to their own economically more advanced countries. With increasing privatisation and deregulation of the global economy, there are now great and justifiable concerns that Southern countries will lose out even more. More liberalisation will lead to more foreign-owned tourist facilities and tour operations, and as a result, less income from tourism will remain in the local economy.

3.3 Indigenous cultures threatened

For eco-tourism to claim that it preserves and enhances local cultures is highly disingenious. Ethnic groups are increasingly seen as a major asset, an "exotic" backdrop to natural scenery and wildlife. What has been in general ignored is the fact that the very same people have often been the targets of a consistent policy of suppression and exploitation by the dominant social groups in nation states. The simultaneous romanticisation and devastation of indigenous cultures is certainly one of the deepest ironies manifest in eco-tourism.

There is rarely acknowledgement, and much less support, of indigenous peoples' struggle for cultural survival: the struggle for self-determination, freedom of cultural expression, rights to ancestral lands and control over land use and resource management. Participants of an Asia-Pacific Consultation on "Tourism, Indigenous Peoples and Land Rights", held at Sagada in the Mountain Province of the Philippines in early 1995, asserted the tourist industry affecting indigenous peoples as a reiteration of neo-colonial domination in the Third World. Their statement especially highlights the importance of land rights and land use practices:

"Indeed, it is through our worldview, in tune with our cosmic visions, our oneness with the land and our deep spiritual reverence towards the environment that our Mother Earth has few forests and rivers left. But these have become chief targets of the tourist industry under various euphemisms like 'eco-tourism', 'sustainable tourism' and 'alternative tourism'. ... Unjust land laws must be repealed immediately. Ancestral lands are exploited in the name of public interest with no guarantee for resettlement. Colonial laws of the British rule are still in existence in India; the National Forest Act of 1927 outlaws Adivasis from their forests. American colonial laws in the Philippines are in existence through Presidential Decrees declaring Igorots (mountain peoples) squatters in their own lands. All over Hawai'i, the Kanaka Maolis are made strangers in their own lands by American laws. Elsewhere, Aboriginal Australians fight for native titles or possessions of lands arising from ancient tradition and customs and not from British laws. Similar situations exist among indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Nepal" (Sagada Statement 1995).

Whilst eco-tourism attempts to fully integrate indigenous communities into the market-driven economic system, it keeps them as "archaeological"  pieces to stimulate the tourists' nostalgic desire for the "untouched", "primitive" and "savage". Worse, irresponsible eco-tourism promotion features photographs and descriptions of ethnic women, giving credence to the false notions that they are willing and available to be discovered by tourists. Apart from resisting to take-overs of ancestral lands by tourism developers, indigenous peoples organisations and support groups have strongly denounced eco-tourism which has produced "human zoos", as such practices abuse human dignity and involve socio-economic and cultural disruptions which amount to ethnocide [12].

Hence, eco-tourism often appears to replicate, if not intensify, dysfunctional cultural impacts which it has claimed to be countering, and tends to reinforce racial and class-bound institutionalised discriminatory processes which indigenous peoples have been exposed to since colonial times. As Munt puts it:

"Racism is not only institutionalised and commodified, but it is reproduced and fashioned through the media, so that we increasingly consume false images of what we are supposed to value, whether of the native hill tribes of Northern Thailand or Mayan Indians in Guatemala. We are no longer able to transcend or look beyond the 'smiling faces', or challenge this image-reality... Widescale repression of human rights, deeply rooted racism and intense class struggle are null and void in the brave new world of adventure tourism." (Munt 1994 p. 57).

4. The legitimising discourse of eco-tourism

4.1 Obfuscation through language

Eco-tourism proponents have been keen to present a positive and optimistic picture for the environmentally concerned public [13]. However, the rhetoric used in literature and conferences in support of eco-tourism creates considerable confusion between eco-tourism as a theoretical ideal, what has been planned and what has been actually achieved. The terms "opportunity" of and "potential" for eco-tourism are found in abundance to give the impression that this activity has already proven to function well.

Some proponents have also portrayed eco-tourism as a "potentially" powerful tool to boost economic development and conservation and at the same time conceded that it has the "potential" to destroy natural and cultural resources. In an attempt to shield themselves from well-founded criticism, they assert that eco-tourism is not a cure but a good start, because, under "well-managed" conditions, it "can" produce positive results. Whatever conflicts occur, the message is: The benefits of eco-tourism development will eventually outweigh the problems, and there is no other alternative than to promote it.

Another example for manipulating perceptions through language is the focus on "local participation" as it gives the idea that eco-tourism programmes are capable of empowering marginalised communities and effecting positive changes in local development. This is in fact another neutralising technique, as it directs concerns away from an analysis of economic and political structures which are counter-productive to local political organisation and development options that put people's and ecological concerns at the forefront.

