Exploring Mexico

Ecotourism: Reality or Rhetoric
Ecotourism Development in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico

by Natasha Kate Ward
March 1997

Home | Mexico | YUCATAN | Mundo Maya | Mexico News Sources | Mexico Books | Mexico Ecotourism Network | Reality or Rhetoric

Contents: Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Conclusion and Bibliography

Chapter 2. - Ecotourism; The Concept.

"Ecotourism contains a working paradox, eventually its operation destroys the very system that keeps it alive, unless careful measures are taken to protect it" [Barkin, D., 1996. I Colloquial Internacional sobre ecoturismo, Quintana Roo].

2.1. The Emergence of Ecotourism.

As a reaction to the devastating effects of conventional mass tourism and a growing environmental awareness, ecotourism now represents the fastest growing subsector of the tourism industry, generating billions of dollars annually. Estimates on its exact value vary greatly however, although the WTO calculated that, in 1989, it accounted for 7% of international tourist receipts and expected to see this increase rapidly [Ceballos Lascurian, 1994:3]. By 1995, the annual tourism growth rate was said to be in the region of 10-15%, a large segment of which was attributable to ecotourism developments in developing countries who are, currently, experiencing the largest growth rates in the world tourism industry [Pleumarom,1995:23]. Developing nations have taken quickly to the idea of ecotourism, seeing it as the answer to the problems caused by mass tourism and as a way to develop their weak economies. "It is the answer to the classic impasse that they find themselves in ....... the need to capitalise on their tourism resources to earn badly needed foreign exchange without, at the same time, destroying those resources and thus compromising sustainability" [Cater,1993:85]

Whilst the term ecotourism is new, the concept itself dates further back. The first references to the idea of ecotourism in literature appeared in the 1970s. In an article entitled 'Tourism and Environmental Conservation: Conflict, Coexistence or Symbiosis', Budowski, an American environmentalist, suggests that tourism may be considered as having one of the three relationships with the environment: conflict, coexistence or symbiosis, the latter, which best describes nature tourism, being a partnership between the two which benefits both. Despite a large potential for this symbiotic relationship, Budowski explained that in most situations, the tourist industry was in a co-existence relationship tending towards conflict. He therefore concluded that importance must be placed on educational management strategies that promoted a symbiotic relationship ['ecotourism'] in order to avoid future conflicts between the tourist and the natural environment [Budowski, 1976:27-31].

2.2 What is Ecotourism? Examples of Differing Definitions.

Ecotourism means different things to the different groups involved in the relationship between tourism and the environment. If it is to be recognised as a legitimate sector of the tourist industry it must be defined to universal satisfaction. Broadly speaking it refers to tourism that is based on the natural environment but that seeks to minimise the harmful impacts and, better still, seeks to promote conservation.

This concept of the variation of definitions of ecotourism has been presented by Miller and Kaae as a continuum of ecotourism paradigms [figure 2] where at "one pole all tourism may be viewed as ecotourism, and at the other, no tourism may be viewed as ecotourism" [Orams, 1995:3]. At the high human responsibility pole, all tourism including ecotourism is seen as having a damaging effect on the natural environment, thus implying that ecotourism is a contradiction in itself. At the low human responsibility pole it is considered that human activity need take no consideration over the environment, and in this way all tourism may be considered as ecotourism. These two scenarios are the extremes of the scale and are, therefore, somewhat severe and unrealistic, however, different definitions may be placed along this continuum. These ecotourism definitions may be grouped as passive or active. The definition of ecotourism offered by The Mundo Maya corporate manual can be considered as passive. Ecotourism seeks to:

To co-ordinate, assist and stimulate cultural and environmental tourist development, recognising the importance of conservation and maintenance of local cultural heritage and the natural resources of the region for present day generations and generations to come [Mundo Maya, 1995:7].

No active contribution is made towards conservation by the tourist, rather, the tourist simply seeks to minimise the damage caused by their presence. Similarly Ceballos Lascurain suggests that ecotourism is:

Aquella modalidad turística ambientalmente responsable consistente en viajar o visitar áreas naturales relativamente sin disturbar con el fin de disfrutar, apreciar y estudiar los atractivos naturales [paisaje, flora y fauna silvestres] de dichas áreas, así como cualquier manifestación cultural [del presente y del pasado] que puedean encontrarse ahí, tiene bajo impacto ambiental y cultural y propicia un involucramiento activo y socio-económicamente benéficio de las poblaciones locales [Ceballos Lascurain, 1994:5].

It implies a passive desire to protect the natural environment, but again makes no mention of an active contribution to conservation, and should, therefore, be placed towards the low human responsibility pole. Other definitions fall into the active bracket of ecotourism, thus lying at the high human responsibility pole of the ecotourism continuum:

[Ecotourism] in its purest form, is an industry which claims to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to generate money, jobs and help the conservation of wildlife and vegetation. It claims to be responsible tourism which is ecologically and culturally sensitive [Panos, 1995:4].

