Ecotourism as a source of socio-economic inequalities

By John Dudovskiy

Ecotourism Introduction

Tourism has been one of the biggest and the most profitable industries in 20th century and this industry is moving towards the new level in 21st century with new variations and services included. Ecotourism is one of the variations of tourism that has been attracted mixed opinions from business academics and practitioners alike. Ecotourism can be defined as “travel to enjoy the world’s amazing diversity of natural life and human culture without causing damage to either” (Tickell, 1994, p.ix)

On one hand, there are authors who argue that ecotourism is beneficial to tourists and local society in many levels pointing to learning opportunity for tourists and economic benefits to ecotourism destinations along with a range of other perceived benefits. On the other hand, there are others who point to the occasions were people were misplaced, local nature damaged, as well as socio-economic inequalities as the negative effects of ecotourism.

Wearing and Neal (2009, p.6) mention two main facets of inequality as travelling to unspoilt natural environments and experiencing natural environment as the purpose of the travel. Emerging around 1980’s, ecotourism is believed to be related to nature-based, environmental education and sustainable development. However, there are some people who are highly sceptical about the benefits of ecotourism, and claim that it produces socio-economic inequalities.


The Benefits of Ecotourism Development

Ecotourism offers range positive impacts for tourists, host destinations, and the science and environment in general. The impact of ecotourism on the designated areas where ecotourism has been promoted is not only a marginal activity to finance the protection of the environment, but is also a major industry of the national economy.

Tuohino and Hynonen (1991) mention the fact that due to rapid growth of the ecotourism in areas like Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nepal, the local communities are also benefiting through contribution to local community, education, health care and many more.

The obvious benefits mentioned by Higham (2007) are the following:

First of all, the ecotourism helps the areas by building environmental and cultural awareness and respect. In this case, both the visitors and the hosts gain benefit in kind as visitors discover new cultures, traditions whereas the hosts get both financial and non-financial benefits such as interaction with new culture, financial help to their local community.

Moreover, other benefits are the increased support for international human rights and labour agreements, sensitivity to the host country’s political, environmental and social climate (Higham, 2007). This indicates that ecotourism serves as a bridge between the areas and their indigenous people and the modern world where they can interact and make new discoveries.

Tuohino and Hynonen (1991) stated that one of the countries that benefited from ecotourism are Costa Rica where the local community and schools received significant amount of investment and donations from visitors that helped to modernize the areas by opening medical centres and well equipped educational centres.

Moreover, Antarctica also received great benefits in terms of providing local community with electricity and heating systems through the investments and donations by the visitors. The area also benefited from newly opened research centres that employed some local people.

The countries such as Nepal and Madagascar also boosted their GDP with the help of ecotourism and still rely heavily on this type of tourism that annually attracts over million visitors. As mentioned by Gray et al (2007), these countries have also been promoting other types of businesses through ecotourism which are attracting new foreign direct investments to help their small and medium sized enterprises.


Ecotourism as a Source of Inequalities

Although in theory ecotourism seems to have benefits in terms of natural perseverance, increasing the knowledge of tourists and boosting the economy of ecotourism destinations, in reality its negative effects resulting in socio-economic inequalities mainly within ecotourism destination are exceeding their benefits. This is partially caused by low ethical standards of tour operators, as well as some wrong elements within the whole idea of ecotourism.

Main negative effects of ecotourism include physical displacement of people, violation of human rights, damage to the environment, and even a rise of crime in particular circumstances.

It is an evidenced fact that ecotourism has contributed to the rise of corruption in host destinations as well. In most occasions the corruption took place between the officials of host regions and tour operators, who were interested in expansion of ecotourism areas within the regions. Local officials, therefore, misplaced local people drawing them from their home to less suitable places.

Another negative effect of ecotourism that is often neglected includes the loss of traditional values in host destinations, as well as increase in prostitution, and increase of AIDS as a result.

Weaver (1998) points to exploitation of local workforce as one of the not widely reported pitfalls of ecotourism. Due to the poor living standards in most of the ecotourism destination regions local people do not ask much for their services and products offered to or asked by tourists. However, sometimes the cases of exploitation of their services occur without the due payment.


Real-Life Examples of Effects of Ecotourism

The effects of Ecotourism can be illustrated by many cases that had taken place in many undeveloped and developing countries.

McLaren (1998) mentions the negative effects in Nagahole, India, where local people protesting against ecotourism plan were threatened to be evicted from their homeland by authorities and it was not a single incident.

Maasai in Kenya is one of the places where local people are being disadvantaged as a result of ecotourism. Tourists are made to believe that Maasai is still a place where there is no sign of civilisation, and local people are warlord tribes who fight between each-other. However, in reality “present day Maasai may include Maasai businessmen or politicians who may be dressed in three piece suit attire…own four-wheel drive vehicles and living in well furnished masonatte houses” (Akama, 2000, p.47). Clearly, such kind of misrepresentation of Maasai by tour operators deceives tourists, and more importantly, it gives a wrong image to the world about people living in Maasai and causes discomfort for them, as well as range of other issues including obstruction for the inflow of foreign investment into the country in areas other than tourism.

Ngorongoro in Tanzania can be pointed as another example where ecotourism has caused deforestation and has negatively effected to the nature of the place by attracting a huge number of tourists per year willing to see wild lions and rhinos. Another place in Tanzania that has suffered as a result of ecotourism is Mkomazi. The majority of local people are opposed to the large number of inflow to their place as a result of which many people have been evicted from their own houses by their own government officials in order to create more ecotourism destinations (Hall and Tucker, 2004)

Desenbrock (2002) mentions the case of Costa Rica as an example of ecotourism gone wrong. At the initial stages of ecotourism in Costa Rica everybody was benefiting from it and due attention was being paid to the conservation of nature and at the same time considerable amount of money started to flow into the country as a result of it. However, as the amount of profit from ecotourism started to rise, the matters of protection of local environment and nature became secondary issues with all the attention focused on profit maximisation. And there is a great risk that this case may happen to other ecotourism destinations as well.