Tourist centres in the Asia-Pacific region, which have turned out as environmental nightmares and are, thus, increasingly shunned by tourists, are now refurbished with the well-sounding term "mature resorts". A paper recently circulated by PATA suggests: "A key to maintaining or enhancing a mature resort's viability is to attract new niche markets through redevelopment." (cit. in Bangkok Post 10.8.1995). In addition, it has become common practise that public relations specialists assist governments and the tourism industry to dilute "negative" press reports on tourist destinations by presenting "positive" counter-information - concerning environmental problems as well as political crises, human rights violations, crime, tourist rip-offs, prostitution and AIDS - and, thus, to change public opinion and attitudes that may affect tourism growth [14].

With the industry's global environmental programmes and strategies in place and being aggressively promoted, tourism market leaders have begun to hide themselves behind the facade of self-imposed regulations such as "ethical" codes of conduct and environmental management systems, although "they are quite aware that self-regulation will not address the basic problems." (Josephides 1994 p. 11).

4.2 Disregard and suppression of critical input

Whereas there has been substantial research and analysis on the critical dimensions of eco-tourism, the concerned industry, government agencies and mainstream conservation groups have hardly considered or encouraged such efforts. This may be due to the fear that a focus on adverse social and impacts and risks might create or reinforce image problems, and, subsequently, lead to cuts of funding and a slow down of the commercialisation of the lucrative eco-tourism industry.

Inspite of the adoption of popular environmental slogans and consideration of local capacities, eco-tourism projects usually offer "single-factor solutions", as if it was to develop tourism or nothing.  Legitimation and credibility is mainly sought from professionals - state officials, consultants, investors, businesspeople, tour operators, etc. - who often follow the same narrow and short-sighted approach and are prone to vested interests. Meanwhile, grassroots-oriented initiatives, which have developed from outside of official and professional circles and are based on a broader and more reflective analysis of social and environmental realities, are rejected as unscientific and unverified (Pholpoke 1994 p.71).

Considering the already sufficient evidence of the serious adverse effects, the huge investment of financial, human and infrastructural resources for eco-tourism promotion appears to be misplaced and irresponsible.  There are signs that now even greater amounts of money are being spent in expectation to make up for previous mistakes and losses, thereby increasing the risks further. In addition, it is hardly justifiable that overwhelming amounts of resources for such highly commercial and risky ventures like eco-tourism are channeled away from other more holistic research and projects that can contribute to more sustainable and realistic solutions to pressing social and environmental problems.

5. Conclusion and policy proposals

Driven by Western environmentalism, a new Green Revolution in the form of eco-tourism, is sweeping the Third World, along with market leaders' efforts directed towards the removal of all barriers to travel, including: physical barriers, economic barriers, organisational barriers and legal barriers. The above facts and deliberations lead to the conclusion that eco-tourism creates more losers than winners and the impacts on society and nature will take disastrous proportions, especially in poor countries. 

The eco-tourism lobby, predominantly based in Northern countries, has in recent years exercised tremendous financial and political influences over official, academic and NGO-circles in developing countries to achieve their goals.

For many years already, alternative forms of tourism have been discussed, aimed to at least reduce the negative impacts on nature and society in destinations. Some empowered communities have experimented with small-scale, locally controlled and sustainable tourist activities by themselves, while rejecting development impositions on their lives; a few projects of this kind have actually operated with some successes [15]. Yet, all these initiatives have certainly not posed a real challenge to the status quo.

If it is agreed, that development strategies should be genuinely people-oriented, "bottom-up" and aimed at a redistribution of resources and wealth, then the first priority is to acknowledge that tourism, including its "green" offshoots is, compared to probably all other activities, fraught with images and myths. This means there is a clear need to expose the harsh realities, clarify the contradictions, and confront decision-makers with the multi-faceted problems involved. Critical analysis and assessment, which may vary from case to case, are indispensable in this discourse. The study of local resistance related to eco-tourism policies and projects and radical movements formed by national and international advocacy and campaigning groups offer revealing perspectives on these issues. Public education and awareness building also remain keys to productive discussion and creative re-thinking concerning tourism options. How else can local communities make a reasonable and responsible decision as to whether to make their homes and lands a playground for eco-tourists or not?

Particularly in this age of globalisation, there is indeed a strong case for governments in developing countries to restrain such activities imposed from outside, at the very least until there are sufficient capacities to effectively scrutinise, monitor and control developments through administrative and legal mechanisms, and informed public debate. The establishment of these frameworks will also involve the need for a profound redistribution in decision-making and for devolution of proprietorship and management of resources to local communities.

Likewise, an adequate infrastructure for participatory research and public education should be set up on all levels that takes on the task to review and re-evaluate eco-tourism and develop accountability mechanisms to phase out unsustainable policies and projects. Simultaneously, expanded and adequate resources should be made available for holistic and integrative studies of other fields of development aimed to bring about alternative solutions to tourism and the diverse problems resulting from urbanisation, industrialisation and over-exploitative agricultural land uses.

Governments and international agencies should facilitate an open and public review of eco-tourism concepts and audits of existing eco-tourism projects. Illegalities committed in the name of eco-tourism - including the encroachment of public lands and protected forests, violation of local and indigenous customary rights, diversion of natural resources, and corruption - must be investigated and prosecuted by responsible government agencies.

