Where is the “Eco” in “Tourism”? Each year, millions of whale and dolphin watchers migrate to oceans and shores around the world to catch a glimpse of free-ranging cetaceans. By land, stream, and air, tourists, recreationists and nature enthusiasts often travel long distances to see bears, wolves, eagles, elephants, lions, leopards, songbirds … animals in every shape and size. Ecotourism is the name given to the proliferation of commercial ventures around the world that provide opportunities to travel in such a manner that is presumably ecologically and culturally sensitive and responsible. However, the definitions of ‘sensitive’ and ‘responsible’ vary widely and it is now widely acknowledged that the label of ecotourism does not guarantee such valued qualities. So how do we know if a trip (whether it is a guided day trip to watch birds, an extended safari, or live-aboard boat whale watch tour) has earned the “eco” in the “ecotourism”?
To start with, viewing wild animals in captivity (even in what looks like to people as ‘semi-captive’ conditions) or swimming with captive dolphins does not fit ecotourism’s criteria of minimal impact. Research is increasingly demonstrating that viewing wild animals in captivity not only often negatively impacts the welfare of individuals, but also can have surprisingly damaging effects on populations in the wild. For example, as reported by CITES and other regulatory agencies, the demand for, and trade in, captive wildlife sometimes contributes to the depletion of already declining populations of animals. But watching wildlife in the wild not only helps to reconnect us with nature, it helps to connect valuable tourist dollars to the protection of animals and their habitats.
In many parts of the world, the revenues for local economies generated by ecotourism have made wildlife more valuable alive than dead. Mountain gorillas, gray whales, and elephants have often gained great benefit from the tourists’ dollar, just to name a few. Over the past few decades,
cetacean watching has become one of the fastest growing segments of the tourism market. According to Eric Hoyt, whale watching has profoundly changed the socioeconomic life of nearly 500 communities worldwide and offers educational, environmental, scientific and other socio-economic benefits. In many places, whale watching provides valuable, sometimes crucial, income to a community with the creation of new jobs and businesses. In rural, coastal areas, it continues to serve as a replacement for rapidly declining traditional industries, such as agriculture and fishing. It is also provides an opportunity for young people to secure employment in communities they might otherwise need to leave to obtain employment. Incorporating local folklore and cultural customs in ecotourism presentations greatly complements the knowledge imparted tourists and supports local cultures. Wildlife watching also helps to foster local stewardship of the environment and increase governmental protection for popular species and habitats. It also can provide support for worthwhile research projects that study and contribute to the preservation of the same animal targeted for tourism.
But discernment is certainly warranted. As a New Scientist article noted in the title, “Massive growth of ecotourism worries biologists” (March 4th, 2004 by Anil Ananthaswamy). Polar bears to rainforest birds are often negatively impacted by hoards of well-meaning tourists who inadvertently can cause harm to the same animals they appreciate. Even seemingly benign attempts to view wild animals can impact the lives of individual animals and populations in surprising ways. Interruption of resting, feeding, nursing, and mating behaviors can easily occur, even with experienced tour operators. This is particularly true when humans have high expectations regarding their wildlife experience or commercial operators attempt to meet or exceed them. Documentation of harassment to the animals, including severe injuries and even mortalities, has been observed worldwide and appear to be on the rise.