Ecotourism hopes to change the unequal relationships of conventional tourism. Thus it encourages the use of indigenous guides and local products. it claims to combine environmental education with minimal travel comforts, help protect local flora and fauna and provide local people with economic incentives to safeguard their environment [Survival International, 1995].

The ecotourist practices a non-consumptive use of wildlife and natural resources and contributes to the visited area through labour or financial means aimed at directly benefiting the conservation of the site [Ziffer cited in Orams, 1995:5].

Such definitions as these seem more suitable for an industry carrying the prefix 'eco' and therefore, it is accepted that true ecotourism is tourism which actively contributes to the conservation and preservation of the natural environment on which it is based. Ecotourists should strive to contribute to the health and quality of the natural systems that they are observing. Shores, in his article 'The challenge of ecotourism', asserts that there is a 'rainbow' of definitions to describe ecotourism. These can be split into five main groupings [Shores, 1992:2]:

Just as it is accepted that a recognised definition must be adopted, it is also necessary to establish certain ground rules and objectives for ecotourism development. First and foremost, tourist development of this nature should not destroy the resource upon which it is based. Development should be of a sound ecological and cultural nature, meeting the needs of the host community with regards to improving the standard of living for the majority, in both the short and long term. Furthermore, the needs and demands of the actual and potential tourist must be satisfied in order for the industry to develop [Appendix 1:Objectives for Sustainable Tourism]. "Properly implemented, nature tourism can integrate conservation and rural development by helping to protect valuable natural areas by providing reserves for planning and management, stimulating economic development through tourism expenditures and providing jobs and markets for locals"[Dixon et al, in Whelan, 1991:108].

2.3. Measuring Ecotourism.

Finding a means to measuring the success of specific ecotourism projects on both a small and a large scale is no easy task due to the afore mentioned inability of the tourist industry to adopt a global definition of what is and what is not ecotourism. Accepting that the role of ecotourism is two fold, that is, to provide the traveller with a worthwhile experience whilst actively contributing to conservation of the resource base the, success of any given ecotourism project may be assessed by its ability to fulfil this role. Orams suggests the use of two continuums that show the effect of the ecotourism experience on both the ecotourist and the natural environment [Figure 3 Objectives for ecotourism strategies] [Orams,1995:6]. The main objectives of the experience are firstly to go beyond mere enjoyment and satisfaction and in fact to educate the tourist so much so that s/he adopts a different behavioural attitude towards the natural and cultural environment experienced. Secondly ecotourism should be encouraged as an active experience; the more successful the project, the greater the contribution to conservation in the local environment. These continuums allow an assessment of ecotourism projects, but to a limited extent.

Shores, takes this idea one step further asserting that "what the industry needs and what the public must demand, is a ruler for measuring the impact of tourism projects on natural and cultural resources" [Shores,1992:3]. He suggests a scale for classifying ecotourism travel, which measures the level of achievement of certain ecotourism principles. This rating system is aimed at tourists, tour operators, host communities and ecologists alike [Figure 4 The Scale of Ecotourism]. The scale, however, may be more theoretical than practical. That is to say that even when applied to certain projects that may be considered almost perfect examples of ecotourism, for example, The Panti Medicine Trail, Cayo district, Belize, it may be seen as an unrealistic. The farm, run by Rosie Arvigo, uses funds gained by ecotourism and grants from the United States Agency for development and the New York Botanical Gardens to research alternative uses of the forest for medicinal purposes. In 1991 the Panti medicinal trail was set up, allowing Belizian students, local people and ecotourists the chance to visit the rainforest and learn of extraordinary potential in the field of medicine. Whilst the tourist does not contribute directly to conservation of the forest in San Ignacio, tourists revenues from the Medicine trail have allowed the farm to fund a range of herbal remedies, the profits from which are shared with local employees and traditional healers. Furthermore, the Arvigos offer seminars at Belizian universities and schools and have a travelling workshop which teaches small communities the importance of sustainable use of resources. It may, therefore, be seen that this offers a very positive example of ecotourism, however on the Shores scale it only rates as level 1, since toursits do not engage in a personal way to conservation of the natural resources. It may, therefore, be necessary to reconsider this scale.

2.4 Objectives for Ecotourists

Certain organisations and travel companies have devised various ecotourism principles which they request their clients to adhere to. The most widely recognised 'code' was created by ASTA [The American Society of Travel Agents], in association with Club Med, and is known as the Ten Commandments on Ecotourism [Figure 5 ASTA's Ten Commandments on Ecotourism]. Raising awareness needs to be an integral part of the ecotourism experience.

