Call for Mainstream Responsible Tourist Communities: Making eco-tourism sustainable

Juha Kaario and Jouka Mattila (Nokia Research Center, Tampere, Finland)

As travel and tourism are part of the largest industries in the world - they create directly 3% of global jobs and contribute over 10% GDP worldwide according to UNWTO,1) they are also one of the main sources of carbon emissions. Travel accounts for about 5% of global emissions, of which transportation constitutes 75%.2) Sustainable tourism practices are needed to make the travel industry greener. Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel; it is an ecological alternative to traditional tourism.3) Eco-tourism has succeeded in becoming one of the rising trends; it’s growing 20%–30% a year. In 2004 it was growing globally three times faster than the traditional tourism industry as a whole.4)

The International Ecotourism Society lists the following actions for minimising the impact of traditional tourism: increasing environmental awareness and respect; providing positive experiences and financial benefits for conservation; empowerment of local people; and raising sensitivity in host countries’ political and ecological climate. There is currently a plethora of ecotravel services and destinations answering to these criteria. However, browsing through these offerings raises mixed feelings. Living the same way as locals and participating the same way in their projects sounds ecological; but helicopter and motorcycle safaris don’t. Ecotourism destinations are also often very distant regions for the majority of eco-tourists who come from North America, northern Europe and Australia.5) Biologists have raised concerns that ecotourism can put already endangered species under further threat.6) Criticism has been made of the lack of control of ecotourism business organisations.7)

The number of tourists, ecological quality of services, origin of travellers, method of travel and many other issues create severe challenges for ecotourism as a truly environmentally sustainable business. There are many definitions of ecotourism that already confuse both academia and tourists.8) Also the marketing of the destinations often focuses on the conservation area and does not include the surrounding service providers.9) In general, ecotourism evaluation lacks information about bad services, e.g. in form of black or grey lists.

The above problems could be solved by constructing an attribute-based metering system. Different factors of travel should be treated as attributes, such as transportation information (origin, destination and method), occupancy (number of tourists in the location), accommodation (quality) and tours (in location). A value system should be included for each attribute and attribute group, but a generalised star-rating system or the like should not be used. A simple generalisation might look nice in a user interface, but it does not help to understand the total environmental footprint of tourism at various destinations.

There is also lack of involvement of local communities in such evaluations. These grassroots evaluations would be critical in learning about long-term environmental risks. Local communities probably also have strong opinions of what kind of tourist they would welcome – e.g. is it only about money or are there more important values in jeopardy.

Ecotourism has started to grow only recently. Some of the problems ecotourism faces originate from this growth and they might disappear over time. Ecotourists are ecologically-oriented people who support sustainable lifestyles and are well aware of the potential environmental impacts of tourism. The competition between eco-tourism services will lead to a situation where only the best and most ecological services win. There is also the Eco-Star rating system that provides information on the ecological friendliness of destination sites, and IETS rates and audits its members actively.

The Rio Bravo conservation and management area is the largest private protected area in Belize. This rainforest reserve is owned and managed by Conservancy Partner Program for Belize (PIB), a private non-profit organisation. This and other sites have made the tourism economy profitable in Belize, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Guatemala.10) Businesses initiated through ecotourism ventures can become self-sufficient within a short time and can enhance the long-term economic prospect of a community, like Eco-Escuela school in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala. Ecotourism encourages the development of markets in native handicrafts and artwork for souvenirs, and thus contributes to the preservation of cultural heritage.11)

If ecotourism continues its growth it will also attract those parties in business whose service will be closer to greenwash than sustainable ecotourism. Greenwashed tourism is environmentally destructive, economically exploitative and culturally insensitive. Even handled with care the economical demands can turn a native community that practices ecotourism into a full-time tourism service in order to become profitable. The economic motivation does not sit easily with cultural diversity. Infamous examples of things gone wrong are the “Coca-Cola trail” between Pokhara and Jomson in Nepal, where 60,000 tourists travel yearly and litter the area.12) The Galapagos isles yearly receive far too many tourists, which has been found to scare animals away from their feeding and nesting sites.13) Native handicrafts also can include wildlife materials that require a lot of control to prevent this kind of destructive economy.

Tourists often express the desire to be more ecological, but rarely do so in practice.14) Their approach is driven more by experience-seeking, and sustainability is often in conflict with hedonistic motives. The effectiveness of sustainable tourism cannot be judged or planned based only on the activities of travellers, as they are merely consuming what is offered them by the tourism industry.

To change the attitudes of the tourist, tourism services should focus on the basic needs of travellers. The motives of tourists are not defined solely by how much they are willing to spend on the travel or what demographic group they belong to. From the sustainability point of view there are three types of tourists: green travellers inclined to act on behalf of others, grey travellers not interested in the well-being of others and brown travellers ambivalent to such issues.15) In the same way, cultural tourists can be divided into different groups, e.g. purposeful, sightseeing, incidental and culture-averse.16)17) It is possible to attract the attention of these different classes of travellers with the right kind of storylines that appeal to the basic motives and attitudes of the tourists. Their varying motives also show that questions of sustainability cannot be left in tourists’ hands alone. Management of destinations should proactively drive every decision a traveller makes during the trip. Ecotourism is partly trying to answer this, but the existing approaches do not fulfil the needs of all different tourist types.

