Image for ‘Ecotourism’ ... the new greenwash term

*Photo: Cradle Mt. 2018 (modified)

First published August 9

‘Ecotourism’ is a term that is misused across the world – as all international bodies agree; but it is particularly abused/misused by the Tasmanian Government and the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania (TICT).

This is not to say that there are not some authentic ecotourism enterprises in Tasmania, but they are at extreme risk of losing their status. More importantly, ‘ecotourism’ is far from new; it used to be something generations of Tasmanians bushwalkers, climbers, skiers, etc did as an outdoor activity/past-time or philosophy, but without any corporate or government involvement; and while not strictly ‘tourists’ as such, their activities were similar. The way the term is used today covers a wide spectrum of tourist activities, which usually involves ‘nature’, even if just in the form of what should be called more accurately ‘scenery mining’.

Notwithstanding the above, there have been serious attempts to define, and establish standards for, ecotourism.  For example, The International ecotourism Society (TIES), which claims to have over 750 organisational and 14,000 individual members plus 85,000 followers on facebook, has at least five key principles at the base of its definition of ecotourism, namely that it:

• is non-consumptive and non-extractive
• creates an ecological conscience
• holds ecocentric values and ethics in relation to nature
• is based on community involvement and consultation
• recognizes the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous people.

The succinct TIES definition of ecotourism is: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the wellbeing of the local people and involves interpretation and education”. However, this definition does not meet all the principles previously outlined.

Ecotourism is one of many attempts to promote responsible tourism and ‘sustainable tourism’ - and some commentators argue that the later term is an oxymoron . This is because, as Freya Higgins-Desbiolles points out, “Tourism has a problem. It is addicted to growth, which is incompatible with sustainability goals. Despite three decades discussing pathways to sustainable tourism, tourism authorities continue to promote tourism growth despite the ecological and social limits of living on a finite planet … The growth fetish is resulting in tourism killing tourism. Almost gone are the days when tourism authorities might support tourism directed to education, social well-being, inclusion and other non-economic goals”.

Other titles used to describe ‘natural’ approaches to tourism include: Responsible Tourism, Sustainable Tourism, Ethical Travel, Eco-friendly travel, Justice Tourism, and Linking Tourism & Conservation. The Center for Responsible Travel produces a summary of brief definitions that are being used in the muesli of tourism terminology.

Ecotourism

Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.

Geotourism

Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture and wellbeing of its residents.

Pro-Poor Tourism

Tourism that results in increased net benefit for the poor people in a destination.

Ethical Tourism

Tourism in a destination where ethical issues are the key driver, e.g. social injustice, human rights, animal welfare or the environment.

Responsible Tourism

Tourism that maximizes the benefits to local communities, minimizes negative social or environmental impacts, and helps local people conserve fragile cultures and habitats or species.

Sustainable Tourism

Tourism that leads to the management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems.

Agritourism

Agritourism or agro-tourism is a form of rural tourism in which tourists see and participate in traditional agricultural practices without destroying the ecosystems.

Orange tourism

Orange tourism is a sustainable tourism that generates cultural, economic and social development through responsible touristic management of cultural heritage, artistic production, and cultural and creative industries.

Wellness tourism

Travel associated with the goal of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing. It includes the pursuit of physical, mental, spiritual or environmental ‘wellness’.

Adventure tourism

Adventure tourism includes at least two of the following three elements: physical activity, natural environment, and cultural immersion. It includes caving, climbing, trekking, camping, birdwatching, rafting, snorkeling, surfing and other outdoor activities.

Ecotourism, as such, makes up about 10% of all tourism according to the United National World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) – whether it is more or less than that in Tasmania is hard to determine.

However, the Tasmanian Government and the TICT like to (mis) apply this term across all sorts of tourism enterprises regardless of validity or relevance.  One of the reasons for this deceptive behaviour is that governments realise that tourists are looking increasingly for ethical, responsible, nature-based tourism experiences – some research suggests that three-quarters of tourists want to contribute to ethical and responsible tourism AND they are prepared to pay more for that privilege.  This is sometimes referred to as ‘New Tourism’, and these tourists have a higher level of environmental and cultural awareness. ‘New tourism’ can be described as a summation of a few key ethical principles:

1. environmental consciousness
2. responsibility in travel
3. cultural awareness
4. supporting the visited communities.

Before going into some details about what constitutes authentic ecotourism (as the Global Ecotourism Network is now referring to it), in order to combat the world-wide problem of exploiting the term ‘ecotourism’ - and authenticity is one of the key drivers of tourists these days, what is very clear in Tasmania is that there are no transparent standards, international or otherwise, being applied to the concept or use of the term ‘ecotourism’.

Both Government and the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania (TICT) and its corporate cronies blithely apply the term across the board to any venture that they would like to greenwash.

