Ecotourism--Panacea Or Eco-Opportunism?

by Maggie Paquet 1999

Ecotourism has been touted as being the panacea for preserving wilderness, biodiversity, local economies, and indigenous cultures. It is considered by many to be the "non-consumptive" alternative to industrial uses for land whereby communities can develop "sustainable" economies.

Critics say it's not possible for people to make a decent living from ecotourism enterprises; others say this use is not as non-consumptive as it appears, and still others level accusations of "eco-opportunism" at operators.

Defining ecotourism reminds me of the old adage of the six blind men and the elephant: one touches the elephant's tail and pronounces that an elephant is very like a rope; another touches a leg and pronounces it to be somewhat like a tree trunk; and so on with similes for the ears, trunk, tusks, and body. An internet search could turn up a range of offerings from adventure travel to hunting, and from discussions on managing protected areas and tourism ethics to what outdoor gear to buy. Clearly the concept is not a simple one. There is no universally accepted definition of ecotourism. The Ecotourism Society defines it simply and elegantly as, "responsible travel that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." The Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and a host of others have variously defined it; most have a number of requirements in common:

  • It is nature-based.
  • It often takes place in fragile ecosystems with low use capacity, embraces no-trace practices, and leaves a minimum footprint. This also means limiting the number of people on any given trip; the constraints favour supply over demand.
  • It provides educational enrichment on the culture, environment, and conservation issues in the area where it is carried out. Tours strengthen local conservation efforts, including inviting local experts to speak to clients.
  • It promotes, is enhanced by, and works as much as possible with the people and culture of the area. Clients receive information on local culture, are encouraged to appreciate it, and are advised not to interfere in or openly criticise it.
  • It is essentially non-consumptive. Operators do not provide hunting, nor do they traffic in products made from the skins or parts of certain plant and wildlife species (ivory, reptiles, coral, furs, wild birds, rhino horn, orchids, etc.).
  • Guides or operators are experienced, well-trained, and responsible; their equipment is in top condition; companies are capable of providing accurate pre-trip information to clients in part to ensure they are aware of health and equipment requirements; and so they can study it if so desired.

One popular definition of ecotourism says that it involves "travel for the discovery of … wild natural environments and involves personal re-creation through primitive travel in natural areas devoid of human disturbance." Some say the environment must be pristine; others say there is no really pristine environment left on the planet and that any well-designed and managed nature-based activity that adheres to the above principles qualifies.

Ecotourism may also be defined by what it is not: It is not hunting. While many hunters contribute considerably (particularly in British Columbia) to good land use and wildlife management practices, hunting is considered a consumptive activity. Nor is it staged; operators may not capture or otherwise interfere with the habitats or behaviours of wildlife to provide opportunities for clients.

One clear "rule" emerges: Tourism is not "ecological" unless it improves both the management of wilderness and protected areas and provides economic benefits to local people asked to forgo (other) resource use.

There are quite a few ecotourism operators in BC and the number is growing rapidly. A good place to look for companies is the internet, but beware, you will find not a few that advertise trips with questionable ecotourism value. Tucked in beside a few ecotourism and a lot of "extreme" adventure trips was one that advertised hunting grizzly bears and Stone's sheep in the "wilds of the Yukon." Perhaps it is pejorative to assume these outfits don't reflect the principles of ecotourism; then again, maybe these are examples of "eco-opportunism." I have not yet found a site that verifies which companies offer true ecotourism. You'll have to do your own research on this. Don't be afraid to ask companies about their operations and their stance on some of the issues; it's your money and your conscience.

BC Operators

Canadian River Expeditions (CRE) is a pioneer BC ecotourism company. Founded in 1972, it was Canada's first river-rafting outfitter. Success hasn't spoiled second-generation operator, Johnny Mikes, who has chosen to keep the company "small and personal." CRE can make bona fide claims to ecotourism for a number of reasons, including striving for zero impact camping, supporting or spear-heading conservation causes in a big way, lobbying government on protected areas and outdoor safety issues, providing focussed education with skilled guides and naturalists often featuring the culture and issues of the areas visited. CRE has also sponsored public events on wilderness issues and donated numerous trips to a variety of people from journalists and politicians to writers and environmentalists to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Ocean kayaking lends itself well to ecotourism. Dorothy Baert's Tofino Sea Kayaking Company on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and Ralph and Lannie Keller's Coast Mountain Expeditions, based on Read Island near Quadra Island, are two companies that feature small footprint outings and whose owners have worked to increase environmental awareness among their clients and the wider community.