2.5. Ecoexploitation

The importance of understanding the objectives involved in ecotourism and of measuring the quality of an ecotourism project should not be under-estimated [Ceballos Lascurain, 1994:3]. The definitions of this concept are too lax and the fact

that the prefix 'eco' is attached may convince tourists that the trip is ecologically sound, when in actually fact it is simply a passive form of nature tourism that does

little or nothing to conserve the environment. This may be considered as ecoexploitation , whereby large [mainly foreign] companies take advantage of the niche in the market to 'eco-sell' more or less the same old tourism product [Orams, 1993:5]. Pleumaron confirms this, asserting that ecotourism may be regarded as "an 'ecofacade' and as a tactic to conceal the consumptive and exploitative practices of the mainstream tourism industry - by greening it" [Pleumaron, 1995:26]. The prefix 'eco' evokes a positive environmental image as an association is invariably made to terms such as ecosystem and ecology. In recent years with the so called "greening of the market", there has been a proliferation of terms such as ecotours, ecoadventure, ecotravel and ecotourism [Wight, 1995:4]. In this sense ecotourism could be regarded as a type of environmental opportunism. It puts the credibility of the concept of ecotourism into question, with ecotourism running the risk of falling into the same traps as conventional tourism has done before it. It is imperative, therefore, that a common definition of the term ecotourism is found, and that objectives and guidelines for its development are clearly set out.

In an assessment of a ecotourism projects care must be taken to look at the motives for the development. That is to say; to consider whether the project is using market interest in all things 'green' and 'environmentally sensitive' to make a quick profit, or whether it is a case of attracting this same interest in an attempt to conserve and sustainably develop the region in question using ecotourism. Wight illustrates this idea, designing a segmentation model of ecotourism suppliers, motivation and impact [Figure 6] along with the spectrum of language used to market ecotourism [Figure 7] [Wight, 1995:5].

Figure 5. ASTA's Ten Commandments on Ecotourism.

"Whether you are travelling on business, pleasure, or a bit of both, all the citizens of the world, present and future, would be grateful if you would respect the ten commandments of world travel."

1. Respect the frailty of the Earth.

2. Leave only footprints. Take only pictures.

3. To make your travels more meaningful, educate yourself about the geography, customs, manners and cultures of the region you visit.

4. Respect the privacy and dignity of others.

5. Do not buy products made from endangered plants or animals.

6. Always follow designated trails.

7. Learn about, and support, conservation-orientated programs and organisations working to preserve the environment.

8. Whenever possible, walk or utilise environmentally sound methods of transportation.

9. Patronise those members of the travel industry who advance energy and environmental conservation; water and air quality; recycling; safe management of waste and toxic materials; noise abatement; community involvement; and which provide experienced, well trained staff dedicated to strong principles of conservation.

10. Ask your ASTA travel agent to identify those organisations which subscribe to ASTA environmental guidelines for air, land and sea travel.

2.6. The Problems Associated with Ecotourism in Developing Countries.

Developing countries have the necessary natural resources upon which to base ecotourism projects, however if the future is to be truly sustainable, developers must

recognise the associated problems of ecotourism. Spearheading is seen as one of the largest problems for ecotourism development, "whereby previously unopened areas with delicately balanced physical and cultural environments, are being brought into the locus of international tourism" [Cater, 1992:19]. Such tourism will come at a price in terms of environmental degradation. However aware the ecotourist may be, the weight of people entering fragile ecosystems may have a disruptive effect on the natural environment and damage local culture and heritage. This has been the case in many so-called ecotourism destinations such as The Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize, where increasing amounts of ecotourists are being blamed for environmental degradation [Cater, 1992:21]. Furthermore, the creation of parks and reserves for conservation purposes and for ecotourism development can result in the large displacements of indigenous populations, in developing nations. This problem was highlighted by the movement of Maasi tribes in Kenya from their traditional lands when the Maasai Mara National Park was created. A member of the local community commented on the effects of the effects of the 'nature tourism' that is occurring in the park: "Tourism has been allowed to develop with virtually no controls. Too many lodges have been built, too much firewood is being used and no limits are placed on tourist vehicles. They regularly drive off-track and harass the wildlife. Inevitably, the bush is becoming eroded and degraded" [Pleumaron, 1995:32].