Ecotourism is being used as a greenwash term in order to facilitate the privatisation of Tasmania’s National Parks (eg, Three Capes Track, Cradle Mountain, Lake Malbena, Lake Geeves, the South Coast and Frenchman’s Cap). The Three Capes Track was the first cab off the rank; now it is being used as a model in both Tasmania and mainland States to put in private and government-funded infrastructure inside World Heritage Areas and National Parks to privatise the exploitation of these areas. The rush has begun . . . and all of this is being conducted behind closed doors with no public consultation or involvement - which contravenes at least Article 3, sections 4 & 5 of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, adopted by UN in 2001 (United Nations & UN World Tourism Organisation).  Tasmania is also in breach of other Ethics in this Code.

Why should all of this matter? As Bricker & Hunt point out, sustainable ‘green’ tourism makes good business sense as “tourists are increasingly showing a preference for products and suppliers that demonstrate good social and environmental performance”; for these authors “Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel” - none of these criteria are being considered, let alone implemented, in Tasmania. As pointed out by Monbiot, the term ‘sustainability’ is used by governments and industry to mean sustained growth, whereas its original meaning was directed at environmental sustainability, conservation and biosphere integrity: “if sustainability means anything, it is surely the opposite of sustained growth. Sustained growth on a finite planet is the essence of unsustainability”. As Freya Higgins-Desbiolles says, the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ are very anthropocentric and ignore the consequences for, and rights of, other species and ecological systems.

Also, the Tasmanian Government and the tourism industry do nothing to adhere to best practice as outlined in the IUCN/World Commission on Protected Areas guidelines for tourism and sustainability in Protected Areas, which include:

 adhering to the triple bottom line:
o contribute to the conservation of nature (environmental value);
o generate economic benefits to protected area authorities and owners to help support management costs, and also sustainable livelihood opportunities in local communities (economic value); and
o contribute towards the enrichment of society and culture (social value);
 developing conservation ethics in visitors and tourists; and
 accounting for, and mitigating against, negative impacts, not just benefits, as “Every management action in a protected area, even ones stemming from best practices, comes with a cost.”

Unlike the Tasmanian Government and the TICT, many tourism enterprises, such as the world’s largest tourism group, the TUI Group with revenue of $15 billion (which is more than half that of the whole of Tasmania’s GSP), take a much more serious view of sustainable and responsible tourism.

TUI is one of the few tourism organisations in the world that actively measures the impact of their activities in terms of sustainability criteria. According to a survey conducted by booking.com 87% of world travellers state that they want to travel sustainably. What do they mean by ‘sustainable’? “for almost half of travelers (46%), ‘sustainable travel’ means staying in eco-friendly or green accommodations, topping the list of what people think of when hearing the term. The top reasons travelers give for choosing these eco-friendly places to rest their heads are to help reduce environmental impact (40%), to have a locally relevant experience (34%) and wanting to feel good about an accommodation choice (33%)”. Meanwhile, in Tasmania there is no sustainble tourism strategy.

Further, at community levels there are programs to generate sustainability with tourism. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) introduced a Destination Stewardship program, which is “an approach to tourism development in which local communities, government agencies, NGOs and the tourism industry are dedicated to taking a multi-stakeholder approach to maintaining the cultural, environmental, economic, and aesthetic integrity of their country, region, state, or town through sustainable policy and management frameworks.” These concepts of community involvement, and environmental and aesthetic integrity are totally foreign in Tasmania – tourism is dominated here by: (a) the Premier combining Tourism and Parks & Wildlife portfolios (with the emphasis on privatisation/exploitation and exclusion); (b) Tourism Tasmania having commercial conflicts of interest; and (c) the true body overseeing tourism in Tasmania being the unrepresentative Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania (TICT).

The GSTC program goes further; the integrated conservation and development (ICD) strategy favours nature over economic capital, emphasizing conservation over development. Clearly the Tasmanian Government (and the Opposition parties) hold contrary views to this; as tourism authorities are also focussed on development. Partnerships between conservation and development interests are often spoken about internationally, but within Tasmania the polarisation of public opinion has all but killed such ventures and, as pointed out by Bricker, such partnerships, “while valued, are highly complex, frequently contested and do not always deliver” – I would suggest that they will never deliver in Tasmania while governments maintain a cargo-cult mentality, exploit at any (short or long-term) cost, and are sucked into a system of patronage and economic/social corruption. As the old Tasmanian adage goes, ‘if it flows dam it, if it stands still cut it down, if it is underground dig it up’, to which can be added ‘if the scenery looks good mine it for all it is worth’. 

However, authentic ecotourism (where it is privatised) almost by definition is small-scale, locally owned, community-based and very careful in monitoring the environmental behaviour of its clients. By far the majority of authentic ecotourism is not conducted through any large business enterprise but simply undertaken privately by individuals.