Gregg Drury's Iskutine Lodge on Hwy. 37 near Iskut is a good example of a company that provides low-impact, non-consumptive hiking, biking, and paddling trips in the Stikine region. The Pakula family operates the Stikine RiverSong Lodge at Telegraph Creek, providing trips and provisioning travellers. Both these operators continue to donate trips and time to conservation issues and perform a valuable public information function in a remote region of BC where communications are difficult. It is also significant that a number of long-time hunting guide-outfitters, such as the Collingwoods in Spatsizi, are gradually introducing ecotourism principles into their operations.

Ecotourism in BC has been aided and abetted by First Nations land claims. Precedent-setting agreements between the federal and provincial governments and the Haida First Nation on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) resulted in co-management of Gwaii Haanas/South Moresby National Park Reserve.

BC Parks has also entered into a number of co-management agreements with First Nations on a handful of provincial protected areas K'tzim-a-Deen (Khutzeymateen) Grizzly Bear Sanctuary/Tsimshian-Gitsi'is, Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park (Sii Aks)/Nisga'a, Hucsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees (Kitlope Heritage Conservancy)/Haisla, and others some of which only allow use by the public when they get a permit from or are accompanied by a guide from the First Nation. One good example of ecotourism resulting from this is Kitlope Ecotours, operated by Haisla leader Gerald Amos and guide Bruce Hill. All trips are accompanied by a Haisla guide or elder to ensure education about Haisla culture and economic return to the community.

Whether or not ecotourism presents a panacea for protecting biodiversity and promoting community stability, or enables opportunism, it is one of the most rapidly expanding facets of the tourism industry, which is itself acquiring status as a major economic force globally. The BC Tourism ministry reported that, "The provincial Economic Council of Ministers has included ecotourism as a key component in provincial economic revitalization and diversification" and further, "Adventure tourism … out paces every other sector of the Canadian economy."

Equal Standing for Land Use

Given this, one would think ecotourism demands recognition by government as having equal standing in determining land use alongside other resource-based industries.

Precisely because of its rapid growth, ecotourism requires careful planning and management. The decisions we make today will last for decades, and they will be irreversible. Once a landscape loses the distinctive characteristics that enable ecotourism, it can no longer provide a high level economic opportunity as a tourism destination. Look at Banff, which originated as nature-based tourism. Because of ill-defined goals, political interference, and inadequate planning (not to mention greed), it is rapidly degenerating into a theme park of Disney proportions and, like Disney World, will need to keep reinventing itself to attract tourists.

But we cannot reinvent wilderness or wildlife. If these are the basis of ecotourism, and ecotourism is expanding at an exponential rate, we need to develop – now – the systems that can manage its social and environmental impacts.

Yet when it comes to land use decisions, ecotourism is apparently invisible to government, which has shown an extreme lack of commitment and resources to the Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) tables that have been going on in the province for years. Land use decisions being made under LRMPs have had no formal input from the BC Tourism ministry. Good ecotourism management decisions rely on the volunteer efforts of operators who can afford the time and expense to go to meetings, yet government provides resources from resource ministries to attend LRMPs.

New regulations for forest practices standards on private land were recently enacted. Both the wilderness tourism and environmental communities, which were effectively shut out of any input to the regs, consider them to be inadequate to protect wilderness tourism values. Government worked with the Private Forest Landowners Association on the regs; where was their willingness to include the nature-based tourism operators whose livelihoods are also affected?

Government explains: "Private forest land provides economic and social benefits to the people of British Columbia. More than 9,000 employees work directly in BC's private forest land sector, and about 18,000 jobs are created in spin-off activities. BC's private forest land sector contributes about $400 million annually to all levels of government."

Tourism BC completed a study in 1998 which found that, "Ecotourism in BC generated $892 million in revenue in 1997 and employed more than 13,000 people, an 11 percent increase over the previous year." I guess this province is still entrenched in the old paradigm: Logging is king and devil take the hindmost!

In response, concerned operators have formed the Wilderness Tourism Association (WTA) to fill the gaping hole that exists because of the shortsightedness of government to recognise the value of wildlands as the basis upon which this already significant, and rapidly growing, sector of the tourism industry depends. By allowing the resource-extraction sectors to effectively control what's left of Crown lands and how they are used (or used up), government is effectively killing the goose that lays the golden egg of wilderness and nature-based tourism in the province.

Brian Gunn, of Strathcona Park Lodge and president of the WTA, says, "Back country wilderness tourism operators need a voice. Currently, WTA has about 20 members, but interest is high and I envision upwards of 200 in the near future. WTA will focus on land issues; government can continue to focus on marketing SuperNatural BC, but we want to ensure it has something to sell."

* This article sponsored by the Watershed Sentinel Development Fund, Friends of Cortes Island, and Mountain Equipment Co-op.

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