An increasing number of travelers and holidaymakers are paying for nature-based trips and experiences under the ecotourism banner, but do these activities do more harm than good to the nature concerned?
According to the Nature Conservancy, ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the internationally massive tourism industry. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has a working definition of ecotourism that states it must (among other things) be “environmentally responsible” and have “low visitor impact”. Does every trip or tour we might think of as ecotourism meet these criteria? Almost certainly not. When should you be concerned that your ecotourism activities are having a negative impact?
Below, I take a look at some of the problems associated with nature tourism and how we can try and be responsible tourists.
As the popularity of nature-based tourism has grown, the number of people visiting “pristine” locations has also multiplied. This interest in the natural world is positive, but these large numbers of visitors can’t help but leave a mark.
For example, manatees overwintering in the warm springs of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida can be outnumbered by tourists 30:1. Research shows that as the number of tourists increases, so does the number of manatees using protected, visitor free areas. They do not want to be around people, however desperate people are to see them.
Over in the Madre de Dios river basin in the Peruvian Amazon, people travel to see macaws eating clay on exposed clay cliffs. Again, a study has shown that the macaws tend to avoid these clay licks at peak visitor times and, where they have a choice, select clay licks that are further away from tourists.
Meanwhile, in the Galapagos, where visitors per year far outnumber residents, nature tourism has long been established as blessing and a curse. While tourist dollars are crucial for conservation, the ~200,000 visitors per year leave a mark. In the famous Galapogas marine iguana, for example, scientists have found that increased human disturbance leads to increased stress, less healthy immune systems, and lower investment in reproduction.
Overcrowding can have negative effects for tourists too. On safari in Tanzania, I witnessed massive queues of vehicles full of people desperately straining to see two black rhino. It was a far from natural situation that certainly didn’t improve my visitor experience (see main image).
People = food
It’s not just our presence that can harm the targets of nature tourism. How we interact with wildlife is also problematic, especially when we cause associations for animals between people and sustenance. It’s wonderfully easy to see cheeky kea at Homer Tunnel in Fiordland. These birds have made the tunnel a popular spot for tourists en route to Milford Sound. Despite clear advice from the Department of Conservation not to feed kea (including signs at Homer Tunnel), just seeing kea is not enough for many tourists. You regularly see people feeding these birds all sorts of rubbish. This is bad for the kea’s health and makes them associate people with food. Bad news for a bird that’s already seen as a pest by farmers and car owners in many parts of the South Island.
Moving up the food chain, the practice of chumming water with dead fish/blood/meat to attract great white sharks to cage dives has long been controversial. In this case, people = food can have far more deadly consequences. Some argue that sharks learn to associate people with food. This could lead to a higher risk of shark attacks on humans and further demonization of already threatened shark species. Other scientists maintain that there is no proven link between chumming and shark attacks on humans. With no clear advice on this topic, it’s hard to make a good decision on whether or not to jump into a cage in shark-infested waters (although, for me personally, that sentence is its own deterrent).
For many nature enthusiasts, the often relatively high cost of a wildlife experience leads to high expectations. This can make people extremely demanding, putting pressure on tour operators to behave badly.
When I volunteered on a whale-watching boat in South Africa, I regularly had tourists ask if we could get closer to marine mammals, even though there are strict guidelines in most countries regarding distances to be maintained, number of boats allowed to be present, and forbidding the pursuit of animals.When tourists on our boat observed the bad behaviour of less responsible tour operators, they questioned whether the people on those tours were getting better value for money.
Closer to home, while conducting fieldwork on the wonderful Tiritiri Matangi Island, I’ve observed large groups of birdwatchers from overseas literally elbowing each other out of the way to get a picture of a kokako. The irony is that if they all quietly moved past, they would all get a good shot of the bird. The old adage “take only photos, leave only footprints” is a lot less zen if you got the photos by leaving footprints on someone else’s face.
For some tourists, getting a close look at their favourite animal is still not enough – they need to touch it. Although a rarer form of nature tourism, the demand for animal hugging has resulted in some famously cruel practices.
Riding elephants is roundly condemned, but remains popular with tourists visiting Asia. And then, of course, there’s Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple – the tourist spot that spawned a thousand Tinder selfies of people bravely cuddling “fierce” stripy cats.