Until very recently, this has certainly been the case for almost all ‘ecotourism’ in Tasmania, that is, private, non-commercial, small-scale adventures in the wilderness and National Parks involving all ages with no corporate involvement at all. Now, however, the sheer volume of ‘traffic’ and the death of the quintessential isolation/peace that used to be found in these wild areas are discouraging such excursions.

Back in 1976 the South West Tasmania Action Committee (which was the name of the organisation before it was changed to the Tasmanian Wilderness Society) satirically, but with foresight, produced the ‘South West Tasmania Annihilation Kit’, which detailed how the wilderness experience would be diminished by, among others, tourism.

Tourists are changing their consumer behaviour – they are shifting fast into nature-based travel and activities involving “viewing and photographing nature”. What the tourism industry is actually doing here is described aptly by Kevin Kiernan as ‘scenery mining’.

Helicopter rescues from the Tasmanian wilderness were unknown until a few decades ago; now there it is believed that there are, on average, two or three helicopter rescues per week – so the risk factor has been reduced considerably and one of the essential elements of wilderness has been lost (especially where outdoor recreationists are carrying Personal Locator Beacons).

Meanwhile, travellers are demanding more individual and authentic travel experiences, which ecotourism can provide. Travel is about ‘getting under the skin of a place’. Authenticity is the key, and technology such as cable cars is the antithesis of this.

Today authentic, individual, non-privatised ‘ecotourism’ that used to be experienced by Tasmanians as weekend bushwalkers, climbers, etc has been replaced by queuing at boom gates at the entrance to National Parks, while tourists in minibuses and coaches are allowed through (Cradle Mountain) – “unless (there is) rotten weather, not school holidays and before 8 a.m and no-one else interested you are lucky to get access to Waldheim”. Another Tasmanian response: “I think it’s going to be a nightmare for us locals to get in there from now on. Surely we have some rights!!” - these are just two of many examples of how resident Tasmanians are responding to being excluded from their own National Parks, and the situation is only going to get much worse.  There are currently more than two tourists for each Tasmanian (ratio 2:1) and, simply by virtue of the increase of tourism worldwide, the number of tourists coming to Tasmania, without any tourism promotion, is likely to reach 2 million by 2025 (ratio 4:1) and 3 million by 2031 (ratio 6:1, assuming limited domestic population growth).

What needs to be done:

1. Independent certification of ecotourism and nature-based tourism enterprises, with clear differentiation between the two concepts (if that is possible): this is designed to separate authentic ecotourism from corporate and government greenwashing.

2. Monitoring of all ecotourism and nature-based tourism in terms of adherence to afore-mentioned standards.

3. A new tourism body specific to small ecotourism/nature-based tourism enterprises that includes community participation: this is designed to generate genuine representation of the whole tourism sector, not just that of corporate bodies, which is the dominant case at the moment.

4. State Government and relevant related bodies sign up for adherence to UNWTO and IUCN responsible, ethical and sustainable tourism standards, including the GSTC Destination Stewardship standards: at the moment there are no clear standards being applied in ecotourism or nature-based tourism in Tasmania; the State Government clearly makes up the rules according to when and how it suits them.

5. Cessation of tourism promotions designed to bring more tourists to Tasmania, with the exception of promotions designed to equalise the impacts and benefits of tourism across all regions of the state: this is designed to counter the fact that the south of the state attracts two-thirds of all tourists.

6. Abolition of the Tasmanian Government’s tourism marketing organisation Tourism Tasmania: it is not independent and has too many potential commercial conflicts of interest.

7. Separation of the Ministries of Parks and Wildlife from Tourism: there are enormous conflicts of interest between these two portfolios, which have too many competing objectives and can lead to nontransparent and corrupt processes and practices.

8. Amend the Tasmania National Parks Act to recognise wilderness as having value and to provide for its protection against all development. Tasmanian needs a Wilderness Act, like that of the states of NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

9. Open, public and widespread community participation in the assessment of all ecotourism and nature-based tourism proposals: all proposals should be required to meet the triple bottom line plus demonstrate how any impacts (environmental, social, economic and political) will be addressed.

10. Aim for ecologically sound and sustainable tourism, as advocated by UNWTO and other international tourism bodies.

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*Dr Geoff Holloway, above was State Secretary of the United Tasmania Group (UTG) 1974-77 and again since revival of UTG two years ago. Geoff has a PhD (sociology),  specialising in social movements, health and research methods; poet (4 books published); climber; traveller - two years in Chilean & Argentinean Patagonia, but also Colombia, Ecuador and Brasil, twice recently to Cabo Verde and Lisbon, fluent in Spanish, understands written Portuguese; focus over past 20 years on children with disabilities, child protection and youth justice issues.