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Elephants in the Masai Mara

The Biodiversity That People Make
World-Watch May/June 2000

While backyard wildlife watchers get less media attention than ecotourists, many of them in addition to expanding their attentions to community projects will eventually become ecotourists. In 1998, world tourism as a whole generated an estimated $441 billion, according to the Spain-based World Tourism Organization. In her book Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? , Martha Honey calls ecotourism “. ..the most rapidly growing and most dynamic sector of the tourism market.” It is big enough to sway critical decisions in biologically rich but cash-poor countries.

A notable example is Costa Rica, which was little known as a tourist destination two or three decades ago. But as word of the country’s verdant rainforests, whitewater rivers, and gaudy tropical birds spread, the number of visitors arriving each year from Europe, Japan, and North America jumped from 200,000 to 1 million. Many of them came to see the country’s outstanding national parks and reserves, which comprise about a quarter of its total area. Eco-tourism has become one of Costa Rica’s largest sources of foreign~ exchange.

In Kenya and Tanzania, too, safari-style eco-tourism has become a key revenue source. In 1995, the Kenya Wildlife Service estimated that tourism, 80 percent of which was wildlife watching, was bringing in one-third of the country’s foreign exchange. Other countries for which nature-based tourism provides needed foreign exchange include South Africa, Botswana, Belize, Zambia, Ecuador, and Indonesia. In the United States, a group called the Tourism Works for America Council estimated that in 1996, National Park Service lands brought $14.2 billion dollars to local communities and supported almost 300,000 tourism-related jobs.

This isn’t always unmitigated good news for local communities and ecosystems, however. The benefits of ecotourism - economic, ecological, and educational - can be offset by all sorts of disbenefits. People eager to see charismatic species can trample less conspicuous ones; building hotels for the visitors cuts large pieces out of the very ecosystems they are coming to see; and the nature trails and jeep roads they use typically lead to increasing fragmentation of what remains. Jet planes and Land Cruisers emit greenhouse gases, the eventual effects of which may weaken ecosystems still further. What ecotourists assume to be harmless observation can turn out to be painful intrusion.

I unwittingly contributed to such an intrusion on Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve, when I joined a safari trip to Kenya in 1995. While traversing the reserve, our van driver suddenly pulled off the road and crashed through the grassland, flushing nesting birds before rumbling within a few feet of a male lion that was lying next to a freshly killed young giraffe. The lion, clearly disturbed by our presence, strained to drag his meal to cover as other safari vehicles rolled through the tall grass towards us. Some of us felt horrible, but I could see that others - their telephoto lenses swiveling - relished being so close.

At the time of my visit, Kenyan tour operators were not forbidden to leave the roads in national reserves. Over the past few years, partly as a result of visitors’ outcries, the practice has been banned. But other problems, including water pollution caused by sewage leaching from hotel toilets into nearby wetlands and the widespread gathering of firewood for hotel “safari” campfires and wood-burning furnaces, remain.

As sites grow more popular, other park and reserve managers are beginning to control visitors’ movements more carefully. For instance, many parks, including Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, now ban vehicular traffic much of the time, with the result that interactions between walkers, bikers, and wildlife are no longer so disruptive. Visitors to Alaska’s Denali National Park must leave their cars behind and may only enter the park’s wilderness in scheduled buses. The same is true in such parks as Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in India, where visitors ride in on jeeps, buses, or on elephant back to observe wild Asian elephants, tigers, gaur (a kind of undomesticated cattle), and other large, sensitive, and potentially dangerous animals.

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult for a group of travelers to know if their tour operator is green or just going for the green. “We need to [have] some kind of reviewable ethical standard,” says Megan Epler Wood, president of the Vermont-based Ecotourism Society. The Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.” But no global standard or certification process currently exists for tour operations, although Costa Rica and Australia now have strict ecotourism grading standards and efforts are underway to establish them in Kenya.

”We see ecotourism as part of an integrated conservation strategy,” says Greta Ryan, manager of ecotourism enterprise development and support at Washington, D.C. based Conservation International (CI). The nonprofit CI works in 23 countries, with ecotourism now constituting an important component of its work in 17 of them. The key, says Ryan, is to make sure the benefits stay within the community. When this happens, ecotourism tends to reinforce CI’s overall program ill three ways. By generating local income, it encourages communities to welcome other conservation projects. By alleviating poverty, it reduces the rates of poaching and deforestation. And by making natural assets the centerpieces of the economy, it heightens environmental awareness among both the local people and their visitors. Often, nature tourists enjoy the sights unaware that their money is being siphoned away from local communities by big-city or out-of-country tour operators who have little ultimate interest in conserving wildlife. ”In Kenya, those communities that do not realize a benefit are less likely to consider wildlife positively, and are more likely to want to remove the wildlife from the land,” says Neel Inamdar, a director of Eco-Resorts, an ecotourism-oriented travel company, and a board member of the Kenya-based African Center for Conservation. “Basically, a lot of the parks are not viable by themselves - we have to consider the people on the periphery of the parks. After all, wildlife moves from one place to another.” Recent initiatives in areas adjacent to African parks include pilot programs in which villagers or farmers run cooperative wildlife reserves on their lands, guiding and hosting paying visitors instead of converting the areas into agricultural land or livestock range.

Some fragile areas, or those within reserves, may simply be unsuited for any nature tourism. For instance, there are the rainforest pools once home to golden toads within Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. In the September/October 1990 issue of WORLD WATCH, I quoted Ray Ashton, director of an international consulting firm called Water and Air Research, as saying, “People are tripping over golden toads so they can go see quetzals.” Today, the exotic red and green streamer-tailed birds still breed in the reserve, but the golden toad may be extinct. In fact, no one has seen a golden toad since shortly before my article went to press in 1990. While one widely accepted hypothesis suggests that climate change caused the die-off, another suggests that tourists may have unwittingly contributed to the toad’s disappearance by bringing in pathogens on their shoe soles.

On balance, if carefully managed, nature tourism offers large benefits to the environment. Wildlife watchers, a relatively affluent and well educated lot on the whole, are usually willing to pay for their watching-and their economic clout favors protection of the places where they like to do it. A 1995 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America found that 83 percent of U.S. travelers are inclined to support “green” travel companies and are willing to spend, on average, 6.2 percent more for travel services and products provided by environmentally responsible travel suppliers.

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