Sustainable travel practice in the tourism destinations is a good start for minimising the impact of tourism. However, the real difference requires changing attitudes of where and when people should travel. The world is full of cultural and natural heritage areas, but the number of people travelling to these destinations is not evenly distributed. Thus, global destination management should take a more holistic approach and also consider the departure points of travellers. The time and place of the experience could be tailored better for different regions if the experience were to include the travel time itself. The even distribution of peak loads over time would also improve the tourist experience and the feeling of exclusiveness.

The experiences are the key, but they should be based on the destinations only. In many cases the most memorable travel experiences are small details, for example meeting local people, receiving extraordinary friendly service, having an excellent meal, etc. The destination can be the storyline for a series of experiences starting from home. Promoting wide range of destinations including the time and travel means should make the whole trip a continuous experience.

Environmental problems are listed as the main reason for negative experiences in travel destinations by 9% of European travellers.18) The environmental balance at the destination is delicate matter that is not influenced only by one measurement. The concept of ecosystem services is commonly used to calculate the economical value of conservation.19) The theory points out that the ecosystem offers us services which have clear value in terms of natural resources or just pure enjoyment. If value does not align with conservation, it will most likely work against the ecosystem in question. In the case of tourism, the value of the ecosystem is the experience-value, and this supports more sustainability than e.g. using rainforests for timber or even hunting endangered animals.

The value of the ecosystem can be calculated using the balance between travellers’ hedonistic experience-seeking and the return of investment in the destinations. Traditional return of investment measurement is not enough; the perceived experimental value of the destination ecosystem needs to be taken into account. A good interpretation is needed to explain the true value of conservation for both travellers and the local community. This creates the ground for a common storyline: and what would be a more powerful way to share stories than to co-create them? So, instead of just providing tourists the tools to make comments about their experiences at various destinations or publish travel blogs, communication should also include the local community. This open dialogue between the travellers and local stakeholders provides ground information to evaluate the impact of tourism for the local community and how the destination experience value changes over time.

A trusted, international metering system is needed to evaluate such sustainable experience values. An ecological star-based system is not enough as it offers only a limited perspective of the various destinations. The World Wildlife Fund calls for certification of companies claiming to offer environmental tours.20) Both a star-rating system and certification are reactive meters, as they measure only past activities in destinations. A better system would also include the future value of the destination ecosystem, e.g. how different types of travellers view the destination while the destination grows, and how the local community remains connected to the travel industry. An open system that included the expectations of travellers and community with respect to service ratings and certifications would create an ethical base for the evaluation of the value of destinations. Attempts to implement these kinds of evaluation systems already exist for ethical consumption needs, for example or Adoption to travel services and destination evaluations would be a logical step to take.

A real-time information channel is a key missing link in all of the above sustainable tourism targets. The travellers do not have a single source for information while they are travelling, even while they are with a package tour. It is not surprising that the travel industry sees huge potential in mobile device-based travel services.21) New consumer electronics and service technologies – like maps, navigation, social media, etc. – have potential to change travel practices. A recent start-up has received a lot of positive feedback, although it only offers a fraction of the potential of mobile services. An opportunity and challenge for sustainable travel is to capture this potential from the very beginning and build the next wave of mobile tourist services into sound ecological foundations.

The current offerings of ecological tourism services are not ecological enough as they lack clear statistical metering of ecological friendliness. The ecological sustainability of different factors like transportation, accommodation, tours, and souvenirs should be rated. Understandable methods of visualisation are needed to present the different attributes. The system should also present negative attributes together with the positive ones. The monitoring requires tourist, NGO and business feedback as well as possibilities for shared rating. A single entity is not enough when we are talking about the global system. A working ecotravel monitoring system will resemble a sort of stock market. It can be a way of increasing the perceived value of pristine nature, whose only value at present appears to be seen just in terms of its natural resources. Realising the enjoyable assets of nature can drive conservation forward. Making this happen requires the evaluation of various methods for rating ecological and sustainable values. The role of real-time information for travellers through mobile media devices seems a logical step, but there are plenty of design requirements for these information systems to support sustainable tourism.

Gilmore, A., Carson, D. & Ascencão, M. 2007. Sustainable tourism marketing at the World Heritage site. Journal of Strategic Marketing (May-July 2007). Taylor & Francis
Budeanu, A. 2007. Sustainable tourist behaviour – a discussion of opportunities for change. International Journal of Consumer Studies, vol 31. Blackwell Publishing
Swarbrooke, J & Horner S. 2001. Consumer Behaviour in Tourism. Butterworth-Heinemann
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