Eco-tourism -- still hyphenated

Jean-Michel Cousteau

August 03, 1993|By Jean-Michel Cousteau

GLANCING through a travel brochure not long ago, I was somewhat startled to find the word ecotourism without the customary hyphen separating the two elements of this recently discovered commercial compound. After further reflection, I felt even more uncomfortable with such a cavalier conjunction of two concepts that are, at best, uneasy bedfellows and, at worst, diametrical opposites.

The simple hyphen has always seemed to serve as a reminder of the tenuous nature of this bond, alerting us to unresolved questions, challenging us to constant vigilance, spurring commitment to improvements in our approach to both facets of the hybrid industry.

Alternative travel is booming. Increasing numbers of tourists are demanding holidays that provide cultural stimulation as well as physical invigoration, and that offer spectacular adventures at little cost to local ecosystems. Yet have we already reached the goal of an environmentally benign travel industry? Is it really time to remove that hyphen?

Tourism is one of the biggest businesses on the planet. According to statistics compiled by the American Society of Travel Agents, tourism accounted for over $3.5 trillion of world expenditures, representing a full 6 percent of global GNP. Travel absorbs nearly 13 percent of global consumer spending, a figure surpassed only by outlays for food. More than 127 million people are employed in this sector, which is expected to double in size by 2005, making it the world's largest industry, according to ASTA president and CEO Earlene Causey.

7' It is hard to believe, but in anoth er decade more than half a billion people will be traveling each year. While we can expect many more of them to be "eco-tourists," they still will likely make up only a minute segment of the total tourist volume.

Confronting this deluge, and conscious of the impact tourism has already had on local economies, social structures and ecosystems, travel trade associations have energetically pursued dialogue with governments and responsible agencies about ways to minimize the industry's environmental effects.

ASTA has published and distributed guidelines under the title "The Ten Commandments of Ecotourism." Sent to tour operators, travel agents, hotels and airlines, the guidelines emphasize the responsibilities of each traveler to respect the frailty of the environment, support local cultures and avoid the purchase of products made from endangered species.

With the health of world oceans a concern for its own viability, the International Council of Cruise Lines, representing more than 90 percent of the world cruise industry, has been studying avenues for reducing the amount of potential refuse taken aboard ships and developing strategies for recycling.

The design of newer ships reflects a more stringent waste management regimen, and crew members on many lines receive training in proper disposal procedures. In addition, environmental concerns are communicated to passengers via announcements and publications. Similarly, airlines and the larger hotels continue to make progress in the business of recycling.

But ultimately, it is not the primary concern of the tourist industry to protect the environment or ensure compliance with ecologically minded legislation. Worldwide, we continue to see reefs dynamited for yacht har bors, teak forests razed for luxury hotels, wetlands drained and paved for airports and the price of arable land inflated beyond a HTC farmer's budget by the promise of touristic exploitation.

Given the expected increase in tourist volume, it is difficult to see how such devastation can be "minimized." For what is of paramount concern is not merely waste disposal, landfill space or shoes worn inside a Buddhist temple, but rather the way in which a consumer economy tied to world markets is planted in less advanced areas via the tourist trade. What begins as a small airstrip or a hotel soon blossoms into an infrastructure that overwhelms existing ways of life and leaves local populations dependent on the whims of global economic trends.

And there are setbacks even in sectors otherwise worthy of praise. A recent case in which cruise-ship crew members were videotaped throwing trash overboard on the high seas may have been a victory for the power of consumers to demand responsible practices. But it also focused public attention on the lack of clear guidelines in many areas of shipboard procedure.

For example, many popular Caribbean cruise destinations, including Barbados, Belize, and Trinidad and Tobago, are not contracting parties to international covenants on waste discharge at sea.

The tourist industry's potential for benign impact on local social and environmental impacts will be realized fully only if the industry as a whole addresses more sensitive concerns of local economy. Until this question is addressed, I will stick by my hyphen. As any experienced traveler will tell you, it is always wise to have reservations.

Jean-Michel Cousteau is a syndicated columnist.

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