It has also been suggested that the majority of ecotourism projects operating are not in a position to make large financial profits as they do not provide adequate means for tourists to spend money [Boo in Whelan, 1991:188]. For this reason the Ecotourism Society suggest that "ecotourism will never generate as much revenue as 'mass-tourism'" [Cited in Epler Wood, in Whelan, 1991:202]. This has been the case in Costa Rica, where ecotourism development represents the principal element of the tourist industry which plays an important part in the national strategy of sustainable development. In response to large scale deforestation in the 1940s, when forest cover was reduced from 75% to 20%, the Costa Rican government opted for a new strategy of development [Burnie, 1994]. Ecotourism was seen as the way forward as it offered a way to generate revenues and conserve the nations national resources at the same time. In 1993 Costa Rica attracted 700,000 visitors many of whom came with the express purpose to visit the national parks [McNeil, 1996:369]. It has been considered a successful role model for implementation of ecotourism however, it must be underlined that any success is relative, and in fact the parks in Costa Rica are still not economically sustainable [Burnie, 1994]. Whilst the parks clearly generate large revenues, consideration needs to be paid to enlarging the expenditure of the ecotourist.

Further economic problems may be attributed to leakage of benefits and thus little wealth trickle down. Boo asserts that if ecotourism projects are not researched and guidelines are not set out, then a large proportion of the economic benefits may in fact by-pass the needy local economies, accruing instead to tour operators in developed countries. The Annapurna region of Nepal, marketed as an ecotourism destination, offers a good example of this problem. It is estimated that only 20 cents of the US$3 that the average ecotourist spends daily actually benefits the local community [Whelan, 1993, in Pleumarom, 1994:8]. This leakage of benefits has been a long recognised problem of tourism in developing nation. The significance of this was estimated in 1988 when it was shown that 55% of gross tourism revenues in developing nations ended up in the pockets of wealthy foreign investors in the developed world [Ceballos Lascurain, 1996:3].

Figure 6.

Segmentation Model of Ecotourism Suppliers, Motivation and Impact.

Sector Motivation Local Negative

Involvement Impact

Eco-sell Low High

(profit, selling nature,

unaware or uncaring

about impact.)

Responsible travel

For and marketing.

Profit (Profit, aware of

Sector impact, attempts to

be constructive.)

Association with

locals, conservation,

groups, scientists.

(Profit, constructive,

impact, donations, non-

profit affiliations.)

Travel Service

(Member service,

source of funds.)


For Conservation /

Profit Preservation

sector (conservation, funds


Science / Research.

(education and research.) High Low

Source : Wight (adapted from Ziffer 1989).

Figure 7: Spectrum of Language Used to Market Ecotourism.

Eco-sell orientated

  • * we just offer the best, most affordable and largest variety of "classic and unusual" . ecotourism one can find anywhere.
  • * rain forest ecology tours
  • * budget travel to 'untouristic' destinations
  • * areas generally neglected by the teeming tourist masses
  • * destinations untouched by mass tourism
  • * off the beaten track
  • Generic language

  • * environmental awareness, self discovery and personal exchange with exotic cultures or enchanted adventures to classic destinations.
  • * ecologically sensitive
  • * cross cultural focus
  • * environmentally friendly
  • * sensitive to both the physical environment and to local culture
  • * spirited adventure for the responsible traveller
  • * sustainable ecological development
  • * people conscious nature tours
  • * nature travel
  • Science/Conservation orientated

  • * one week volunteer work
  • * visit the world's natural environments while you help preserve them. trip proceeds support environmental and cultural preservation
  • * some trips involve travellers in conservation projects
  • * scientific expeditions
  • * restoration projects
  • * tours support jungle conservation and Peruvian children's foundation
  • Explanatory/Values orientated

  • * small groups (8-10)
  • * maximum group size 12
  • * worker owned transport companies
  • * locally owned hotels
  • * gives 1% of profits to peace and environmental groups
  • * newsletters prior to departure and lectures throughout tour
  • * women and indigenous owned business
  • * supporting local economic development
  • * your guide is a botanist, tour parties are small
  • Source: Wight, 1995.

    2.7. Conclusion.

    The concept of ecotourism is not new, however public interest in ecotourism holiday destinations, especially those found in developing countries, has rapidly increased over the past 15 years. If a satisfactory definition can be found and clear guidelines established, ecotourism has the potential to offer developing nations an alternative to 'quick cash', unsustainable, development that has already destroyed vast regions of third world countries. However, in the absence of a universally accepted definition, the validity of ecotourism is beginning to come into question. Foremost is the concern that ecotourism may not really exist, the term being a merely rhetoric device used to disguises the already established destructive mass tourism. If this is indeed true, then there must be a move towards understanding the problems and pitfalls of ecotourism in order to establish a more sustainable form of ecotourism for the future. With these issues in mind, the following chapter will focus on the development of tourism and the potential for ecotourism in Mexico, as a introduction to an assessment of the 'ecotourism' development that is occurring in one particular state, Quintana Roo.

    Ecotourism : Reality or Rhetoric: Ecotourism Development in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico is a critical analysis by Natasha Kate Ward. Author retains copyright; all rights reserved. Contact Natasha Kate Ward via email: natasha_ward@hotmail.com




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