Article The changing value of money

Ecotourism and the dangers of commodifying the environment

‘Tourism’ spans a wide and varied group of industries so it is virtually impossible to quantify its value. It is slightly easier to measure export earnings however; a recent report by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) discovered that in 2013 a total of US$1.4 trillion worth of export earnings were generated by international tourism. This represents almost a third of the global export of commercial services and with tourist numbers and expenditure expected to continue its upward path in an increasingly shrinking world, tourism will continue to represent an important part of the global economy.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.“ This means that simply travelling to a rainforest for example, does not classify as ecotourism unless there is a benefit to the local community and implies that more needs to be given than the tourist takes. With a rising concern for the environment in general and acceptance of the importance of other cultures, ecotourism offers an outlet for tourists that like to focus on conservation.

Commodification entails the assigning of economic value to something typically considered to not be a good or product that can be sold. Commodification has expanded under advanced capitalism and is closely related to the idea of commodity fetishism (first explained by Marx) whereby an objective value can be given to something that has no inherent economic value, such as environment and culture. Lukács theory of reification, treating abstract concepts as if they were real and objective, also fits here: <blockquote>“Just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully, and more definitively into the consciousness of Man.”</blockquote>

In 2011, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced a UK National Ecosystem Assessment which was designed to establish “the true value of nature … for the very first time”. As George Monbiot highlighted in a comment piece, this has the potential to be beneficial by highlighting the benefits of nature to businesses and politicians that ignore the benefits of environment. However, it is clear that reducing the environment to a cost benefit ignores abstract social and cultural benefits, especially in the eyes of organisations that work within the neoliberal paradigm. An example of this is highlighted by the Rainforest Conservation Fund who calculated that Kenyan national parks can generate $40 per hectare from tourism and $80 per hectare from agriculture. When comparison is drawn in exclusively economic terms then it leaves only one choice. This has also been experienced in Thailand where poor land management has led to rapid deforestation, threatening popular ecotourism destinations in the jungle north. The main reason for this is that logging and conversion to agriculture offers more of a financial incentive than ecotourism does. Further troubles have been experienced in Pohnpei, an island in Micronesia, where the benefits of ecotourism have gone directly to the capital city rather being invested in the local communities. This suggests an issue with governance and is no doubt reflected in other areas too. There are obvious problems with commodifying the environment, looking beyond economic value is necessary for ecotourism to be successful in the first instance.

Ecotourism is interesting in that it explicitly defines the proposed consequence of improving the well-being of local people and conserving the environment which seemingly contradicts what would be an expected consequence of commodification. Ecotourism also benefits itself from these consequences as maintaining and improving the local economy and environment allows ecotourism to continue and flourish. The intention here is to create a circular system where environment and wildlife are maintained and economic gain is reinvested with the aim of improving local conditions.

Despite the good intentions of ecotourism there are cases where detrimental impacts have been recorded. Due to a lack of accountable standards in Costa Rica, ecotourism has been largely been unregulated, leading to exploitation of natural resources. Over-visiting is a very real problem and can escalate somewhat manageable issues (on a small scale) such as litter, pollution and trail damage, causing harm to the environment and local wildlife. A lack of regulation and over-visitation suggest that profit is one of the main reasons for these detrimental effects. Further troubles with habitat deterioration has been found in Mexico regarding butterflies while people have been known to harass and disrupt animals’ natural way of life in Kenyan nature reserves. There can also be ‘hidden’ problems such as water stress; the UN also released a report last year highlighting how climate change could exacerbate these issues, particularly as climate change is expected to adversely affect developing countries where ecotourism is primarily located. There is an opportunity here for ecotourism to mitigate climate change in local areas but this requires good governance and finance to implement certain measures.

Ecotourism does have its benefits though. In general, it offers an alternative to traditional holidays that lack any focus on sustainability. This was one of the main reasons for such a rise in the popularity of ecotourism as it has coincided with a rise in the awareness of environmental issues. In the case of the Galapagos Islands, ecotourism has contributed a great deal to preserving the region, despite many problems associated with human settlements existing. Ecotourism also offers a way to receive foreign investment and create jobs in a more sustainable way.

Governance in ecotourism is vital. In my discussion with ‘Ecotourism Australia’, they highlighted the importance of local, regional and state organisations working together. They also discussed how their role as a non-profit that provides certification helps in terms of quality and opens the door for evaluation, boosting the credentials of ecotourism operators. This in turn improves tourist confidence in the legitimacy and effectiveness of the operators.
An effective governance structure is necessary for ensuring that the complexities of developing successful ecotourism can be overcome. Studies show that state organisations are better equipped at developing policy that mitigates negative consequences and enforcing certification and quality. On the other hand, local organisations are more effective at allocating investment and stewardship of the environment. Ensuring that all levels of governance work together is important and in cases where there is some sort of disconnect, problems have arisen.

Small-scale ecotourism projects are less likely to succeed as a source of finance for conservation if they do not work within a larger operation that can market and support individual cases. Larger operations also have more clout when it comes to acquiring and protecting the land necessary for ecotourism to succeed. Finding a balance between local, regional and national expertise is a challenge when such organisations may have different views of what ecotourism represents and how it should be utilised.

Ecotourism represents a source of money to protect biodiversity, yet little consideration has been given to how this revenue can be used efficiently, compared to aid money received from developed countries that is earmarked for similar use. Developing a coherent biodiversity strategy is a prerequisite to ensuring that a circular system can be implemented. Similar to the above, it is important that all stakeholders work with the same intentions to ensure coherency and effective benefits.

By looking at the benefits and disadvantages of different case studies, lessons can be learned for the future of ecotourism. There needs to be cohesion between various levels of governance so that everyone is working on the same page. Quantifying the benefits of the environment can be useful for allowing different groups to better understand the importance of the environment, but it cannot be used as the sole indicator of value. Commodification of the environment could potentially lead to dangerous consequences as development will usually be prioritised over conservation. Finding the balance between conservation and development will require effective policy making and involving the expertise of a wide variety of people, from local communities to government. Commodification also tends to result in the ‘public’ or ‘common’ becoming ‘private’, with the consequence that it becomes a good for trade, only open to those that have the finance to purchase it.

Ecotourism also suffers in the regard that economically valuating the environment is not neutral, given the neoliberal narrative that pervades our society. This leads to thinking that aims to preserve the environment within current economic, political and social structures, the most prominent of which is profit-above-all and strong trust in the free market. For ecotourism to be a successful development tool, it needs to challenge this kind of ideology which reduces everything to monetary value. Communicating the importance of all aspects of the environment and the complexity of our reliance on it is vital for a sustainable and ecologically sound future.

Image from: Belize Travel Blog

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