There are rumours that the monks who run the temple drugged the tigers for these photos. What’s certain is that the Tiger Temple engaged in unethical, illegal, and cruel practices. There was widespread relief when it was shut down following a government raid in 2016. Now, however, the attraction is set to reopen as Golden Tiger Thailand. One can only hope that the widespread coverage of the tiger farming and trafficking that took place here will discourage tourists from visiting. A tiger farm is about as far from ecotourism as you can get.
A personal perspective
It might seem hypocritical for me to say that other people shouldn’t be getting close to wild animals. I’m lucky enough to regularly venture out into nature and handle animals as part of my job.
While I love my job and have fun in the field, I’m not there because I want to handle animals. It just happens to be necessary for my research. Like many conservation scientists, I would be glad if technology improves to the point where I don’t need to touch my study animals at all.
Handling little spotted kiwi for my PhD research was always a privilege. I was always keenly aware, however, that it wasn’t a privilege for the bird. No wild animal is ever stoked about being handled. For my kiwi work, we used high-tech radio tracking software to ensure we disturbed our study birds as little as possible.
I am, nevertheless, a hypocrite because I have engaged in nature tourism on many occasions. To my eternal shame, as a naïve (idiotic?) 21 year old volunteering in South Africa, I rode an ostrich for 20 seconds as part of an ostrich farm tour. I also stroked a cheetah in a paid-for zoo-based experience. At an Australian zoo, I paid to hold a koala (and I’m still uncomfortable with that). I have been on safari in the overcrowded Ngorongoro Crater. As a student, I volunteered for whale and dolphin watching companies and been on several whale watching tours. As a tourist, I have been snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef while wearing sunscreen, the chemicals in which are known to be harmful for coral communities.
I want to see all the amazing things I grew up watching on David Attenborough programmes as much as anyone. So how can we do this, but make good choices?
What to do for the best?
By this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the best way to experience the natural world is stay in your home and watch Blue Planet 2 in high def rather than ever venturing out into the natural world itself. This would certainly minimise your tourism carbon footprint (which I didn’t even get into here). However, a lot of good conservation projects and local communities rely on money from tourists and welcome your wanderlust. So, what to do?
It’s a long time since I rode that ostrich. These days, before engaging in anything close to nature tourism, I ask A LOT of questions. Before holding the koala, I spoke to the people running the experience. I asked how many koalas were in rotation, how long each one had to do on “hugging duty”. I also wanted to know where my $100AUD would be going. When I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef with an eco-company, I asked about the impact of sunscreen on the reef. I also (politely) questioned why long wetsuits or stinger suits were not provided to minimise the need for sunscreen.
Be on your best behaviour
Don’t be a demanding tourist who needs to get as close as possible to every animal. Definitely don’t push other people out of the way to get your picture, even if you think you’re the next Craig Potton (you are almost certainly not). If anything, ask about distances and what’s ok for the animals. Ultimately, nature tour operators are trying to please their customers. If more customers demand responsible rather than reckless practices, then that will become the standard.
You can also have a positive impact by calling others out on their bad behaviour in a constructive way. If you see someone trying to feed kea, let them know why it’s bad for the birds. If you’re in the water with someone who’s hanging onto a coral reef for stability, pass them a flotation device. In situations where you’re not comfortable addressing people directly, flag the behaviour with the tour operator. Hopefully they will deal with it appropriately.
Do your homework
Before booking a trip or tour, do some research. Find out how much of your money is going back into conserving the ecosystem you’re visiting, or supporting sustainable lifestyles for local people. Does the company employ or engage with local people where possible? Ask them how they are minimising their impact on the places they visit. If they don’t have an answer for these questions, then they’re not doing their ecotourism duty. The Nature Conservancy and the International Ecotourism Society both have a lists of recommended trips and operators.
Finally, where relevant, ask yourself why a particular animal is being handled. How are you able to get quite so cosy with an extremely dangerous predator. If you even suspect it’s because they are drugged, move along. Drugs aside, have a good think about what you get out of it versus the stress to the animal. Could you just take a photo instead? Ultimately, if you really love a particular animal, the best thing you can do is observe it from a responsible distance, and leave it alone.
The best gift for nature tourists is a good pair of binoculars or a camera with a very powerful zoom.