- ANNA LAPPE
In today’s search for holidays with purpose, ‘responsible and ethical tourism’ has become something of a buzzword. The concept that one’s mode of transport, accommodation and sightseeing should have no negative impact on local people, wildlife and land – indeed, that it should positively affect them – is gaining traction among socially- and environmentally-aware world-wanderers. And for good reason.
Conscious travellers want to 'give back'
Modern mindful travellers have an inherent conflict in their passion – they love to travel and want to ‘give back’, but they know that travel, especially international air travel, can have serious ecological impacts. These conscious travellers want to contribute positively to their holiday destinations, but they often don’t know how.
The aim is no longer to visit a destination, taking away experiences and souvenirs that fit preconceived ideas regardless of environmental or social footprint, but rather to engage constructively and actively with the destination to enable a win-win situation. Fair wages for workers, eco-credentials, meaningful interactions with ‘real people’, investment in local cultures and preserving biodiversity have become prime concerns for eco-tourists looking to eschew the old model of holiday-making.
There are stumbling blocks
Of course, there are stumbling blocks. In some cases, finding seemingly responsible ethical tourism destinations is difficult to start with. In others, ascertaining whether what’s on offer truly benefits local wildlife, landscapes and communities can be downright impossible. As in any industry, unscrupulous chancers have no qualms about exploiting trends for their own ends.
A notable example is the infamous South African ‘canned lion’ industry, in which captive-born lion cubs are hand-reared by unwitting volunteers in the name of conservation, only to be shot in confined enclosures upon reaching ‘trophy’ status. It is suspected that their bones are exported to Asia for use in traditional medicine.
Or the handful of cheetah breeding centres which masquerade as active conservation and awareness centres but in fact function more like ‘edutainment’ cash-cows with no real benefit except to the operators’ pockets. This growing trend for breeding captive cheetahs is worrying not least for the fact that many are exported to the Middle East for the pet trade.
These may seem like obvious examples, but to the unsuspecting visitor it can be tricky to question the ethics behind such ventures – and many do not even think to ask. Amongst self-professed ecotourists, the chances of getting caught up in canned lion or cheetah breeding are probably pretty slim – these visitors pride themselves on being educated and aware of such issues. However they are not immune to falling for more subtle forms of pseudo-conservation in the safari industry.
Like many developing countries, South Africa’s economy relies heavily on tourism. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the industry supports, directly and indirectly, 9% of total GDP. Much of this is spent on Cape Town, the fabled ‘Mother City’, and on safaris. Visitors from around the world travel thousands of kilometres and pay substantial sums for the privilege of watching a colossal African elephant moving silently through the veld, or a mother cheetah perched on a termite mound with her cubs. These iconic, magical moments are for many visitors the epitome of their African experience.
Some operators are happy to set up these moments despite the potential ecological cost
Which is why some operators are happy to do their best to set up these moments despite the potential ecological cost. This includes the practice of keeping artificially high numbers of predators in small reserves to ensure the perfect Kodak moment for tourists, whilst surreptitiously shipping in prey species on a monthly basis to feed them.
Or the competition between neighbouring game lodges in areas of high tourism density which sees the creation of multiple waterholes in the same vicinity to attract game, interfering with the natural migrations between water sources and thus widening the area of impact on vegetation. Or even the common practice of driving off-road to secure the best sightings, with scant regard for the insects, plants, bird nests and other biodiversity trodden on in the process.
Despite their dubious conservation rationale, to the untrained eye, none of these practices seem overtly unethical or irresponsible. And indeed, because they often lead to excellent game-viewing, even when alerted to these facts tourists may choose to turn a blind eye. In the stand-off between ecology and Instagram, ecology rarely wins.
This makes it difficult for those mindful travellers seeking an authentic, informed and meaningful experience to sort the wheat from the chaff. For some companies, eco-credentials are nothing but an effective marketing tool with little actual substance. In many cases, seemingly ‘natural’ environments have actually been artificially manufactured for tourism purposes. One might argue that this is immaterial so long as money is being put into conservation. However the sustainability of such endeavours in the long-run is questionable.
Our advice for those seeking truly responsible ethical tourism destinations in a sea of (mis)information? Read widely, dig a little deeper, ask difficult questions. And finally, vote with your wallet.