Ecotourism: an alternative to mass tourism?

Over the last decades, tourism has skyrocketed as one of the most fruitful and reliable industries; it is also one of the most harmful for the environment.

According to the UN Environment Program, the tourism industry contributes 10% of global gross growth domestic product (GDP) and accounts for one in ten jobs worldwide. It is becoming an indispensable source of income for many people especially in Cambodia where tourism accounted for 12.1% of the national GDP in 2019. The number of tourists in Cambodia doubled between 2010 to 2015 from 2.5 million to 5 million and will reach 10 million by 2025.

Even though the influx of tourism has become a key element for the national economy, the country opening to “low-cost” mass tourism has often ignored local communities and the preservation of their environment.
The ever-increasing number of tourists in Cambodia reinforces the fragility of the country’s waste management systems. Moreover, the flexibility within the law regarding wildfire areas and the share of tourism-related wealth in Cambodia reflect the need to develop more ethical and environmentally sustainable tourism.

Hopefully, more and more tourists are looking for a new way of sightseeing. In response to this growing demand, a range of initiatives led by hotels, restaurants, and different businesses are helping tourism take a new turn. The sustainable tourism principles published by the UN Tourism Organization highlight a new economic, cultural and environmental balance.
Varied terminology
However, as eco-conscious travelers, it is not surprising if you feel somewhat confused by all the varied terminology… Bio tourism? Ecologically responsible tourism? Low impact tourism? Nature tourism? Green tourism?

Claiming its positive impact has become more important than implementing actual practices. Admittedly, this lexical diversity embodies a “green sensitivity”, these expressions more or less mean the same thing. However, in the last few years, one specific subtype of sustainable tourism named ecotourism has been standing out in Cambodia. Ecotourism refers to a closed list of new tourism founding principles. It tends to reinvent tourism by no longer privileging tourists but rather building a “partnership between the traveler and the people of the destination”.

What is ecotourism about?

Ecotourism is an immersion-based tourism. It invites tourists to move away from the overcrowded tourist sites to remote natural regions. While over tourism has been concentrating tourists into small areas and considering revenue as the chief goal at the detriment of the locals and nature, ecotourism puts tourism benefits in favor of both the environment and people. Eco-tourism involves three main pillars:
Conservation pillar
Social pillar
Cultural pillar

Ecotourism requires an effective collaboration between the different stakeholders. Indeed, both tourists and locals need educational tools to understand the challenges of ecotourism. It is about putting aside the strict relation of consumer and seller in order to reach a win-win situation.

The responsibility of tourists towards the destination and the proper use of money generated by ecotourism are essential factors.

What are the negatives of ecotourism?

Look out! As you might expect ecotourism is not a magic bullet able to cure all the bad aspects of mass tourism. Unfortunately, it has a number of significant limitations. Tourism is a fragmented industry which means that the management of touristic services are handled by multiple actors: travel agencies, hotels, transportations, etc.

For this reason, it is hard to make tourists and locals cooperate to serve each other because they are at both extremities of a long chain.

Lists of eco certifications
Illustration of ecotourism certifications.
On the tourists’ side, the lack of documentation and insufficient preparation of the eco-touristic stay before the trip is a major hindrance. Since ecotourism has been gathering momentum, businesses have been using this term or other related terms as a promotional strategy.
Now, tourists have to deal with both a lack of information on the terms used and an overabundance of ecotourism offers that are impossible to sort through.

Hurting more than helping?

On the locals’ side, the benefits of nature-based tourism are called into question by the transportation carbon footprint. Tourists travel longer distances in smaller groups.
Besides, the eco-tourist influx could attract massive investment projects or state-led territorialization causing serious damage to natural areas. It would furthermore dispossess locals from the place where they live.
New road across Cardamom mountains
New road across the Cardamom mountains.

What can be done to make ecotourism a viable alternative ?

There is a pressing need to ensure a sustainable balance between the commercialization of natural resources and encouraging a new wave of sustainable tourism.

Ecotourism is often pointed out as a reincarnation of mass tourism reproducing passivity and consumerism. The challenge of adapting tourists’ demands and locals’ interests requires both businesses and tourists to change their habits.

As a tourist willing to experience nature-based travel and help tourism become sustainable, here are a few tips that you need to keep in mind.

Ecotourism-advise1
The selection of an eco-accommodation is an essential part of your eco-tourist stay. Make sure that the hotel provides services that are both eco-friendly and respectful of the environment. It is acceptable to sacrifice a bit of comfort by selecting light and rudimentary facilities. 

Ecotourism-advise3

Since waste treatment services are almost non-existent in remote areas. Minimize as much as possible your plastic use by bringing a reusable water bottle and food containers, which are handy for hiking. Read more about zero-waste trip here.

Ecotourism-advise2
Respect the strict conditions for visiting the reserves such as the closure of certain areas in order not to disturb the wildlife or being accompanied by a local guide during the whole trip. Be aware of how animals are treated in sanctuaries and the environment in which they live to support ethical and sustainable initiatives only. 
Ecotourism-advise4

Give absolute priority to non-polluting transportation to offset the carbon footprint of the trip to the eco-touristic site. Read more about sustainable transport here

Ecotourism-advise5
Promote trade and local crafts. This is the main way to put ecotourism to the benefit of the locals. Empowering people by supporting the local economy and savoir-faire.
Even though the behavior and expectations of tourists are central, ecotourism viability depends on the offer as well. Businesses should incorporate and serve the local economy by hiring locals and supporting local suppliers.
Creating a long-term consensus between the population and nature is the first priority. For instance, combating poaching or any illegal exploitation by employing local guides with the aim of both protecting the environment and providing reliable opportunities for the community, is what ecotourism is all about. Finally, promoting concrete initiatives and giving tourists transparent information about the service are key elements to give ecotourism credibility.

One paradox remains...

Mass tourism at Angkor park
Angkor archeological park has become a hub of mass tourism.

Ecotourism aims to change the principles of mass tourism but will probably not reach the status of an alternative. Unless “mass ecotourism” is the next step at the detriment of nature and locals, ecotourism facilities will not be able to accommodate the mass of tourists that will reach 10 million in 2025 in Cambodia as mentioned above. 

The evolution of tourism towards greater respect for the environment and the local people has to concern all stakeholders within the tourism industry.

About the author: Arthur Philippe-Boivin is a third-year student at Sciences Po Toulouse in France. He is currently on a 5 month internship with the Soulcial Trust in Cambodia to help develop the association’s Clean Green Cambodia environmental initiative. Arthur’s internship is coming to an end and this article, based on field work observations and meetings with local stakeholders, provides food for thought for businesses and individuals.

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