Ecotourism: Greedy Lover Or Savior?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Part I

Ecotourism is a lofty concept-effective zoning and land use planning, responsible stewardship of the environment, a strong, regulated tourism industry-all resulting in economic benefits flowing to local communities.

There are, arguably, tens of thousands of articles, funded by NGO’s, private institutions, and think tanks on the topic of tourism in Africa. Report after report on “sustainable development” in the third world argues incessantly about the pros and cons of the ecotourism model.

Meanwhile, in the name of sustainable development, plants, animals and entire ecosystems are being held hostage by scientists and economists with little regard for the indigenous peoples who live there. While the concept of a tourism industry that enhances rather than destroys the land is the ideal, sometimes the practice of tourism presents an ugly face.

In the eyes of the third world host country, the tourist often exhibits characteristics of a greedy lover-carelessly taking nature against her will, and abandoning the love affair after the novelty has waned. The end result is an unregulated “tourist” economy which generates tons of waste, consumes power and water, devalues local cultures, and adds to pollution.

Rwanda is a beautiful country, brimming with heart-breaking vistas, Nyungwe and Akagera national parks, the Virunga Mountains, and a dynamic, resilient population. While there is potential for a cash economy in the coffee industry, the ultimate prize is the kingdom of the mountain gorilla, which, at the moment, seems to be ruled by environmental interests. In addition, the film industry, by producing the racist travesty, King Kong, has perpetuated the myth of a savage people inhabiting the darkest area of the world. Even the monster gorilla prefers the company of a blond white woman to his native environment.

The mountain gorilla is the metaphor for Rwanda. Who has the right to claim the gorilla, and by implication, Rwanda? Once the prize is won, will it be forever spoiled? The Trojan horse of environmental aid packages conceals influence peddling and economic gain at the least, and nation building at the extreme. Meanwhile, the local population is forced into an unholy alliance between scientists and economic forces far beyond its control or understanding.

In a Worldwatch paper, Travelling Light: New Paths for International Tourism, Lisa Mastny tells the cautionary tale of a small Indian fishing village with beautiful beaches that became the darling of European tourists in the 1960’s. Within twenty years, the area was flooded with investment capital and the resulting hotels, souvenir shops and waste-generating infrastructure. Like the stock market, by the year 2000, visitor numbers dropped by over 40 percent.

The economists rushed in, spending even more money on scientific study after scientific study on tourism, and came to the conclusion that what drove the tourists away was the waste which they deposited upon the pristine setting that lured them to India in the first place. Recyclable items such as glass, paper, and metal were not the problem and were reused by local industries.

The biggest polluter was human waste, generated by tourists, which overwhelmed the local sanitation facilities. Sewage piled up in mounds or was dumped into streams, inviting cholera and other “third world” diseases. Not surprisingly, the tourists left in search of yet another pristine environment. In the words of local artist and activist Jayakumar Chelaton, no one cared about the health issues faced by the locals, “everyone wanted the beaches to be clean so it could get more business.”

The opposite side of the coin is the invasion of scientists who descend upon world heritage sites, in this case Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, claiming them as their own and creating a de-facto state of ownership under the guise of “protection” from tourism and the local population-read “poachers.” The poaching argument appears to be a smokescreen for the real problem, which is an unstable society in Congo and surrounding areas. The poachers’ snare is not set for the gorilla-it is utilized for game-and the gorilla becomes an unintended victim.

Ironically, one wonders how much the scientists have accomplished, since there seems to be a surplus of “orphan” mountain and lowland gorillas in the Virungas these days. This, in turn, has led to yet another fundraising appeal by organizations who claim these animals as their own fiefdom. As a tried and true fundraising technique, it has been written that you can’t go wrong to have the words “orphan” or “animal” in your appeal if you want to pull the heartstrings of donors. NGO’s have hit a home run with the “orphan” gorillas. This attitude negates the possibility that the Rwandan and Congolese people are capable of managing their own resources. There seems to be confusion. Are tourists the problem, or is it the local, displaced society? Perhaps, it is the environmental NGO’s themselves.

On the other hand, properly regulated tourism has the potential to diversify economies and encourage investment of foreign capital. Environmental science, if it ever develops a heart and soul, has the ability to impart valuable information which will stimulate empathy for endangered species such as the mountain gorilla. As Rwandans reflect upon the twentieth anniversary of Dian Fossey’s death, it is important to recognize that her biggest enemies were not the people of Rwanda, as myth would have the world believe. It was the western scientists of the USAID-funded Mountain Gorilla Project who wanted to drive her out of Karisoke. Surprisingly, the Mountain Gorilla Project was promoting ecotourism!

