Ecotourism trumped by ethical tourism?

By contributor Sean Carey

One of the great success stories of the travel sector in recent decades has been the development and growth in ecotourism, which is currently estimated to be worth around $60 billion annually. Companies, which operate in diverse environments, including cities, villages, religious sites and wildlife sanctuaries, have realized that to be perceived by consumers as “eco-friendly” bestows considerable status, especially where it has become the dominant benchmark of the new visitor economies in countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya, Madagascar and Nepal. In these nations ecotourism contributes a significant amount to GDP, at the same time as it brings in much-needed foreign currency.

However, ecotourism is not always a progressive force. For example, the sector has sometimes been accused of profiteering at the expense of environmental degradation and hiding its sins behind “greenwashing.” Ecotourism has also been accused of the violation of human rights by colluding with the displacement of indigenous peoples — the shocking fate of the Maasai when the Masai Mara National Reserve in south-west Kenya was established in 1948 being a prime example.

The Developing World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations. Source: Ethical Traveler

Some cultural anthropologists have added to the criticisms. For example, Carrier and Macleod claim that the distinction between ecotourism and mass tourism is difficult to sustain when “the destinations and experiences sold to tourists are abstracted from their contexts, thus inducing a distorted image of them and of ecotourism itself” (p. 315).


So, the purity of the “ecotourism” brand image has been damaged to some extent: it is no longer self-explanatory (and self-justifying), and many consumers are now uncertain about whether to trust the claims being made. Is there now a gap in the marketplace? The people behind Ethical Traveler, a small, non-profit organization that is part of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, certainly think so. It has the tagline “Empowering Travelers to Change the World.”

Ethical Traveler has just issued its fifth annual “top ten” list of the developing world’s best ethical destinations for 2012. They are Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Latvia, Serbia and Uruguay and four island states, Bahamas, Dominica, Mauritius and Palau. All except the Bahamas, Mauritius and Serbia appeared on the 2011 list.

Using data from institutions like Freedom House, Millennium Challenge Corporation and the World Bank, three initial criteria — “environmental protection”, “social welfare” and “human rights” –- were used to draw up a shortlist of 30 countries. Then a more in-depth study was carried out to identify the actions of governments over the previous 12 months, in particular to find out whether policies implemented have improved or degraded the welfare of the population and the environment. This makes the Ethical Traveler list of approved ethical destinations broader in scope than many mainstream eco-tourism locations, which tend to have a much narrower remit focused on environmentalism.

Although several articles have been written by travel journalists about ethical tourism in the mainstream media in the U.K., TV adverts for ethical tourism are non-existent. It is probably still considered too niche.

Could this be about to change? Almost certainly. Indeed, the well-respected  World Travel Market Global Trends Report 2011 suggests that amidst the current global economic crisis a “new kind of luxury tourism is emerging in Europe -– more authentic and ethical.”

By all accounts, there is an increasing number of “luxury customers” in Germany, France and the U.K. While they have not gone the whole hog and joined those who believe that sustainability is only available through “non-consumption” and “anti-consumption”, they nevertheless feel it necessary to “give something back” to the societies and peoples they encounter. Accordingly, those who make up this affluent subset of the population only wish to deal with travel agencies that “enable them to holiday responsibly, environmentally and respectfully.”

Clearly, this has been something of a wake-up call for the tourism sector. It has been heeded by the more nimble players in the travel industry. Companies like Swiss-owned Kuoni, which was established in 1906, have decided that ethical tourism is not just a passing fad but an emerging trend. Last August the high-end operator launched a sub-brand, ananea, as part of a long-term strategy to position itself as a “responsible and sustainable travel company.” Ananea allows clients, including those in the U.K., to book any of 21 hotels in countries like Italy, Morocco, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Kenya and South Africa that “meet the highest standards of sustainable tourism and fair employment.”

Meanwhile, at the annual World Travel Awards 2011 held in Doha, Qatar last week, most of the 1,000 categories and winners were of the more conventional kind –- World’s Leading Airline (Etihad), World’s Leading Business Class (Qatar Airways), World’s Leading Economy Class (Cathay Pacific), World’s Leading Car Hire (Europcar), World’s Leading Airport (Singapore), Africa’s Leading Family Resort (Sun City Resort, South Africa), Australasia’s Leading Tourist Board (New Zealand), Indian Ocean’s Leading Hotel Brand (Hilton Hotels), South America’s Leading Golf Resort (Hesperia Isla Margarita, Venezuela) and so on.

An analysis of the list reveals that even the very glitzy World Travel Awards (WTA), the so-called Oscars of the travel industry, which were established in 1993, have felt obliged to absorb at least some aspects of a broadly defined ethical tourism. The WTA 2011 has categories for the World’s Leading CSR Programme (Starwood Hotels), World’s Leading Eco-Resort & Spa (Soneva Kiri, Thailand), World’s Leading Eco-Lodge (Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, South Africa), World’s Leading Green Cruise Line (Star Clippers), World’s Leading Green Destination (Cousine Island, Seychelles) and so on. Of the 150 awards in the WTA’s World Winners 2011 category (there are also 10 World Travel Awards regional categories including Africa, Indian Ocean, Central America, and Australasia) nine could justifiably squeeze into the “ethical tourism” category, which accounts for 6 per cent of the total.

My guess is that the proportion of awards devoted to ethical tourism at the WTA will increase steadily in future years as the message put out by Ethical Traveler and similar organizations gains a wider audience. There is a further point: some cultural anthropologists might carp, but it is worth remembering that a vibrant, ethical tourism sector is often a crucial factor in establishing the international reputation of developing countries. It is especially important for these nations because an ethical brand image (and identity), developed through the visitor economy of the type that Ethical Traveler is trying to promote, can act as a window for other sectors of activity which can then attract other ethically compatible domestic and foreign direct investment (FDI) flows.

What’s not to like?

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