Types of Inequality within Destination Regions

Even though the ecotourism is intended to benefit the host community, preserve environment and contribute to the local community, there are still many elements that do not benefit from growing ecotourism.

One of the main objectives of ecotourism is to preserve the environment; however, this usually worsens in most cases. Gray et al (2007) stated that the main intention of ecotourism, which is to preserve the environment, is not being achieved by ecotourism. However, it tends to be getting worse as the changes to those areas are harmful to the environment. It is partly because the number of people taking advantage of ecotourism is far larger than the number of people actually staying true to ecotourism and helping the environment.

Moreover, the employment and infrastructure also remain unchanged despite growing visitors to the areas. Highes (2007) stated that companies entering to those areas do not usually recruit, even if they do, only a small proportion of their workforce are recruited by local community. This indicates that the local community tend to benefit relatively little from the inflow of visitors and companies through ecotourism.


The Impacts of Ecotourism Development within Destination Regions

Ecotourism development within destination regions inevitably has a great impact on the population, customs and traditions, and environment in general. This impact, however, has a rather more negative than positive also affects schools, religion, dress-code, infrastructure and other elements.

Inflow of tourists in large numbers in destination regions has an inevitable effect on the schools in general and children in particular. Defenders of ecotourism point to the facts that some tour operators support local schools within some destination regions and some share of the profit goes to local schools from government channels as well. However, in reality the occasions were tour operators supported local schools are very few, and governments as well do not place schools on top of the list of their priorities when distributing a rather small amount of profit they receive (Fennell, 1999)

Local children are negatively influenced by the tourists visiting destinations regions, because they are only exposed to the bright side of the picture and only see people with nice dresses, money, and many gadgets, and try to emulate them neglecting their traditions and culture, and therefore contributing to their traditions and culture to become  distinct.

Religions practiced in ecotourism destination regions are also in great danger of losing their influence on local people amid the inflow of tourists who practice different religion or no religion, but live substantially more quality life.

Dress code of local people though to be fascinating by tourists, along with other important traditional cultural elements is likely to be altered or disappeared at all caused by the influence of tourists.

Environmental hazards to destination areas caused by eco-tourists are huge. Tourists visiting ecotourism destination areas in large numbers usually leave a large amount of rubbish behind them and have negative affect on the environment in other many ways as well, including driving within protected areas and polluting rivers and lakes.


The Elements of Unbalanced Inequalities

Highes (2007) stated that even though ecotourism has been growing over 10-15% per annum for several years, it has not always been providing the expected results.

The main objectives of the ecotourism have been to provide educational experiences for people to discover and learn more about areas which are less known to others. At the same time, it was supposed to provide some benefits to the community living in those areas by preserving nature, contributing to the local community in terms of education, health and many more (Barkin, 2002).

However, as majority of the profit earned through ecotourism has been going to the pockets of few investors, very small proportion of the profit is actually going to be invested or donated to those areas. Therefore, it is believed that the costs of the ecotourism outweigh its benefits derived.

As mentioned by Gray et al (2007) due to lack of investment and donations by the visitors or the companies operating this tours, the level of infrastructure does not seem to be getting better in most of the areas which are considered to be famous destinations for ecotourism.

Moreover, the companies are also trying to preserve those areas as they are without any change in order to attract more visitors as it is more beneficial for them. As mentioned by Highes (2007), due to the profit oriented nature of the companies arranging and operating visits to those areas, they are not often being able to donate significantly local community as they are the most important stakeholders of the areas visitors.

In some cases, even the local people were removed from their own homes in order to convert their areas into a destination for ecotourism. As mentioned by Tuohino and Hynonen (1991), companies in cooperation with local governments forced out local people in order to convert their home areas into a touristic destination in certain areas of India.



Ecotourism by its definition should bring benefits of helping individuals to explore new places and to increase their knowledge, to protect unique places with beautiful nature, and to generate financial resources to be spent on preservation of nature of ecotourism destination regions and to help to increase the standard of life of local people. These objectives of ecotourism have been achieved, but only in some places and only to a very limited extend.

Increasingly, the viewpoint of people opposing to the idea of ecotourism is becoming to seem more valid due to the fact that ecotourism has caused more negative effects than positive impacts on the destination regions.

Primarily, the fundamental aim of ecotourism of preserving the nature was found to be less important by tour operators and local officials as opposed to obtaining more profit for which Costa Rica is a clear proof. Moreover, the nature and environment were being abused by tourists in many ecotourism destinations by many means due to being negligent.

One of the important points that are sufficient on its own to side with people opposed to ecotourism is being missed by people who support the idea. This point relates to the fact that ecotourism destinations cannot be produced or restored whereas the number of people willing to engage in ecotourism will be increasing all the time. It is not difficult to foresee the consequences of this tendency which is ecotourism destinations will be negatively affected at an increasing rate due to increasing number of people visiting, and this will continue until no ecotourism destination will be left on the world map.

The solution for the above problem can be suggested as limiting the number of tourists to visit ecotourism destination to a certain number per year. However, the practicability of this solution is under the great doubt, due to the fact that most ecotourism destinations are undeveloped or developing countries where corruption is high, and imposing the limit on the tourists to visit the destination per year will result in manipulation of numbers, but will not actually limit the number of tourists.

However, apart from the point above there are many other negative effects of ecotourism main of which are inequalities in destinations regions in human rights, people being displaced, traditions and cultures becoming distinct and many others.



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