Fossey was not only a scientist, she was also an artist with the soul of a poet. In her ground-breaking book, Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey was able to touch the hearts and minds of the world population, doing more for the survival of the mountain gorilla than anyone before or after her brief time on earth. Fossey recognized the dangers of unregulated tourism, but she also cultivated a dialogue with the world about Rwanda’s heritage, and compiled a booklet on the cultural significance of the names attached to places in the Virungas. She funded this project with her own meager inheritance from a favourite uncle.

Arguments about the conflicts between the human soul and science aside, tourism remains the purview of the most affluent share of the world’s population, with 80 per cent of tourism coming from the western world, 15 per cent from East Asia and the Pacific, and the remainder coming from Africa and the rest of the third world combined. (Population Reference Bureau, Ecotourism has great potential to enlighten the world about endangered species and ecosystems. But, it would be wrong to rely upon these hopes and statistics without a closer look. The most sought-after Holy Grail, the American tourist, might not be whom the host country expects, and certainly does not represent mainstream America, since fewer than 20 percent of Americans hold valid passports. By 2020, China is expected to become the fourth largest source of tourists worldwide-eclipsed only by Germany, Japan, and the United States (Worldwatch).

Consider, also, that tourists are not a hardy lot. The affluent traveller, more often than not, will seek to replicate the lifestyle enjoyed in his/her country of origin. Multi-million dollar hotels are erected beside beautiful vistas– usually water. Finally, the detritus of “civilization,” in the form of excrement, garbage and detergents, is discharged into the once pristine environment. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that the average tourist produces one kilo (approximately 2.2 pounds) of litter and solid waste EACH DAY! (Worldwatch).

Make no mistake about it; tourism is becoming a major contributor to the world economy. However, benefits must be weighed by examining direct and indirect beneficiaries. Tourism is outpacing the growth of the world economy by 35 per cent and reached $469 billion in 2000 (US Commerce Department figures). This may look good for Rwanda, but consider the fact that there may be another way to look at the economic impacts of tourism. Exactly where do these dollars go? Do they remain within the country which provides the ecotourism experience, or do they become an infusion into foreign business ventures? Tourism offers a unique opportunity for Rwanda to participate in the world economy, but will the benefits outweigh the dangers? Is responsible tourism a possibility, given the foreign interests which have such a strong presence in-country?

How can the indigenous culture compete with the Western scientists and developers who dominate the local tourism industry? What, exactly, do the tourists want? What, exactly, are the scientists protecting? How can ORTPN take the lead in this debate?

The story of tourism in Africa causes one to weep. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe the story of tourism is a tragedy in which western businesses sent most of the money back home to the colonialist developers. The higher purchasing power of tourists inflated local economies to the extent that artificial inflation raised property and food prices for the locals, pricing them out of land ownership. Foreign workers held the most lucrative management positions (Pera and McLaren, Globalization, Tourism and Indigenous Peoples: What You Should Know About the World’s Largest Industry, (, reducing the local “service providers” to little more than slave labour. Local culture was relegated to a side show and became the featured attraction at hotel and resort complexes.

In one of the saddest stories to come out of Africa, fifty years ago Kenya’s colonialist government drove the nomadic Masai population from their grazing grounds to accommodate the great white hunters intent upon slaughtering wildlife for trophy heads. The Masai have gained more autonomy in recent years, but wounds remain and resentments run deep. Echoing the experience of the Native American Indian, religious artifacts have been cheapened into souvenirs and, with the loss of the bedrocks of religious and cultural beliefs, alcoholism and other social ills have devastated portions of the population. The scientists then rushed into this uncharted void with their own solutions to the “problem” of tourism. The above-quoted statistics in this article were generated by statisticians and other scientists totally removed from the life experiences of the indigenous cultures they are funded to protect.

What Rwanda should consider is a solid business management plan for its ecosystems, and its most valuable prize, the mountain gorilla. Rwanda’s universities are populated with educated individuals with the expertise to approach the appropriate national institutes for funding to create such a plan. This indigenous economic approach will guarantee the survival of the gorilla, while providing a source of income for Rwanda that is self-contained and not dependent upon foreign interests and pseudo-science that’s serves only one master. Being “green” should be more than a politically correct label.

Ecotourism remains a decent concept. It is founded upon the recognition that responsibility predicates the rights of the tourists, scientists, businessmen, and economists to benefit from the land which bore our mothers.

Source: The New Times (Kigali), Georgianne Nienaber (link opens in a new window)