Finally, tourism has to be addressed as an extension of wasteful and unsustainable consumerist lifestyles of affluent societies. In this context, more efforts need to be made to fully inform and educate tourists on the adverse environmental and social impacts of eco-tourism. Regulations and laws should be enacted to prohibit the advertising of unsustainable eco-tourism projects as well as promotional materials which project false images of eco-tourism destinations and are demeaning to local and indigenous cultures.  


[1] Accordingly, there is a vast literature promoting eco-tourism as a viable development strategy, i.e. Arbeitsgruppe Oekotourismus 1995; Boo 1990; Bramwell/ Lane 1993 pp. 1-5; Durst 1994 pp. 7-14; Eber 1992; Lindberg/ Hawkins 1993; UNEP 1992; Whelan 1991.

[2] As the terms for these new forms of tourism are often being used interchangeably and definitions are to a great extent overlapping, "eco-tourism" is generally used as a generic term in this paper.

[3] See for example the policy frameworks and assessment of conservation-cum-tourism projects, critically reviewed in the 1993 UNEP/ UNDP/ World Bank's "Report of the Independent Evaluation of the Global Environment Facility Pilot Phase" and Well/ Brandon's 1992 study, commissioned by IBR, the World Bank, WWF and USAID, "People and Parks: Linking Protected Area Management with Local Communities."

[4] Fernandes 1994 pp.4-38; Gujer 1995 pp.12-13; Munt 1994 pp. 49-59; Pholpoke 1994 pp. 62-77; Pleumarom 1994 pp. 142-148; Tujan 1995.

[5] For more detailed information on the "sustainable development" critique and its impact on the tourism debate, see for example Fernandes 1994 pp.4-38 and Harrison 1995.

[6] See for example Cater 1995 p. 26 and Durst 1994 p. 9.

[7] These dysfunctional experiences are well-documented in numerous case studies, see for example Adams 1990; Fernandes 1994 pp.4-38; Koch 1994 1994; McIvor 1994; Pearce 1991; Peluso 1993 pp.46-70.

[8] For more information on the issues of globalisation and liberalisation, see also Pluess 1995 pp. 3-5.

[9] See for example Fernandes 1995 pp.4-38; Munt/ Higiano 1993 pp.8-10; Pleumarom 1994 pp. 142-148; GAG'M Updates 1993-1995.

[10] For a wider debate on the social impacts of eco-tourism projects, see for example West/ Brechin 1991, and the 1994 case studies on Zimbabwe by McIvor and on South Africa by Koch published by UNRISD.

[11] For instance, the "Economic Quadrangle", comprising northern Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Yunnan, is a fledgling eco-tourism destination and has become notorious for trafficking in girls and women, prostitution and AIDS. Recently, social activists alerted to the problem of sex tourism during "Visit Burma Year" in 1996 and warned that this promotional campaign could become a repeat of what happened as a result of "Visit Thailand Year" in 1987 when large numbers of foreigners came to Thailand for sex tourism which has since then enjoyed a continuous boom. With the opening of formerly sealed borders for tourism and trade, many girls and women from neighbouring Burma and China are now forced into prostitution, particularly in Thailand. Police and immigration officials have been allegedly involved in this cross-border flesh trade (Bangkok Post 3.9.1995).

[12] Several examples of hilltribe villages in Southeast Asia being promoted as tourist attractions are included in Pleumarom 1995. Recently, press reports surfaced that in preparation for "Visit Burma Year 1996", ethnic Padaung people from more than 200 villages in the hills of northern Karen State have been ordered by the Burmese authorities to leave their homes to live in a model tourist village near Rangoon. The Padaung women, also called "Long Neck" women because of the metal rings around their necks, have become a selling point for tourism in the borderlands of Burma and Thailand. The Burmese students organisation ABSDF condemned the forced relocation of the highlanders by the Rangoon government and called for a boycott of the planned tourist village as what they refer to as an "ethnic human zoo". (The Nation 6.9.1995).

[13] For instance, a high-profile international conference entitled "Building a Sustainable World Through Tourism", organised by the Canada-based International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT) in Montreal, September 1994, put emphasis on "success stories" to demonstrate that "much has been achieved" by the tourism industry to contribute to a peaceful and sustainable world.

[14] The role of worldwide operating public relations and lobbying firms as "image-builders" operating in the tourism field - i.e. Hill & Knowlton, Shandwick, Burson-Marsteller, McCann-Ericksson - is still an underresearched theme. Their powerful influence became however evident in the aftermath of the Bangkok crisis in May 1992, for example, when several expensive promotional campaigns were launched to help lure scared tourists back to Thailand.

[15] Some examples are given in the chapter "Initiatives to Create Just Tourism" in O'Grady 1990.


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This is a slightly modified version of an article published in Koehler, G./ Gore, C./ Reich, U.-P./Ziesemer, T. (eds) (1996), Questioning Development  Essays on the theory, policies and practice of development interventions, Marburg/Germany: Metropolis.